Reinventing the Teacher


In my first two years as a teacher, I worked with upper grade general education classes. This year, I’m in a different world in two ways: I’m teaching primary grades, and mine is a special education class.

Since early January, I’ve been in a bit of a transitional phase.

I felt from the start that if I could rein in student behavior, encourage positive socialization with peers and others throughout the school community, and help develop my students’ independence, I would consider the year a success. These things have happened. My students are usually free of behavior issues (other than the minor infractions that are typical of any 6-year old). They are polite and helpful toward one another. If a child falls, the whole class asks, without my prompting, “Are you okay?” If someone drops their supplies, the entire class descends to the floor to pick them up. By and large, the students are much more independent than the beginning of the year, using the flow of the day to determine what materials they need for the next period, bringing things to the office with a partner, and advocating for their needs in the classroom.

All of this is necessary, but still, I hesitate to say this year has been a total success. It seems I may have been so caught up in developing these skills that I neglected to attend to the academic ones. Oops.

This all became clear to me due to a confluence of two factors. First, while important academic growth is apparent (one girl will likely never make a backwards Y again, one boy is finally sounding out words by himself), to be blunt, many of my students have really struggled to gain in their reading. I’ve finally talked myself out of believing this is okay, and “to be expected,” given all my students are up against academically, socially, and emotionally.

Second, through a series of interactions with my supervisors, it’s been made clear that maybe, just maybe, I’m not teaching my class the way they need to be taught. I had no reason to believe I was steering them down the wrong path. Surely, more experience teaching primary special ed would allow me to make that connection. Since this is like my first year all over again, though, I’ve been too involved to take an objective look at the situation to comprehend that.

And so what could I do? It’s January, so does that mean I say, “Forget it, this year is coming to a close soon, anyway”? Do I sit and mope about how no one told me what to do or how to do it, and lay the blame on others? Or do I man up, take a look in the mirror, question my approach, and do something about it?

If you chose door number 3, you win the grand prize.

I’ve sought out coaches and colleagues to guide me as I learn how to teach my class more appropriately. I’ve revamped my literacy block, breaking it into short segments that keep the class meaningfully engaged. I’ve taken the class on word hunts in the halls. I’ve let them use my $6 per roll highlighting tape to show sight words to the class when they find them in a book. I’ve jumped up like a lunatic upon reading a sight word in a big book (and I’ve encouraged my kids to give a big thumbs up anytime we read one together).

As a result of all this, I’ve marveled at how even my most reticent learners have begun to take to new words like salmon to a stream.

Part of me thinks all of this is great, but that it is January, and four months are already behind us. Were those four months a waste? Not entirely: we have laid some pretty important groundwork for the way the class runs. Could I have been more effective pedagogically? I suppose it’s possible.

The other part of me says this: my students are learning things in my room – academically, socially, and behaviorally – that they’ll carry with them into next year and the years that follow.

Come to think of it, so am I.

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5 responses to “Reinventing the Teacher

  1. Gail (@used2bprincipal)

    How lucky your students are to have a teacher who is a caring, reflective practitioner. By choosing door number 3, you and your students win the grand prize. In order to maximize their opportunties for success you’ve adjusted your teaching to their learning styles. You’ve honed in on what’s important for them academically. Seeing the positive results from your students lets you know that you are doing the right things. Giving them academic, social and behavioral tools are critical for their futures. You are all on the right road. I look forward to hearing more about you and your class throughout this year.

  2. Matt,

    Great post – you articulate the second guessing we all do. But there is more to classroom learning than content, there is also process- and by building on foundations of behavior, and the process of learning, you can begin to push all kinds of content through. We used to say that we had to teach Jack (my son) the process of learning first, because it was not incidental, it did not come naturally. Once the learning window gets “jammed” open, you can pass anything through it. Once the learning structure was in place, Jack made astounding strides in terms of content…because he could.. The sum total of your efforts will meet the outcome, I’m sure, from the sound of it. As long as you are able to individualize each student’s program, by identifying their strengths and using them to “counter” and develop their weaknesses, you will persevere.You da man! And I agree with Gail, your students are lucky to have you :-) Keep up the good work!

    • Chris, this is the kind of affirmation I’ve needed at various points throughout the year, and it’s great advice that I will carry with me in future years. I love the jammed open window analogy – that’s the way to put it. It’s starting to get drafty in my classroom…if you catch my drift!

  3. excellent

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