I am a teacher. I love teaching and learning with kids, and I have a way of relating to kids that is unique, meaningful and worthwhile. I do things very differently from many other teachers and that sets me apart. (Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s NOT a good thing.) I’ve always been blessed, though, in having people in central office who recognized my differences and who supported my vanguard ways and my deep soul-searching to be ever better–and who have served as critical friends, asking questions, probing, validating and sometimes chiding along the way.
My classroom is not about MY power–it’s about empowering the kids to make wise choices and choose to learn at deep levels. However, something someone wo has known me for over 20 years recently said to me has really had me thinking, and not necessarily in a good way–she said, “The few like you are still the few like you.” Why? Why is that? Why do I still, 39 years after I was a beginning teacher, STILL stand out as remarkable in some way?
I’ve always said that I was going back into the classroom before I retired– because there is absolutely nothing that is more powerful than that day to day relationship with a community of kids. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve loved being a resource teacher in a building and nurturing that relationship with kids as they grow through the years, but ultimately, the decisions about their learning lie with their homeroom or classroom teacher–and while I can perhaps influence those decisions, the power is not in the hands of the kids, or me to hand over to them.
Going back into the classroom is about me and my enjoyment….doing what I love and I am good at, and what is effective for most of the students with whom I’ve worked over the years. As I think about making a difference, though, that may not be the best thing to do. I’ve realized that right now I have to go back to doing what I was doing when I first started my personal blog in 2008–or when I first started doing presentations in the 90’s–or sharing on Twitter, or making web pages like my “Cut Loose With Dr. Seuss” webpage with a booktable of activities my kids were doing. That’s sharing my classroom stories and my practices, explicitly, and help others see that “the few like me” don’t have to stay a few. Humane practices that make a difference in who people are can permeate our learning and teaching in schools.
I’ve had the fortune this year to do two things–work with a brand new teacher who is an incredibly thoughtful practitioner, and reconnect with a former student teacher who is currently a long term sub in my school.
The beginning teacher and I teach a collab class of very smart kids–not all gifted, but all perfectly capable of doing high level work that challenges them to think well beyond 5th grade. They, for the most part, are highly motivated, but not all of them know how to learn, ask clarifying questions, or utilize their strengths to develop their weaknesses. They are not all organized learners, nor do they all recognize the power of being organized. Most of them know how to play school well, but most of them are also searching for understanding, and I love that about this class. In trying to meet those needs, the teacher and I have great conversations about kids, methodologies about teaching and we talk about characteristics of kids. We sometimes conference with parents together, but most always collaborate about the messages we send to parents to be consistent and understand where each other is in our thinking about that kid. It’s a great situation and I’ve learned a lot about myself and collaborating by working this way.
I popped into my former student teacher’s class the other day for a few minutes on my way to another class. She was lining her group up and I heard her say, “I like the way …” and then naming a kid who was ready to line up. This person is a very smart lady who belongs in a classroom–who should be working with kids everyday, because she looks through the lens of competence and learning–not through the lens of a deficit model of what’s wrong with the kid. I asked her to stop by my room after she took the kids to the library and in our conversation there, she told a story of a kid who has great math skills and is proud of those–but who is also seen by others as a non-conformist who constantly needs redirecting. She said what she does when he is doing something that’s inappropriate at the moment is start asking him math questions–he immediately attends to her and she can then gently redirect him to join the group. Don’t we wish every teacher could see that as a method to use–and that every administrator could recognize it when it happens?
But that “I like” phrase….
“I like the way Johnny is showing me he’s ready to line up.”
“I like the way Susie is raising her hand.”
“I like the way Mateo is sitting quietly.”
UGH! To me, those statements are all about the adult and training kids to please the teacher. When Johnny is noticed with an “I like” sentence, he stands up taller and perhaps smirks at others–after all, he has been noticed and they haven’t. And worse yet, perhaps Yehrang doesn’t even see a difference between what she is doing and what Johnny is doing. So what’s the hidden thing she has to do to get noticed?
And for Alfonso, who goes to church every Sunday and is taught to say “AMEN!” when you agree with something said, or to call out an answer when the preacher asks a question? Well, how is he supposed to understand what raising a hand means without specifically being taught code-switching? Maybe the goal of raising a hand is all he gets out of the teacher’s “I like” statement. So, he raises his hand and the teacher calls on him–but he has nothing to say–or it’s not on topic-and the class giggles, or worse yet, chastises him. The teacher sees it as a distraction and so stops calling on him–but fusses at him for calling out the right answer during group questions, where she is looking for hands, while Alfonso is looking to respond thoughtfully.
So, in thinking about hearing the “I like…” statement come out of her mouth, I spoke to my former student–pretty bluntly, because that’s who we are together, and the trust was established a LONG time ago to interact forthrightly. “You’ve got to stop saying “I like.” I said. I went on to remind her that you make it all about you then, and the kids don’t learn how to do the skill you’re trying to elicit. Start naming the behavior–be explicit. If you want to shape the behavior, talk about that–not what you like and you don’t like.
“Johnny is looking forward, showing he is ready to walk to the library.”
“When Susie raises her hand when she wants to speak, it allows us all to take turns talking.”
“Mateo’s sitting quietly shows how polite he is and that he’s ready to listen to others.” (OK, so maybe he’s just daydreaming and not being polite, but naming it as such may pull his attention back to the group.)
The basic thing is that it’s about honoring the kid for their actions, and not making it about pleasing someone else. It’s about spotting someone doing something good and naming that good so others can see it, understand it in context, and replicate it. It’s about naming the behavior so kids know the expectations and can understand the WHYs of lining up, raising hands and turn-taking. It’s about helping children understand that their actions impact others–for good or bad–and that they have the control over which it is. Rules should be taught in context and schools usually have too many!
Becky Fisher speaks to routines and procedures in her post about New Addition or New Edition when she recounts this story where she went into “three Kindergarten classrooms in the five minutes before shifting from class activities to specials. One teacher put on a clean up song, and like salivating dogs the kids responded in a very well-conditioned manner and started cleaning up. Another teacher clapped a pattern and flicked the lights and told the kids to start cleaning up and then began doling out strategic praise statements like, “I like the way Jack is cleaning up his space.” The third teacher said, “Class, it’s almost time for PE. What do we need to do to ensure our math supplies are where we can all find them tomorrow?” In unison, the students shouted, “Put them away!” and started working to make sure the needs of the classroom community were met. Three different strategies with the same short-term end result in mind, but representing three very different visions.”
That vision is everything–sometimes we get so lost in the rat race of everyday requirements, we don’t think about the bigger goal–of fostering human beings to be the best they can be–for themselves, their world and all of our futures. And, for me, it’s about stopping trying to do everything and making some priorities–to reflect on who and what I am and share that with the world so that I can learn from others. It’s about treating MYSELF humanely and not expecting myself to do everything–but to center and focus on specific areas in which to grow and learn and share…
And, that, my friends, will be my goal going forward…I know some of you have told me over the years I have lots to offer. I know some of you have said I should write a book, and some of you have simply said you love my classroom stories. Please know I have listened and your words have been percolating within me. Please continue to give blunt feedback and share with me. And, most of all, if you have a story of impact, whether it includes me or not, share that with the rest of us!