The adage goes something like this:
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
For the purpose of this post, I’m going to play with that concept a bit:
Ask me a question once and I don’t have an answer–shame on you. Ask me the same question twice and I still don’t have an answer–shame on me.
Part of our district’s teacher evaluation system is how we build the learning environment for our students. I am grateful that I tend to score effective to distinguished in these categories. Once I was asked the question by my observer: how do you do it? If you’ve followed my blog at all, you know how much I care for my students;
they’re like my own kids they are my kids and I strive to make my classroom feel like home. This is the why, but not the how, and honestly the reflection hasn’t gone much deeper than that; after all, teachers in our society–me included–very rarely focus on what we do well. For one, I don’t want to be considered as arrogant, or a braggart. Two, we are bombarded with messages that we are not good enough–both intrinsically and extrinsically. But just recently, another observer asked me the same question: how do you do it? After some digesting of the repeated question, I realized there is power in deconstructing how I do it, in naming the pieces–yes for others, but also for me.
So how do I put together a positive learning environment? Here are my puzzle pieces…
- Take your job seriously, but not yourself. The job of a teacher matters. It is a weighty responsibility to empower students with the tools to create a better future for themselves. And every day I approach my work in deference to that gravity. I plan intentionally, attending to the expectations of external standards while attuning to the needs of my students. I grade rigorously, ensuring that my AP classroom in the hood could give any privileged AP class a run for its [abundance of] money. I teach vigorously, always focused on a target with both explicit and implicit learning goals. I treat time like it’s a precious commodity in the classroom–and it is, because for so many of my students who are behind, I’m trying to teach them senior curriculum while simultaneously catching them up. I remain grounded in the present of my students’ abilities, all the while looking ahead and creating conditions that prepare them for college. However…all this does not mean I am a stoic. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I am just as passionate about humor as I am humanities. So I sing, rap, dance, burp, cry, cuss, dance, hug, joke, and laugh the deep belly echoes of bliss with my students. I make fun of myself. I intentionally use comic relief like the Old Bard himself… albeit not with that much finesse. Much of this self-deprecation lies in the art of code-switching-a skill my students also have to master. Sometimes I speak street, sometimes I speak in lyrics, sometimes I speak Spanish, and sometimes I speak academia…but always I speak with purpose.
- Expect nothing less than the best from students. For all my eight years in education, I have worked with underprivileged, at-risk youth. But really, I have worked with the underdogs of society. All an underdog needs is someone to believe in him/her–even when that’s missing intrinsically. And I do believe in every single one of my students. I believe in them so much I will not let poverty, emerging bilingual skills, or systematic oppression lower my standards for them. I. will. not. All their lives they have been told that they are behind and can’t do what other students can. I will not send that message. My students will read and write and listen and speak at collegiate levels. They will behave like responsible contributors in a community of learners. They will turn in work that makes their brains hurt. They will risk and fail. And I will stalk them until they try again, so they feel the victory of a hard-fought success. In the words of one of my former students: “Every time I walked into your classroom, I knew I was going to be productive because you wouldn’t let me do otherwise.”
- Be humble. I apologize to my students about once a week, at least. Sometimes I bomb a lesson. Sometimes I forget to make copies. Sometimes I mess up a grade. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m low in energy. Sometimes I’m unprepared. Sometimes I make hurtful assumptions. But always, I apologize. I do not project an image of perfection to my students. I reflect on how I’m trying to grow as an educator, the mistakes I make and how I’m trying to fix them, and the challenges I’m fighting. In this, I become a part of our community, instead of the one above it.
- Teach people, not stereotypes or statistics. From day one in my classroom, I get to know my students as human beings. I give them a survey about who they are. I ask for their music preferences. I tell them about myself. Then, I follow up with them–how’d the game go? how’s your aunt? are you feeling better? I recognize that my students are a series of stories, and to be written into that story, I need to know the plot and the characters and the setting. Though I expect nothing less than the best from my students, I also need to know what is their worst, and why it is happening. Ultimately this comes down to one key skill: questioning. I do not make assumptions (because when I do, I get in trouble). Instead, I question students about the why so that together we can work through the how.
- Teach stories (and skills) that matter to people in way that attracts people. Because I teach people, I teach stories that matter. In The Book Thief, we see that friendship allows us to endure any suffering; in The Bluest Eye, we see that our choices have lasting impact on others; in The Things They Carry, we see that stories are salvation. And that’s just semester one! We spend so much time in collaborative discussion because how people present themselves at interviews matters. We spend so much time revising our writing because the people who can articulate themselves are more likely to get what they want. We spend so much time analyzing, because people who know that all messages ultimately try to manipulate them have power. This does not mean I ignore standardized testing and expectations; it means that as the teacher, it is my job to interpret and convey those in a way that matters to people, and not just to the data gods. Part of that responsibility is the call to make learning fun, innovative, exciting, and interesting. In the words of a one of my former students: “Mrs D’s class wasn’t a class. It was the time of day where my mind was challenged and stretched into new ways of thinking.”
- Explain the why. Sometimes it’d be nice, and easier, and less time-intensive to just say “because I told you so.” But I, as a human being and learner, always want to know the why behind what I’m doing in meetings or in PD or in life. And so I approach my students with the same dignity. I work hard to explain our tasks in terms of skills needed for the world. I plan assignments and assessments that never constitute busy work, because my students deserve better.
- Read the field and respond accordingly. Some days, when the majority of my students do not do their homework, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes a teachable moment about time organization. Some days, when the mood in my classroom seems off, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes a teachable moment about stress management. Some days, when I can’t get my kiddos to shut up and engage with the work, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes at teachable moment about values and responsibility. You see the pattern. I pay attention to my students, I ask them to be meta-cognitive, and then we find solutions. In addition to sending the message that their hearts and souls matter just as much as their brains, I hope these reflective skills transfer to their lives beyond the classroom.
- Build in social-emotional learning. I teach the standards because they matter. I teach stories because they matter. I teach meta-cognition because it matters. But I also teach social-emotional skills because they matter..the most. A classroom without a sense of community does not allow for deep and meaningful learning–especially for emerging bilinguals (Google “affective filter”). Social-emotional learning is the solid and hidden foundation upon which classroom management is laid, from which stories and stories of learning rise gloriously into the sky. The first weeks of our class are spent on community building. It is essential that we all know each others’ names, feel safe to take risks, as well as feel responsibility to hold each other accountable. We do circles about issues in their lives. We tell our stories. We do cheesy community builders. We make commitments. In the words of a former student: “Your personality and way of coping with us and our weird generation created such a great environment that I always enjoyed walking into your classroom, mentally prepared to learn.”
- Ensure all voices contribute, and all voices matter. It is essential in my class for ALL students to share. And it is essential for all students’ voices to be honored. To create this, I often do not give my own opinions during discussions. I also often do not respond to students’ comments. This creates a place where I am not the center of the conversation, but another voice in it. This also empowers students to find their voice and use their voice–in my classroom, but most importantly in the world. In the words of a former student: “No voice was left unheard and we always had safe environment to be ourselves.”
- Synchronicity. The stars have aligned so that I could teach. I feel blessed that God has made me with a unique skill set so that I could be a teacher. I view my job as a ministry of care and empowerment. When I go to work, I feel a divine synchronicity. I know this might not be the case for all teachers…and so I come back to the idea of “loving what you do and doing what you love.” Such an internal motivation for teaching is obvious to students…especially those who have seen teachers come and go. When they know I want to be there, it’s more likely they’ll want to be there.
The final piece is more than a piece; it is the glue that holds everything together: love. I love my students. I treat them as my own. I speak to them from a place of love; I teach them from a place of love; I laugh with them from a place of love; I listen to them from a place of love; I build our learning environment from a place of love. And when I mess up, which I do, I am grateful that “love covers a multitude of sins.”
For all my teacher-blogging friends, I’d love for you to blog about your own puzzle pieces for creating a positive learning environment. Link to mine, and send me your link so I can include yours!