As you may know, I left a position I loved at a local university to change the system of education. My first stop took me back to a 4th grade classroom in a Title 1 school. While I only stayed one year, I learned valuable lesson that will contribute to my efforts in making school better for all. I hope my former students learned as much from me as I did from them. Here are 5 lessons I learned.
1. Behavior is like a foreign language. It is chock full of meaning and if you work hard and put in the time, you can learn the meaning behind the previously unintelligible. One child acts out at math time every day to avoid doing work that is over his head. No one likes to feel stupid and refusing to do work saves face. Another child needs attention and will get it any way she can even if it means facing negative consequences. Yet, another child needs to be moving and finds it difficult to sit or focus. It is important to seek the root cause of the behavior. If you fail to do so, you only address the symptoms and never understand or help the child.
2. Learning is personal. Children don’t learn simply because you teach. The content needs to be interesting to them. They need to care, to have a reason for learning - a purpose. Charismatic teachers can entice students to find concepts, skills, or ideas interesting, but teachers who build relationships with students succeed in connecting students to interesting content because they know what each student cares about. These teachers organize learning in a way that brings content to the students and allows each to apply it in personal and meaningful ways. For example, allowing students to apply physics concepts to various hobbies or pursuits (sports, Lego creations, nature, etc.) or relate comprehension strategies to self-selected texts. Students don’t need to be reading the same book in order to practice or demonstrate reading skills and strategies. They are more likely to read, and enjoy reading, when they choose the books. Personalizing learning is easy if teachers know their students and create an environment where student voice and choice are the norm.
3. Today’s society is harsh, even for students who live in the best of circumstances. I learned a lot about trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), as well as how these experiences interfere with learning and cause physiological harm. It is more important than ever to help children feel safe, reduce potential triggers, and strip away anxiety-causing practices. Establishing routines helps create a predictable and relaxing classroom atmosphere while maximizing learning time. Teaching students to recognize their feelings, and what might cause the feelings, is another positive step. Yoga and mindfulness techniques can be taught and practiced, equipping students with tools to combat negative emotions and experiences, and lessen the effect of triggers. All of us must fight the many educational practices that cause student anxiety and intellectual harm including, but not limited to, high-stakes testing, grades, narrow definitions of school success (reading and math), fixed timelines, one-size-fits-all curriculum, decontextualized content, standardized assessments, and the impossible number of standards students are expected to meet. No 8-year-old, or any-year-old, should be stressed from attending school.
4. Teachers and parents are on the same team. They are the starting line-up. When teachers and parents work together, students get the message, “You matter! We are going to make sure you succeed.” My teaching partner and I communicated early and often with parents. We especially worked to share good news and positive behavior. When students made bad choices, they would call parents (on speaker) to share what they had done wrong and how they were going to “make it right.” Having all parties involved in the conversation from the start minimized student editorializing of the situation. Our close relationship also, contributed to 100% attendance for parent-teacher-student conferences.
5. One’s heart is big enough to love many people. When students are assigned to your class, they become your children. You would do anything for them, and you want what is best for each one. The act of gracing students with unconditional love develops powerful relationships that allow tough conversations and high expectations. The most challenging conversation between my students and me began with, “I love you and I care about you so…” By the end of the year, the conversation might start with me asking the student to read my mind and him/her responding, “You love me and care about me, so you are not going to let me…” When students know you care about them, they more honestly reflect on their words and actions because they know you desire for them to become the best possible versions of themselves.
My 4th grade students will remain forever in my heart as I take the next step of my journey, principal of a private school, which includes a Spanish immersion program. As an administrator, I hope to enact my beliefs about learning in ways that honor and empower students, teachers, and parents. I will keep you abreast of my progress in blog posts to come. Thank you for reading this post!