Published Online: October 9, 2012

What My Bad Back Taught Me About Teaching

Confession: A severe muscle strain ended up improving my teaching practice.

Last summer, I went on quite a tour of doctors' and chiropractors' offices. These experiences gave me some powerful classroom takeaways and reminded me that I can learn a lot about my students' experiences by reflecting on times when I have needed help and information.

Create a Comfortable Environment

After two weeks of trying to wish the pain away, I headed to a local chiropractor. Before my visit, I carefully considered what was ailing me, exactly when it started, and how I had attempted to treat the injury, excited at the prospect of finally getting some relief. I was eager to start filling out my forms.

But within minutes, I was on the verge of suffocation … literally! The tiny building's air conditioning was busted. (Note: Air conditioning in Florida during July is more than a luxury—it is a necessity!) Employees propped open the door, but this only worsened matters, as a nearby wildfire saturated the air with smoke.

By the time I met the chiropractor 45 minutes later, I could scarcely remember why I was there. I came prepared, but I forget to tell him vital information. As soon as I left the agonizing environment, I realized what questions I should have asked.

Driving home, I considered how often I've blown off my students' complaints about it being too hot or cold in my classroom. I used to take the "tough dad" approach, essentially telling my students (in slightly more decorous language) to "suck it up." After all, I can't control the heat or air conditioning in my classroom.

But then it dawned on me: My students hadn't just been "whining"—they'd been telling me that the environment was getting in the way of their learning. This year, I've been offering solutions. I invested in a good fan, and abandoned the macho routine, instead reminding students to bring in sweaters and jackets when it's cool.

Stick to the Schedule

As it turned out, the chiropractor visit wasn't much help, so I headed to the office of a doctor I had never met. Anxious and uneasy about going to a new office, I just wanted to get in and out and on with my life. I was pleased to find a clean and comfortable office—and even more pleased to discover professionals who valued my time.

The receptionist explained that my forms should take about five minutes to complete, and that I would be waiting for about another five minutes before being taken back to get my blood-pressure reading.

At each stage of my visit, whoever was helping me told me how long the procedure would take and how long I would be waiting for the next step in the process. No fretfully awaiting the unknown! No surprise needles or unexpected probing! It was a relief to know what was going to happen next and just how far away "next" was.

In my enrichment classroom, I've always introduced the day's objectives and the rough order of activities. I have flexibility concerning what I teach and do not have to stick to a strict schedule. I always thought this was a benefit to my students, but my visit to the doctor's office got me thinking.

I realized that, at times, it must be torturous for my students to be uncertain of how long we will work on a given activity, especially if it is something they don't enjoy. But now I get it. This year, I have been providing a more precise timeframe for each activity, and I'm seeing results. Even students who hate math are willing to work hard for 40 minutes when they know the remainder of the time will be spent working on science.

Listen.

When doctors enter the exam room, most begin with a brief greeting and a simple question: "What brings you in today?" I've come to believe that what happens next separates the effective doctors from the ineffective.

The best medical professionals actually wait for you to answer questions, asking several follow-up questions before they examine you. The others feign like they’re listening, but immediately start examining. They make assumptions based on their experience, which may or may not apply to you. They are often heading out the door before you know it. As you head home, you probably find yourself wondering if the doctor really understood your conditions.

As I attempt to "diagnose" my students this year. I'm doing a lot more listening and a lot less talking. In order to cover my bases (and force myself to slow down), I've created a form to fill out when having a conference with a student. My form includes sections for the problem, actions my student will take to solve the problem, and the actions I will take to assist my student. I want to make sure I am listening to what my students are saying rather than acting like a hurried doctor who is on his or her way to the next exam room.

Follow up.

One doctor I visited did a great job with all the practices above but at the end of my time with her, she simply told me to come back if the problem persisted.

The result? As much as I hate to admit it, my problem persists. I have never gone back. Not only am I busy, but I am also stubborn. The pain is going to have to get a lot worse to get me back to the office. However, if the doctor had scheduled up a follow-up appointment, I would have gone back and probably would be 100 percent better now.

Now, I know what you're thinking. It's my health, and I should take responsibility for it. True. I am not blaming the doctor for my bad back. But think about how this translates in a classroom.

I always mean to follow up on discussions with students, but in the past I have usually put the onus on them to let me know how things turn out, particularly regarding nonacademic problems. If I didn't hear back from them, I assumed everything turned out fine.

My pain-induced realization, though, was that if I really want to achieve the best results with my students, I need to take more responsibility in following up with them. I've been keeping a running list in my gradebook of reminders to check in with students about situations they've mentioned.

Next time you need a reboot, close your eyes and think back to the last time you were in need of help. What worked? What didn't? It may help you figure out just the right strategy for serving your students.

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