Actual Reflections (and too many questions)

ReflectingMy school is on trimesters, so coming back wasn’t a new start so much as picking up where we left off. Still, having two weeks to regroup and get a jump on some of the planning for this month was, well… it may have saved my life. At least emotionally.

Whatever the formatting of the –mesters, it’s a new year, calendrically-speaking. Last time I set out to reflect it ended up being a bit of a socio-political meltdown, so I set it all aside for a week of James Bond, Stars hockey, Who’s Line marathons, and Redd’s Blueberry Ale.

It was nice.

Now it’s time to put the big teacher panties on and get back to work. I’m in a new state, a new school, teaching a new subject in a very different environment than before, and while I love it here, and I’m surrounded by amazing people, the learning curve…

I mean, damn. I hate learning curves when they’re mine.

But that’s OK. It’s not like I’m a complete neophyte. I’ve taught a variety of subject to a weird range of students over the years – sometimes in less-than-ideal circumstances – and done fairly well. This is not a profession in which one’s primary concern is boredom.

Besides, actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from VERY successful retail manager, to a daily Classroom inspiration and highly Respected education consultant.....

....to Major Social Media presence and THE Blue Cereal Education (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!

It’s in that most stablest and geniussy context that I’ll confess up front that I have more questions than answers. I realize how trite that sounds, and I’d rather dazzle you with catchy memes about open-ended inquiry being foundational to all wisdom, but… honestly? There are times I’d much rather have clear, simple solutions. Like now.

How Important Is It For Students To Like Their Teachers?

I’m not even sure this is the right question, or at least not the whole question. The issue is in any case more complicated than it sounds.

How important is it for students to trust their teachers? To respect their teachers? To believe that their teacher likes and/or respects them?

I’ll tell you this – things are much easier when students like and trust you. A helluva lot more fun, too. Kids who don’t love the content sometimes play along for the rapport. Kids frustrated with your expectations might complain, but generally go where you lead if they believe you’re looking out for them – AND that you know what you’re doing. “Mark my footsteps, my good page – tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find each history page will freeze thy blood less coldly..."

You can write about self-directed learning all you like, and I’m not arguing with how neato that must be – but I don’t meet many of these intrinsically-driven, hungry-for-struggle children. I have to woo and cajole and model and demand in impossible combinations for most progress to occur. It’s exhausting some days.

But there are those light bulb moments when kids who’ve been treading along with you solely because they’re pretty sure if they show effort you won’t fail them although you’re obviously insane and maybe some kids can do this but there’s no way they’ll ever—

Wait. This… did I just… you mean it…? OH MY GOD WE SEE IT NOW! THE KNOWLEDGE ENDORPHINS ARE MY NEW HOLY PLACE!!! WE ARE THINKY-MAN AND MAD HISTORY SKILLZ GURL!

You Were Saying, About Liking and Trusting…?

I love my kids by choice, but I also genuinely like most of them this year. (That doesn’t always happen, no matter what fluff-and-donuts you see on Twitter.) I’m also sure most of them know that I love them. Very few seem to actively dislike me.That last one isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s convenient when they don’t hate you every day. That makes everything harder.

So, it’s not personal when things aren’t going well. Several of my better students, hanging out in my room by choice the other day, talking about life, and apparently genuinely interested in my honesty, casually mentioned that half the time they just don’t get this class, don’t really like the subject, and wish we did a number of things quite differently.

I wonder if Houdini, in his waning hours, found time to be flattered that his final visitor thought so highly of his abdominal muscles as to preclude any thought of pulling his punches. The comment stung, and it wasn’t the first time I’d heard similar sentiments – from solid students, good kids who were doing well in the class. They clearly meant no offense, and seemed oblivious to my near-death and subsequent internal wailing and gnashing.

I’m genuinely glad they’re comfortable being honest. It wasn’t personal. And not everyone finds the same things stimulating, or challenging, or interesting.

But while they like me well enough, they lack a foundation for trusting the way we’re doing things. Some of this is because it’s their first AP class, and some is because I’m new in the district and don’t yet have a “track record.” Some of it, though – and I hate this part – is because there are definitely things I should have done better, organized more effectively, known more about, handled differently.

That’s why it stung – because they weren’t entirely wrong.

A similar group a few days later suggested the reason so many resisted my approach was because it was no longer enough to just remember and recite the ‘right’ answers the way they always have – they’re expected to analyze what they know, and to apply it in unexpected ways.

I like that answer better. They weren’t wrong, either, but that doesn’t make the first group less correct.

The only way I know to fix the credibility issue is to be credible. That can only be done over time. Which brings me to…

How Important Is It For Teachers To Master Their Content?

We tell new teachers all the time that it doesn’t matter whether they know everything there is to know about their subject as long as they know how teach it and the kids know they care. We then tell them it’s OK that they don’t know everything there is to know about how to teach, as long as the kids know they care and they’ll get better at it over time.

Both of these things are true enough – for new teachers.

But really knowing and understanding your content and related skills does matter. It matters in your effectiveness, it matters in your credibility, and it matters in terms of how often you go home at the end of the day feeling like you suck and may have single-handedly destroyed the future and it’s only Wednesday.

I’ll feel better when I know the content better. I’ll do better when I’m more comfortable with the skills. Those things are both fixable – I have a “learning mindset,” after all – but like so many other things, they take time.

Am I Teaching To The Test? When Do I Stick To The Curriculum and When Do I Follow the Rabbit of Oh-My-God-I-Saw-A-Glimmer-Of-Interest?

I’ve written about this previously, and while I’m at peace with my awkward balance in theory, that hardly resolves the daily details. A related dilemma involves pushing ahead versus slowing down and sacrificing next week’s content and skills to better understand last week’s.

Most of you know exactly what I’m talking about because you wrestle with variations of this every week.

Am I Being Responsive To The Needs Of My Kids Or Just A Touch... Insecure?

We all know the stereotypes. The dry old fart who uses the same transparencies he inherited from his undead sire a century ago, uninterested in and incapable of change. Kids should adjust to him or take the consequences. The touchy-feely mess of frosted flakes in a frump-sweater, like Pauline Fleming in Heathers. (“I suggest we get everyone together in the cafeteria – both students and teachers – and just… TALK, and… FEEL! Together!”) She’d go to their parties if they’d invite her. The approval of teenagers is her only source of self-esteem.

Neither is typical, and neither is fair. But it’s genuinely not always easy to know when to adjust based on student response and when to stick to your guns believing you know what’s best. 

If I could have an answer to only one of my dilemmas, I’d probably start with this one. It’s tethered to a larger argument in education – the false dichotomy we’ve set up on social media between “grit-suffer-boot-camp-crush-them-for-progress!” and “nurture-cookies-love-coddle-them-into-excellence.” Kids simply aren’t that homogenous, nor most circumstances that binary.

Ideally, we’re all studied professionals, networking on social media, having hard conversations and sharing risky reflections within our departments, then moving ahead boldly, confident in the pedagogy and the kids alike. We adjust, we assess, we love, and we continue to learn, and at some point we hear the distant notes of Mr. Holland’s Opus being played down the hall saying maybe we did OK.

Sometimes, though, we’re just doing the best we can – kicking pedagogical booty one day and wondering if our brother-in-law can still get us that gig at his insurance office the next. That's O.K. As long as we keep going, and getting better when we can.

I’m still looking for ways to be more effective, but I’m done worrying that it’s not right or not enough – at least for now. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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"Kids frustrated with your expectations might complain, but generally go where you lead if they believe you’re looking out for them – AND that you know what you’re doing."

This would be me.

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