Classroom management has always been my weakest area as a teacher. I don’t like for things to be too quiet and I am a bit too quixotic (or mercurial) due to some mild ADD. It’s difficult for the kids who need strong boundaries and a strict routine to like my class or to thrive in it. Over the last twenty years I’ve gotten much better about providing basic structure to my classes and to the assignments—I no longer take the approach of “push them in and see who sinks” to determine what kind of gaps my students may have. For all the very real flaws in my approach to teaching and to students, or perhaps because of them, I do best with kids who are middle of the road.
I got my first advanced class last year and I still haven’t quite figured out how to raise my game to the level some of them seem to want. The advanced class is an interesting mix of the kids who want to step up and learn a little more before college and the kids who wanted to slow down after taking an AP English class their junior year. I am not like the other advanced teachers. I don’t adhere to the same methods; for example, I tend to hate worksheets. I’d much rather post discussion questions on the board than hand out the same old study guide. I’d much rather have students write a lot to figure out what works and what doesn’t than give out a grammar packet. (Of course, all that writing has to be graded and I tend to spend most of the school year two weeks behind on the grading.)
My goals for my students have stayed the same the last twenty years, but I’ve gotten better at articulating them. I want my students to become thinkers, so we have lots of class discussion and we write lots of analytical paragraphs and we read together. We read together because some students don’t do homework and because every student can benefit from seeing active reading in action even if they are seniors in high school. I want my students to become effective communicators in every medium. Effective communicators are thinkers. They have to take in information, evaluate its reliability, assess its value, and incorporate it into their own frame of reference before communicating their knowledge or ideas to others. Thinking and communication are so interwoven that they shouldn’t be separated and I don’t try to.
I suppose these goals are the reason I’m okay with most of the “education reform” that gets lobbed at me. I can find something of value in CIM and CAM (old-school, unfunded Oregon education initiatives), like students collecting a sampling of their work to look at growth and mastery of basic skills. I can find something of value in Common Core, like answer a question/support the answer/explain the support which is at the center of everything in Common Core. I’m sure I’ll find something useful in The Next Big Thing even as I see its flaws—unrealistic expectations, no funding for radical change, no training for paradigm shifts, and an expectation that every kid should go to a university when they shouldn’t.
Twenty-five years ago I managed to get through a state school without loans. Students can’t get through even the smallest state school without loans now thanks to the insane inflation of tuition and other fees. There aren’t enough grants or scholarships to help most of those kids who have been convinced they have to get a college degree. There’s nothing wrong with learning a trade or going to a technical school or taking hands on classes in high school. There’s value in experiencing life before figuring out what kinds of classes or degrees are the key to long-term success.
Education reforms need to focus on what’s really important in this day and age. We need to come back around to holding kids accountable for their time by making attendance matter, making deadlines stricter, and not allowing kids to retake every test. These changes would also help kids improve their work ethic. So many students at the high school I teach at can slack off for most of a semester, retake (or take) their tests at the end, and pass the class with a high grade since our school is one of many that emphasizes tests and assessment over daily practices. We also, like many other schools, allow kids to transfer in and out of classes (or to and away from certain teachers) for too many reasons. Yes, there are times where personality conflicts can affect both the quality of the teaching and a student’s willingness to learn or it can create a toxic classroom environment. Yes, sometimes kids realize they are in way over their heads and they need to drop down a level. However, there is value in failing and there is value in the struggle to keep going.
Grit and perseverance have become big buzzwords over the last couple of years in business and in education. The heartwarming videos, the slew of workshops for teachers, the canned and created lessons for kids don’t seem to be making as big an impact as they can. Grit and perseverance come from getting knocked down and figuring out how to get back up; they come from failing and trying again; they come from a willingness to look stupid in order to master something. Grit and perseverance don’t come from wiggly deadlines (yes, this is one of my issues as a teacher—I’m much too flexible on deadlines) or retaking tests.
Being smart is about a willingness to learn through success and failure. Being safe is about be aware of the world and spaces around us. Being true is about learning who we are, what we believe, and why we are the way we are. Being kind is much more important than being nice (nice isn’t always sincere and kind isn’t always perfect). I’m still learning how to do a better job as a teacher and how to adapt to the changing needs of my students. Over the last few years I’ve added a goal: teach students to become thoughtful consumers of information. There’s so much information out there that it has become difficult to determine what has real value and what is really reliable. If I can teach my students to wade through the information swamp while thinking critically, they will be able to communicate effectively.