Monday, November 28, 2011

Finding My Voice as a Teacher, year 3

Last year, when my classes were going extremely well and I was feeling very good about my 2nd year of teaching, one of my own former teachers gently warned me: "It's nice when you prepare yourself for a challenging year in the classroom, and then it goes smoothly. Unfortunately, it's not always so easy. Just wait for the year down the road that catches you off-guard."

I didn't want to have to heed that warning, but I knew it would be true. In some ways, it's been true of this year--the challenges have not exactly caught me off-guard, but still, it has been a tougher year than I anticipated.

I learned a lot through my successes and the good times last year, and I am learning a lot through my struggles, failings and frustrations this year. The biggest lesson is this:

I can find a teaching style that works for me, but it won't always work for the students. One size does not fit all.

Pretty basic Ed. 101 stuff, especially when considering the topic of differentiation in the classroom. Unfortunately, it's a truth that a teacher really needs to experience and wrestle with to fully understand and appreciate.

The style I developed last year was one where I gave the kids a lot of slack, a lot of independence. The kids rose to the occasion and used their time very well. I saw some high-quality work emerge as a result and the kids were often very excited and passionate about their work, having taken ownership of their learning. This, in turn, made me more excited and passionate about teaching. It was a positive reciprocal relationship, a healthy classroom environment.

For future teachers out there: Not every group should be given so much independence, at least not so early; in one case it might generate a very positive and healthy situation and in another it might lend itself to chaos and wasted time. This doesn't make a given group better or worse... just different. Different needs, different strengths, different readiness...

I teach 3 subjects this year. For privacy's sake (since I know I have students who keep up with this blog), I won't identify the classes by name. Also for students who read this, please do know that I'm not complaining about you, but rather identifying struggles both on the part of the class and on my part as the teacher.

One class is highly independent and highly motivated, and the teaching style that I developed last year fits their learning style like a glove. In discussions, they even identified this as optimal: "We enjoy it when the teacher gives us a question to discuss, and then backs up and lets us wrestle with it ourselves." This is not true of everyone in the class, but it's certainly true of the majority--enough so that it has become part of that class' personality and atmosphere, and even students who struggle to work independently are supported in meeting expectations.

Another class** is very high-need. I've made the mistake of persisting with very independent assignments and projects, and while it is clear that some students are ready and will rise to the occasion, many are not ready for that level of independence. My solution so far has been to try methods that I've seen fail, again and again, only to be frustrated again and again. I feel upset, bored, burned out, and a variety of other negative emotions when I see so many students not using their time wisely, and even distracting their classmates from using their time well. Clearly, they do not see the value in what we're learning that I want them to see--it's easy to blame the students, but I need to first examine what I could do better to motivate the students and convey my passion for what we're learning. Just because whatever I did last year worked for last year's class doesn't mean that it will work again this year.

Recently, it occurred to me that I need to model independent learning; teach independent learning; train students to be capable and thrive when learning on their own. Note that this does not require me to abandon my core philosophies of classroom instruction and learning--I genuinely do believe that the best learning occurs when the students themselves take ownership of understanding. However, in my day-to-day style, it will require an adjustment as I strive to meet the class where they are and bring them to where I want them to be. Easier said than done. All of the plans that I've got developed from last year were based on the assumption that students would be ready for independent work from the get-go, and I will have to step back to square one in a lot of ways. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this does not make one group any better or more capable than another group... just in a different starting place and in need of different methods. They'll ultimately wind up in the same place as last year's students, and I really do believe this. It'll just take a different approach, and different learning experiences than the students had last year.

I'm busy, constantly exhausted, usually feeling some degree of stress... how can I carve out the time to re-work my teaching style and to some extent even my curriculum as I think through how to teach independence, and prepare the students to take ownership of their learning? When things aren't going well, it's very tempting to give up. I must confess I've felt like giving up on the high-needs class more than usual over the past few weeks and it really is not a fun place to be as a teacher. Nor is it a particularly admirable knee-jerk reaction for a teacher--with a class like that, my first instinct should be to ask "how can I address the needs of this group?"

Man. It's frustrating to know what best practice is, but struggle to see how to achieve it. Christmas break will be a valuable time to regroup and rethink my strategy. In the meantime, I must pray for patience for when the kids' lack of understanding and/or motivation wears on me, empathy to understand that they are likely frustrated as well, and the dedication to stop at nothing in figuring out how to teach them.

It looks so easy in print...

**The third class is a different story altogether. Highly motivated, but in need of structure before they can learn to work independently. Also a group that thrives when given a challenge--I need to think carefully about how best to provide this.

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