Yesterday was one of the tough days for me — we’ve all had them — when students seemed to push back on every choice I made, I felt boxed into a lesson I didn’t love, frustration mounted for all of us, my patience ebbed, and pride flowed. The whole endeavor of teaching and learning seemed to hang by a slender thread.
But that thread must be woven of something other-worldly — of unicorn hair and phoenix feathers — because it finds a way to hold every time. That thread tugs, eventually, at the best of who I am and how I want to be. It makes me find a better way.
And that’s how I’ve come to look at, and love, teaching. It’s not easy, ever. Not when the world at large and powers-that-be seem distant and tone deaf to what children and schools need from society. Not when there isn’t close to enough time to plan and prepare to teach as I’d want to ideally. But if I accept that those tensions are there to stay, I can find a way to work through them. And that’s what I’ve decided to do.
It’s not (just) the sleeping in, the family getaways, and the long, unhurried meals with friends that make me love summer. It’s that I get the time to think.
Folks who work outside classrooms underestimate the immediacy and urgency of teaching. The daily press to prepare and adjust lessons, the ongoing grind of grading and giving feedback. The weeds are tall and thick when one is in the midst of the school year.
Then comes summer. I can step back and rethink my practice. I can consider, with sufficient bandwidth, what I really want students to get out of the next 180 days, during which I get to support and lead them.
This school year, I’ve been on a journey to put my students at the center of our learning. That means finding ways to make the learning meaningful to my students as people — that is, personalized. And it means being responsive to their needs as learners — in other words, customized.
Most of my efforts to meet this call have meant developing completely new units, and that’s been exhausting and won’t scale for teachers with multiple preps or those seeking life-balance. Moving into the fourth quarter of this school year, I sought support. I sat down with colleagues to learn how to work toward these ends from our existing curriculum for 10th grade English. The unit from which we worked had two summative assessments: a literary analysis essay on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and a multimedia presentation based on a social issue.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants.”
~ Sir Isaac Newton
Editors Note: This post, originally titled, “A Week of Gratitude #ThankATeacher #TLC2014,” was first featured on Sean’s blog, “Constant Learning….” on May 11, 2014. Sean revised this piece to share on Tchers’ Voice.
None of us make it completely on our own. Family, friends, good fortune, and often a lot of teachers serve as the parents of possibility. I was acutely aware of that truth in my own life, when in May 2014 I was announced as the National Teacher of the Year.
For Teacher Appreciation Week, I sent cards and photos with appreciation and gratitude to five foundational teachers in my life. And I even popped in on two of them. Below is a re-post of my reflection on that experience:
The past couple of months have given me great cause to reflect on the people who have shaped my life. I was able to give my family the opportunity to meet President Obama, I was able to share the joy that has come into my life through students and colleagues at Patapsco HS and CFA, and this week I was able to extend some gratitude to the Teachers who made that all possible by unlocking my potential. There are certainly more than these five who are deserving, but here are five educators who shaped the man I am today:
Here’s a startling statistic: 40% of high school students are chronically disengaged in school. There are enough reasons to go around, and I’d agree that many of them are outside of a teacher’s direct control. But some of them aren’t. As we pursue a set of skills, I have a great deal of control over how that happens in my classroom, so going into this school year I asked myself:
How can student-interest and inquiry drive the learning?
How can my teaching be more responsive to student needs?
How do I help students realize their own agency and ability to effect change?
We’ve finished the first iteration of trying to move my 10th grade English courses to become more personalized. Students concluded a quarter-long investigation of a social justice issue of their choice. Throughout the quarter, my focus has been to help students move toward mastering skills, while allowing personal choice in content and questions, and customizing feedback and instruction for each student.
Students are working on reading informational texts, writing arguments, speaking and listening, and creative writing. Most class periods begin with a 15-20 minute mini-lesson and then students go to a self-selected station to engage in their work. Three to four tasks are due every two weeks.
Here are 4 positives I’ve found as I’ve personalized learning:
I’m always looking for a good book about education — one that can put words to the many feelings that are part of this work, that sparks my thinking and creativity for my teaching, and that challenges me and opens my mind to see my work in new ways. I was fortunate to come across a number of just such books last year, and here are five favorites from 2015.
Maybe it’s the goodbye hug from a munchkin whose mischief you managed with grace.
It could be that you just geek out on polynomial equations. (Probably not, though, right?)
Or seeing a student, once broken, then well loved, who grew whole.
Or inspiring colleagues who return with resolve to fight for kids against mounting odds.
There are so many reasons to love the work that we do. Too often, those stories aren’t told — to ourselves, to our colleagues, to young people who might become the next wave of life-changing, nation-building teachers.
That isn’t to disregard or dismiss the challenges of being an educator today. But they aren’t the whole story. Young people are amazing. Sometimes my colleagues are straight up superheroes. Teachers definitely changed, and maybe saved, my life. And those stories aren’t told enough.
Last February, teachers told their stories and shared their love. Five million people interacted with the campaign through the #LoveTeaching hashtag — from the then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to classroom teachers across four continents, and even future educators.
We’ve all been there — a momentary, frustrated reaction to a student that’s more curt, less kind, and more gruff than it ought to be. Its roots are embedded somewhere in our lack of sleep, or a floundering lesson, or unforgiving piles of paperwork. And it’s a reaction immediately regretted, but unable to be undone.
We’re flawed human beings. So are our students. The work is challenging for everyone, so these moments happen.
I’ve learned how that moment can irreversibly color a student’s experience in our classrooms, like food coloring staining a glass of water. For children — too often bearing burdens of anxiety, a challenging home life, or the common self-doubts of adolescence — the last thing they need is for a teacher to be an adversary in their learning. Yet, I still occasionally make these mistakes. But I’ve also made the choice to be intentional in limiting and countering them. I’ve made the choice to focus on teaching with grace, so that students can learn with dignity.