I also clung to “the work.” Like many teachers – or people, really – I used the work as a kind of proxy for my ego which let me justify (to myself) being short with kids who didn’t value the work because, after all, I was responding to their resistance to the work, not to me, personally, right?
It took me a while to realize two things. First, I was taking it personally. Of course I was. So much of my identify was, and is, bound up in school and how others see my work. In the early years of my career, I was not aware of how sharp I could be when I felt slighted by students. I felt slighted by some students.
However, now I also realize that so much of the resistance struggling learners bring to the classroom isn’t personal at all, and that it’s not productive, effective, or especially right to feel slighted by behaviors that students have developed to cope with adults (teachers) and environments (schools) that have judged them since kindergarten. These days, I try to acknowledge my frustrations internally and then move on to the next thing to try in reaching a kid.
I realize that some of my students’ positive affects towards school are coping mechanisms, as well, so I try to make sure all kids know that when they are dissatisfied with the work I suggest, they don’t have to smile and impersonate their best; they can learn to tell me when the work I suggest sucks, and we can find something better for them to do – something that might actually approach their best, which is nothing I can quantify or approximate through work that’s constrained and ruled solely by my imagination, no matter how good the questions I ask or how “engaging” the menu I develop for student choice in project-based work.
At this point in my career, I try to plan to teach and learn at the same time. I try to imagine lessons that inspire wonder, joy, and students’ genuine concern for the quality of their work. I try to foster in myself an awareness of when things go wrong for whom. I try to hold on to an openness to relinquish everything I’ve planned when what I’ve planned turns out all wrong. I try to attune myself to the signals my kids give me about what they need. In many ways, whatever work I bring to class is only there to help me learn how to teach my students – they bring all they learning they need in their questions and cares.
Sometimes in planning a lesson, I hit. Sometimes I miss. When I fail, I try not to go back to the drawing board without students coming along to draw with me.
Today was another first day of school.
The build-a-machine-to-annoy-the-kids-next-door lesson worked in a book-domino, zip-line, trebuchet kind of way without (sadly?) really bothering our neighbors.
The “Where I’m from” lesson sputtered, but then rekindled itself once kids got to make something creative and figurative to show “where they’re from.”
Here is what I learned again today:
Always begin with the making in community.
A failed lesson doesn’t have to be a failure. Kids can create meaningful work from a teacher’s broken play.
Expectations are like frustrations; they belong to me, and while I can acknowledge them, I should let them go.
I’m a big nerd. I loved the trebuchet, but a quieter moment is what will stick with me.
A few minutes into one class, it was clear that many students had already done what I had planned to do. I scrapped the lesson for them, did a quick check for understanding of the big idea (figurative language can tell a person’s story), and set them loose on the stuff in the room so they could make figurative representations of things that represented them. I invited the handful of kids who hadn’t done the activity to work with me at our big table.
In doing so, I split up a pair of inseparable students. On the first day of school. You monster, I thought to myself (in a GLaDOS kind of interior voice). You botched the planning; why should they pay?
But then the rest of class unfolded. And the students did fine. They found a completely appropriate and meaningful way to work together on one shared aspect of their creations before splitting again to finish their individual pieces of work. The kids moved expertly through the space left open to them in the collapse of my lesson.
I feel very self-conscious, selfish, and unsure writing this, but I wanted to share what happened today because if I have anything to offer (besides the occasional oblique reference or terrible pun), it’s an approach to teacher failure that remains open to student success. The best I can do is to be delegitimized as an authority-figure and known as a person and learner by my students. “The work” isn’t there to isolate resistant students, to assert my control, or to protect my feelings like a curtain wall; it’s there to be torn to pieces and remixed or discarded as we build our relationships and community together.
In school, relationships and community are just two tacit and inarticulate ideas standing against myriad standards, but they are the only things that stand a chance of saving us all.