Have you ever wondered about the students you teach? Ever thought about who they are, what drives them, what you believe they’re capable of accomplishing and of becoming? I know that there are expectations in Teacher Training/Pre-service programmes requiring teacher candidates [in my day, they were called ‘student teachers’] to reflect upon their practice and upon what they’ve read and how that might impact their work in the classroom. And I know that it’s human nature to think about what happened during the day and try to make sense of it – especially if it didn’t work. So, I know that there is a great deal of reflection, no matter what it’s called, going on out there in the world of formal education.
And I wonder if anyone has really taken the time to think about the kids they teach – not the stuff that is taught but the consumers of that stuff? I believe that it would be very worthwhile for every teacher to do that.
I know that I hadn’t done that when I started teaching. I’d been prepared with classes on evaluation and assessment and lesson planning and questioning and even how to use the technology that was available when I started back in 1977. I knew that I loved learning and was curious about how the world worked and that my curiosity was my driver – part of my motivation in choosing to become a teacher. And I know now that I did not have any idea what I thought about who I was going to stand before as I took my place at the front of my classroom.
Nothing prepared me for my first class. There was the student who was absent from school on the first day because he and his brother had to appear in court. There was the student who was staring out the window and who, when I asked him to turn around, did a complete 180 in his seat and stared out the door of the classroom. There were the kids from what were called at the time ‘inner city’ homes – kids who were more concerned with having enough to eat than wanting to learn the ‘important things’ I was going to lay on them. And I know that I was more concerned with lesson plans and curriculum than I was with the people in my classroom. Get the curriculum covered. It didn’t matter if it had any intrinsic value to my students.
Since that first experience almost 40 years ago, I’ve chosen to think a great deal about what I believe about kids. And here is what I believe…
First off, no student chooses, as his or her initial goal, to be the class clown or the pain the teacher’s butt. However, if making his or her classmates laugh gives a student a sense of belonging and acceptance [important especially if the student’s self-esteem is not strong], then the student often chooses that behaviour. Fear of consequences doled out by teachers or school administrators don’t even figure into the student’s decision making process.
No student chooses to be known as a ‘bad actor’ to the teaching staff in a school. And make no mistake about it, teachers talk to their colleagues about the kids they teach. Any student would rather be thought of as being disruptive than have anyone else – classmates or teachers – think that they are unable or incapable. For the student who acts out, their fear is often to be thought of as stupid. Better to be thought of as a trouble maker. I still remember one of my students, when I asked to speak to him after class to try and find out what was going on, admit to me that he thought there was something wrong with him because he was having difficulty understanding the course work. He asked, “What’s wrong with me? I should be able to do this.” And then I understood what was behind his behaviour.
Kids, especially very young kids, want to please their teachers. They try to do what their teacher wants them to do. They revel in praise and assurance. It is amazing the rewards which accrue to students and, by extension, teachers when work done is greeted with a smile or congratulations. The kids feel so much better about themselves and their abilities. I used to give out what Purkey would call ‘honest’ praise. And I would mail a postcard, which could be put on the fridge perhaps, home to parents to let them know what their son or daughter had accomplished. I never expected perfection and I did expect each student to do his or her best. I celebrated every success and every attempt.
Kids are curious about their world and how it works. This goes beyond the compulsory curriculum laid out by educational pundits at the Ministry of Education. There is so much in their world that they want to think about, learn about, talk about and be reassured about. And that innate energy gets limited and quashed by the demands of the formal educational system and the rules and regulations which run schools. So, kids have what I’ve always thought of as ‘school’ done to them – fit in, do what’s expected, be a good boy or girl, don’t make waves, get good marks, toe the line and lock up your soul. I can speak to this from my experiences as a student and my experiences as a classroom teacher and programme leader. It was difficult for me to live as a student [even though I was very good a playing ‘the game of school’] and disheartening for me to watch as a teacher. It’s a very sad indictment of the educational system as we know it to be.
Kids are capable of so much more than even they believe they can do. Given the scaffolding necessary – the underlying skills – they can take that and create ideas and materials which can astound. This was so apparent to me when I worked with a Grade 10 General Level English class. I provided my students with opportunities to practice the skills to work in groups and then I gave them the group assignments for Of Mice and Men. It was a blast to be in that classroom. The groups came in and got right down to work. Their energy level was immense. I felt I needed roller skates to keep up with them and I loved every minute of it. And, best of all, one of the Grade 10 Advanced Level English teachers asked me if she could share what my students had created with her class. My kids said it was okay and they were really revved up by that. And so was I – for them.
Kids often know more than their teachers do about so many things. For me, it was technology so I got my students to teach me how to set up an Excel programme and how to run the DVD player. I remember one student who finally found a way to explain to me what ‘torque’ meant. When he equated it with pulling power, I finally got it. I always thanked my students for their time and for their ideas. And, while I’m at it, I always apologized if I made a mistake. In doing that, I didn’t feel that I had somehow lost face or control or respect. In fact, by admitting my own foibles, I know that my students respected me and it wasn’t just because I was ‘teacher’.
Kids do not want to subvert or take over control of the classroom from their teachers. There is no conspiracy extant regarding this. Kids don’t want to take over the educational world. What they do want is a sense of control of their own world. These two ideas are not at odds with each other. Kids can exert their own control without teachers losing control. It is not ‘all or nothing at all’. We expect our students to become the movers and shakers and leaders and creators of the future. They need to learn how to trust their abilities to create that now and we can provide them with a safe place to try and to experiment.
It is the case with the kids in our classrooms that they don’t all learn the same way. Yet, in traditional, academic classes, those students who have strong visual learning skills are the privileged ones. The academic curriculum seems to be geared to visual learners. AND most people still believe that the most productive academic classes have the teacher laying the day’s ‘good word’ on the class and then the students doing work individually and, for the most part, silently.
The kids who learn differently are often left to their own devices to try and figure things out. And, if the student can’t learn the way the teachers teach then the teacher should teach the way the students learn. This was made so clear to me when I started teaching English to a class of students who were identified as ‘Slower Learners’. I had a student who had great difficulty reading and yet, if I read something to him, he could remember it and bring his own ideas about the subject to our class discussions. And, if he could complete his tests and exams orally, he aced every one of them.
I guess the strongest belief I hold about the kids who occupy our classrooms is that they are not a force to be managed, contained, constrained, and controlled. Kids really do want to learn. They want to learn not only the curriculum which the teacher has to cover but also things which are of interest and value to them. Sure, there may be some students who choose not to accept the teacher’s agenda for the day over their own. AND almost all the kids in our classrooms will follow the teacher’s lead. Teachers simply need to learn how to lead – not with threats of being sent to the office, having to serve detentions, having notes sent home, being tested ad infinitum – et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Leadership does not imply dictatorship. It should be providing guidance and then getting out of the way.
I’ve spent my life as a learner and about 40 years as a teacher-educator. And I know that it was only when I chose to really think about the kids in my classroom and to map how I taught to those beliefs that I had the kind of impact on our lives and the future that I sought – the kind of impact I have always believed teachers can have. It really is true that teachers teach the future. And they do so from the present.
Think about it…who do you teach?