Teaching Opinion

A Final Tribute to My Greatest Teachers

By David Ginsburg — June 27, 2016 6 min read
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Dear Readers,

I was thrilled when Ed Week offered me the opportunity to blog here. Yet I was also concerned: Would I have enough material to make it through my one-year commitment? But teaching is such a dynamic profession, and nearly six years later, I still have more to share. At this time, however, I’ve decided to take a break from blogging.

I’m grateful to you for reading my posts and leaving comments--whether complimentary or critical. And I hope you’ll stay connected with me through email (david@ginsburgcoaching.com), Twitter, or LinkedIn.

I’m also grateful to Ed Week, and will always be proud to have blogged here.

And finally, I’m grateful to my students, and hope you enjoy this final tribute to them.

Sincerely, Coach G

“What do you do about a student who doesn’t want to learn?” many teachers have asked me.

“I wouldn’t know because I’ve never met one,” I’ve always replied.

Naive or sarcastic, you might think, but I’m not suggesting every student always appears eager to learn. Cutting class. Disrupting class. Sleeping in class. Blowing off homework. These and other “non-learning” behaviors were common among my students at Manley High School in Chicago where the dropout rate was around 60%.

And as a new teacher, I responded in the usual ways. I preached. I punished. I called parents. But with few exceptions, nothing I did helped change students’ behavior in a meaningful or lasting way.

A big reason my responses were futile is that I was trying to solve problems without knowing their causes. I was trying to change students’ behaviors without first assessing and addressing the motivations behind those behaviors.

That’s why teaching is all about problem-solving, as I wrote in my first post on this blog: “Such is the never-ending process of successful teaching: ... pinpointing the causes of classroom problems, then identifying and implementing solutions.” But I also wrote that, “as isolating as teaching can be, it’s often hard to identify the sources of classroom problems, not to mention solutions.”

How, then, do we identify the sources of classroom problems? Here’s what I previously wrote about overcoming despair as a new urban teacher:

“When teachers ask me what I did to turn things around, I stress at first that it wasn’t what I did so much as what I believed. In particular, even in my darkest moments, I clung to the belief that there was something I was doing (or not doing) to contribute to--if not cause--my classroom woes.”

Problem-solving for teachers involves making cause-effect connections, where students’ actions and words are the effect, and our actions and words are the cause, not the other way around. And if you think this is harsh or unreasonable given the myriad other influences on students, I can only respond as I did in my first post:

“This may seem like a lot to put on any teacher... Yet this sort of ownership over classroom outcomes has been a hallmark of successful teachers I’ve known over the years. And if you think about it, to believe otherwise is to accept powerlessness over your situation.”

Make no mistake: even in the best of circumstances, it’s hard for teachers to know how they’re affecting students. And it may be even harder for teachers whose circumstances are similar to those I experienced in Chicago including lack of support and classrooms full of jaded, bored, and self-doubting students (and harder yet when those classrooms are overcrowded--I once had 37 students and only 28 desks).

Still, understanding how we affect students--ALL students--isn’t an option for us. It’s an obligation. The only issue is how to fulfill it.

Self-reflection (I kept a journal). Conversations with colleagues. Workshops. Books. Blogs. Personal learning networks (PLNs). There are lots of great sources of professional development, and all teachers should pursue them.

But when it comes to understanding your effects on students, you need to focus on your classroom. That’s one reason I’m such a big fan of instructional coaching. An observant, objective coach can help you make those critical cause-effect connections. At the same time, you can never be sure how you’re affecting others unless you hear it from them. Here are a few of the hundreds of comments students submitted to me through my classroom feedback system:

“You should act like a math teacher instead of a salesperson.”

“You need to keep your promises.”

“Every day one of your students asks to go to the washroom because he doesn’t understand what you’re teaching. I wish you paid more attention to what is happening in your class.”

“You are always comparing somebody with other people.”

“Sitting in groups makes some people think they’re not as smart as others.”

“You need to learn how to listen.”

“You shouldn’t make us work the problems out if we know the answers already.”

“Just because one person does something wrong, why take it out on the class?”

“It would be better if the work were more challenging.”

“You should stop telling people what they can’t accomplish and start telling them ways to help them accomplish whatever it is they want to do, and then they might succeed with the help of Coach G.”

Asking students for feedback about me and their classroom was the most empowering thing I ever did as a teacher--empowering for them and, in turn, for me. In fact, I learned more from my students about how to--and how not to--treat them and teach them than I learned from education courses, in-service training, books, and teacher evaluations combined.

I learned that teachers’ words and actions often have a greater effect on students in class than the effects of poverty, parents, policymakers, or principals.

I learned that student engagement and morale are highest in classrooms where teachers value cooperation and collaboration over compliance and competition.

I learned that sometimes students’ words conceal their true feelings, like when they say they’re bored but they’re really confused or afraid.

I learned that teachers need to be curious more so than furious when students misbehave, with the goal of understanding students’ motivation for their behavior rather than just changing their behavior.

I learned that students are gracious and forgiving when teachers acknowledge and apologize for their mistakes.

I learned that teachers should prepare for students’ mistakes, not try to prevent them.

I learned that teachers need to establish control of their classrooms, not control of their students.

I learned that seemingly self-defeating behaviors are actually self-preserving for many students. Students, for example, who are so afraid of public speaking that they would rather get an “F” on an assignment than get up in front of the class. And students, per a comment above, who ask for a bathroom pass because they do indeed need to relieve themselves--not from a full bladder, but from negative feelings such as inadequacy and boredom.

I learned that students are more willing to take risks as learners when teachers reinforce effort over accuracy.

I learned that teachers should respond to student misbehavior as teachable moments rather than just punishable moments.

I learned that many students’ abilities exceed their perception of their abilities, and teachers must therefore focus on developing students’ confidence rather than just delivering curriculum.

I learned that students learn with more pride and fulfillment when teachers tap into their intrinsic motivation than when teachers use extrinsic rewards.

I learned that helping students develop work habits such as resourcefulness is more important than helping them learn academic content.

I learned that students learn more when they’re discovering or discussing than when teachers are disseminating or demonstrating.

I learned that teachers need to connect with kids in the context and confines of the classroom.

I learned that students need and eventually appreciate tough love.

I learned that students will only unlearn helplessness when teachers relearn helpfulness.

I learned that teachers often do more for students by doing less for students.

I learned all of this and much more from my greatest teachers: my students. And it’s because of what I learned from them that I’m convinced all students want to learn. We just need to create classrooms where all students can thrive. Not sure how to do this? Ask your students.

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.