Nearly 10 months ago, I embarked on my fourth year of teaching. For the first time, I entered September feeling I had something to prove. To that end, I found myself working longer, harder, and smarter than I have at any point in my career. I reaped the benefits in many areas. I learned a lot this year. Some of my most valuable takeaways heading into the summer are:
1) One Size Can’t/Won’t/Needn’t Ever Fit All – There was a decided shift in my philosophy this year that I’m not sure I anticipated. On some level, I had previously believed, “If it works for one, it should work for all.” This evolved to, “If it works for one, what about everyone else?” I made a much more concerted effort to differentiate process, product, and most importantly, expectations. Because of this, students were, much more frequently than in my previous classes, able to work at their paces, on their levels, without fear of embarrassment and with the satisfaction of being able to do well.
2) Everyone Shines at Something - Some of my least social kids were the best dancers and singers. Some of my most struggling readers were the most patient teachers. Some of my least organized students had steel traps for memories. With all this, an important point came clearly into contrast: We should value the child for their strengths instead of demeaning them for their weaknesses.
3) I Can Help You With That – Another profound shift saw me lessening my assumptions that the universe would correct itself and that which I take for granted as known will become known without my intervention. No, kids won’t just get it. We need to recognize what they need and teach them those skills and concepts. On an easy day, everyone needs to learn the same thing. There are no easy days, though!
4) Bring it Back Old School - Creativity is not the most valued trait in schools nowadays, which plum stinks for the kids, who are forced into boxes when all they yearn to do is be themselves. I was thrilled to get the green-light for some project-based learning at the end of this year and plan to forge ahead with it next year. But, oh the challenge of designing opportunities for creative expression in a barren morass of unfortunate mandates. We’ll make it happen.
5) What Are High Expectations, Anyway? - I am very much on the record in my belief that expectations can be both high and realistic (isn’t that novel?), as opposed to the party line that argues that everyone can and should grow up to be a doctor or scientist (but never a teacher, of course.) It was never reasonable to expect a B reader in September to be a P reader in June. The fact that such a student (who did not know all of her letters in September) is going to end the year on a G is no insignificant accomplishment, though. That another student went from D to L should be celebrated. That one of my most troubled students improved five levels is not a super shame, but a super story. I always knew the kids could improve, and them knowing that I knew it helped them strive and thrive.
6) Is There Anyone Out There? I Assume So - I moved away from my old mentality about parents this year. No longer did I assume parents were disinterested because they didn’t seek me out. Instead, I assumed they wanted to be involved but needed me to meet them in the middle. I no longer allowed myself to justify a note sent in English simply because, “Well, I sent a note, didn’t I?” Virtually every note this year – both for the whole class and for individuals – went home in English and Spanish. I sent home a newsletter seven out of 10 months. I sent nice notes. I sent certificates. I sent reminders. I sent thank yous. I sent anecdotes. My hope is that parents appreciated the effort and felt more a part of the goings-on in school.
Funnily enough, like my students, I started one place in September, with certain goals that I just knew I’d meet. As it turned out, some of them couldn’t be addressed simply because the winds of change had different designs for me. That’s okay. I like where the wind took me.