This year I took the ultimate risk; I asked my students what they wanted to learn about. The first time I did this, I was met with averted eyes and mumblings. One student even asked me if this was a trick question? After much reassurance, after all, these kids know that adults usually use their words against them, a few dared to raise their hands. “Well, we like what learn about, Mrs. Ripp, perhaps we could just learn about in a different way?” “Yeah,” piped in another, “Maybe we could have some choice? You know, instead of doing a presentation, I could write a paper. ” And with that, my blinders fell away and I started to realize that teaching is not a solitary job but one you share with every single one of your students.
So I set forth to provide my students with choice, some set perimeters, but always the option to add their own voice somehow. Some students craved the choice, others hated it, after all, why couldn’t the teacher just decide everything, wasn’t that what I got paid to do? After a while though, my students demanded a choice if I had not provided one. Sometime large ones as to what the topic would be and others as simple as who they would work with. The engagement in my students multiplied and the work they did was enthusiastic, creative, and sometimes just downright inspiring. So I continued to ask my students questions; what did they love about school, what did they want to change? How would they run a classroom? What makes a great teacher? What do they wish they had learned about in school but never covered? Many of their answers can be found on our kidblog, our little portal to the world. And I devoured their answers, pushing myself to make our classroom better, more engaging, and more inspiring for these eager learners.
Now looking back after almost a year, I wonder why I never asked the kids before? Why did I spend two years of my teaching career assuming that I knew best? Why did I not reach out and get their opinion? I was afraid of their answers, that is for sure, but truthfully I didn’t see the value in it either. I was the hired expert, the person brought in to fill their minds with knowledge. They were there to be managed, rewarded, punished when needed, and then passed on through the system. After all, these are children we are talking about, not fellow teachers, principals or other people who have teaching careers and experiences telling me how to get better. These are children that should just take whatever we present to them and be happy that they are part of our learning journey. These are children that do not know as much as adults. They are not supposed to have an opinion, let alone share it, because that is not what learning is all about. Or so I thought.
So today I stand by my flaws and mistakes. Without them I would not be on the journey I am on now, one that has led me to reflect deeply on all the things I should change, on all the things I have done right, and how fundamentally being a teacher is not about teaching but about learning alongside with your students. That is what I hope to inspire in others; to ask their students what they want to learn, to ask them their opinion on the school, on the classroom, on what makes a teacher great. And then to act on it, flaws and all, to make a classroom where the students are stakeholders and the teacher is a partner, not the ultimate authority, not the person to be feared, not the only one with knowledge.
The other day a student raised their hand and told me that my lesson was boring. Silence, nervous glances, and then just waiting. I looked straight at that student and said, “You know what? You are right, what can we do to make it better?” The look of relief and excitement that spread across that student’s face will never be forgotten. So ask the children, if you dare.