When you are pregnant, the number one piece of advice you are given is “get your sleep while you can.”
After you have the baby, a new mantra tops the list. “Every child develops differently; don’t compare yours to anyone else’s.” Every parent says this in public while memorizing lists of developmental milestones in private. When your child is leading the pack, you are the first one to offer this tiresome advice. But when your child is taking a little longer than average to reach a goal, your reflex to google goes into overdrive, searching for the right website, right piece of advice to somehow set your mind at ease.
Studying to become a teacher has provem to be a bit of a wakeup call for me in relation to this over quoted piece of advice. As a teacher, I won’t just be responsible for my own child’s development. My job depends on the growth and development of an entire classroom of students, all with different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. I will be held accountable by parents who want to ensure their child is not the one left behind.
When I first began studying, one of my classes posed the question of what made someone a good teacher. Many characteristics were listed, but the one that stood out for me was “A good teacher believes all students are capable of learning.” Sounds simple enough, right? Think back to your own school days. If they were anything like mine, a teacher lectured from the front of the classroom while students feigned interest from rows of desks, more concerned with passing notes than paying attention. There were always a few kids who couldn’t quite get it. I remember more than one occasion where the class would let out an audible groan when a student was called on, knowing the entire group would be put on hold as the student struggled to grasp whatever concept was being presented. I have a clear memory of a boy red in the face with humiliation as the teacher made him stand at the chalkboard and go through a math problem step by step as the rest of the students snickered at his lack of ability.
As a student, I wrote those students off as being too stupid to master the material. As a teacher, it is my job to ensure those students acquire that knowledge. If I can’t believe in them, who will? This is a scary concept and one that I take seriously. How do I reach the students that are seemingly unreachable, without leaving the rest of the class behind?
I don’t know if it is coincidence or serendipity, but over the past few weeks, I have been given lessons in teachings but people who are not traditionally teachers. I wanted to write this post as a bit of a journal, a tool to reflect on when I need it throughout my career.
Last weekend, some friends, Mike and Barb, watched our kids so my husband and I could go mountain biking. By trade, Mike is a team manager at a semiconductor factory. But if he could do anything, he would teach people to swim. Liam loves the water and was only too happy to explore their pool. For awhile now, Liam has been able to swim underwater for the width of our pool, but he does not understand how to lift his head from the water, take a breath and keep swimming. His capability is limited to how long he can hold his breath. I have been trying to teach him how to lift his head out of the water, but to no avail.
When I arrived to pick up Liam, Mike was showing him how to complete strokes with his arms. I mentioned Liam not wanting to lift his head to breathe. Mike said he wasn’t concerned with that. Until Liam knew how to move his arms, he would not have the strength to lift his head out of the water. I think Mike actually said something like “have you ever tried lifting your head out without using your arms?” Doh! Why hadn’t I thought like that?
To be an effective instructor, I have to teach skills in an appropriate order, but I also have to have the required knowledge to know what that order should be. I knew the components needed to swim, but I didn’t know how to teach those components in a logical order- without that knowledge, my instruction is useless.
Even if I have the knowledge, I have to know how to teach it. Looking for new activities to do with my kids, a friend directed me to http://www.artfulparent.com/. I went on a bit of an activity binge (ok, truth be told, I am still binging. We’re probably going to do “spin painting” in an hour.) The website listed out everything needed to complete an activity- the supplies needed, detailed instructions, expected result. All I had to do was follow along.
We decided to perform a melting ice experiment. http://www.artfulparent.com/2012/07/melting-ice-science-experiment-with-salt-liquid-watercolors.html
I had invited over a few friends to play with the ice along with us. I thought I did a pretty good job organizing the kids and keeping their attention. From past not-so-successful encounters, I knew to ration out the steps. First give them the ice and the salt. Have them sprinkle the salt even though they REALLY want to dump it. Note the cracking of the ice, how it melts and forms rivers. Place a few drops of food coloring to highlight the rivers. Give in to the free-for-all of dumping salt and pouring food coloring- even give small hammers to crack the ice. Provide new ice to start the experiment again, on their own.
I was feeling pretty good about myself. The kids enjoyed the activity. I kept their attention and helped them stay on task. Afterwards, they even played together a little nicer than usual- no fisticuffs over who had the Hot Wheel first, no “he touched me” episodes to break up. Then my husband inquired about the experiment over dinner. He asked Liam “So, are ice and water the same? How do you make ice?”
Double Doh! Oh yeah, it is great to entertain kids and help them explore, but part of teaching is also to impart knowledge. I have heard the saying “kids learn through play” more times than I can count. In my mind, if I let them play, I was providing the opportunity to learn. I didn’t want to stifle their discoveries by imposing my own agenda. In my zest to encourage their creativity, I forgot my role as a teacher. By asking thought provoking questions and helping them to realize the answers, I could provide meaningful instruction- not just a fun time.
One day, I posted a question on my Facebook page- what make s a good teacher? My friend works for the Parks department in Colorado, but is studying to be a yoga instructor. She responded “a teacher is there to serve her students.” I think so often this gets turned around. Serving my students means reaching them, every single one of them, on their level.
I am part of a large group of moms that regularly interacts with our kids. At one point, we decided to organize a weekly session similar to what we thought would be provided at a preschool. Our intentions were good, and while we had many successes, one of our failures came in the form of chairs.
We purchased these small plastic read chairs with the idea that at a “real” preschool, our kids would be expected to sit on their own and maintain attention for a few minutes as a teacher read a story of played a game. We came from a place of what kids should do, what we wanted them to do- not what they were actually ready to do. I shouldn’t say we, because we did have a few dissenters that we should have listened to.
While some were very content to sit in their little chairs, others were positively miserable. Every few moments a child would get up and make a hurried escape out of the room. As he was led back to his chair, he would wail as if he was being led to THE chair.
Some of these kids had never been apart from their mommies for longer than a few minutes. We were asking them to leave their parent, sit in a chair, pay attention to instruction and participate in activities. Maybe a tall order for a two year old- some of them, not even that. Serving my students means meeting them where they are at, and taking appropriate steps to get to the next level. One of those poor kids is probably going to grow up with an irrational fear of little red chairs and no idea what it relates to.
What am I really learning? That you don’t just jump into teaching. It may seem simple. It may appear that you just stand in a classroom and recite information. But to do it right requires careful deliberation and thoughtful practice. I am blessed to be surrounded by great instructors- sometimes in the forms of professors, but also disguised as engineers, buyers, swim instructors, massage therapists, parents, and even kids.
On that note, one of my instructors in waking from his nap. Time to continue today’s lesson.