(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are the most important lessons you have learned from your students?
In Part One, Kyle Lawrence, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Blanca Huertas, and Denise Fawcett Facey share their experiences.
In Part Two, Naomi Bailey, Donna L. Shrum, Crystal Watson, and Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., contribute answers.
Today, Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., Jen Schwanke, Matthew Johnson, and Andrea Baney offer their reflections.
‘Every Learner Is at Potential for Greatness’
Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., is a high school educator with nearly 10 years of teaching, curriculum design, and instructional-leadership experience in secondary English/language arts and English as a second language. You can connect with Aisha on Instagram or Twitter at @TheLitSensei and by visiting her website: www.aishacatkinson.com.:
In 2013, I began my first teaching assignment as an English III, English IV Honors, and Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition teacher campus in eastern North Carolina. I had earned my teaching credentials not even three months prior to starting the job, but when my principal approached me with the opportunity to teach this class, I welcomed it because, after completing my student-teaching internship at his campus, I knew that Eastern Wayne High School was where I felt that I could make a difference.
It would not be until many years later that I’d realize that my impact there was nothing in comparison with the profound amount of influence those students would have upon me, my career, and the student-centered leadership perspective I hold.
Before I begin, I feel that it is important for me to mention that I had never taken an honors- or AP-level course prior to teaching these sections. I was an unidentified, gifted and talented student with potential completely unnoticed until my freshman year of college when one of my English professors pushed me to apply for admission into the honors program. Aside from my experiences in the program, all I had to rely on was the expertise of my colleagues, permission to innovate from administration, and two Advanced Placement test-taking strategy books (shoutout to Five Steps to a 5 and Barron’s). There were no district-initiated or teacher-initiated collaboration or professional-growth opportunities, and—at a time when North Carolina was (and still is) one of the most underfunded states for public education—there was no funding to send me to a College Board workshop, either.
However, each day, when I looked into the eyes of my students, many of whom were poised to become the first in their families to attend university, I knew that I had no other option but to fight the inequities through a commitment to excellence. When I would venture out into the community for a bite to eat or to cheer for them on the football field, I saw my students working hard to escape generational poverty and generational curses.
These same students would go one to graduate from Eastern Wayne High School and become Gates Millennium Scholars, award-winning medical professionals, successful business founders, decorated military pilots and soldiers, acclaimed educators in their own right, and so many other meaningful roles around the world. Most importantly, though, irrespective of their educational or professional tracks, these women and men would also become key players in their communities by dedicating their time to such worthy causes as addressing the minority maternal-health crisis, music empowerment, and developing opportunities for youth to engage in civic responsibility. As I have watched them succeed, I have learned so much about the life-altering power of resilience and what happens when we choose to stand our ground and advance in the face of adversity.
As I have advanced in my career, I think about those first two groups of students I worked with as if I were still teaching them. I use what I got right, what I got wrong, and the struggles we shared to guide me in my purpose for instructional leadership. From my students, I have gained the belief that success is unquestionably accessible and possible for every learner. It may look different for each individual learner, but there exists a pathway for all to achieve. This belief is a nonnegotiable philosophical approach that informs how I facilitate, lead, and yield results. I stand firm in my beliefs and speak with authority because my first two sets of students gifted me with the understanding that every learner is at potential for greatness.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:
Many years ago, when I was in 8th grade, my science teacher Mr. Getz had a schtick. Everyone knew about it. I’d been waiting for it since it happened with my older sisters, and sure enough, the first time a student— my friend Kim— said the word “assume,” it unfolded. I was waiting for it.
“You’ll need to explain your answer,” Mr. Getz said.
“I just knew.”
“How did you know?”
Mr. Getz grinned. I watched. Here it was! It was happening! He took the chalk and wrote the letters, spread out on the blackboard, A S S U M E. “Do you know what happens when you assume?”
“No,” Kim said.
“You make an…” he circled the first three letters. “Out of…” the fourth letter… “ and...” He circled the final letter.
It was a wildly exciting schtick for us 8th graders, what with a teacher saying a curse word and all. But it meant more than that: Notably, year after year, an important lesson was passed down to a bunch of 8th graders. It was the first of a million times I would learn that assumptions are exactly that— a way to make a fool (shall we say) out of everyone involved in those assumptions.
Ironically, what Mr. Getz taught us students that day, so long ago, is the same thing my students, now, have continued to teach me. We can never, ever, ever assume anything about them. We have to be patient and careful with them, to let their story unfold in ways that are right for them.
The assumptions are too numerous to count. Just because a child is poor does not mean she is unhappy. If he is tired, it doesn’t mean he’s neglected. Because she looks happy and bubbly, it doesn’t mean she’s OK. If he gets an A on a test, it doesn’t mean he knows the content. Just because he’s a he doesn’t mean he wants to be a he. Or she. We even can’t assume that the things they tell us are true, because they might not know, not yet, who they are or what they will be.
We can’t assume anything about our students based on the little we know about their status, their beliefs, their conduct. We have to let them be young, to learn and become. We mustn’t assume anything about them. If we do. … Well, you know.
Matthew Johnson is an English teacher from Ann Arbor, Mich., and the author of Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out (2020, Corwin Press). His work has been published by Principal Leadership, Edutopia, ASCD, the National Writing Project, and the Cult of Pedagogy, and he blogs weekly at www.matthewmjohnson.com:
One of the most striking things about popular teaching movies is that the focus is nearly always on the teacher, not the students. Pick a movie and a moment at random and you will likely find Denzel Washington, Edward James Olmos, Robin Williams, or Michelle Pfeiffer standing in the center of each frame, delivering knowledge as the students—who tend to be on the edges of the frame—take it all in.
This Hollywood, stand-and-deliver notion of teaching misses a crucial piece of instruction: listening to and learning from our students.
Although direct instruction is important, deep learning occurs within each student’s mind as they process, interact with, and take ownership of knowledge—and each student’s mind learns differently. Therefore, the most important lessons I learn each year from students concern how their brains work: what thoughts populate them throughout the day, what they care about and need, and what passions and passionate dislikes set them ablaze.
Creating time and space to learn these essential details from my students is a key element of my practice, and over the years, I have found the following activities and approaches to consistently yield some of the best results:
- Student Letters: I start each year by asking students to write me a letter about who they are as readers, writers, students, and people. I then follow this with letters at the start of each quarter inquiring about how the year is progressing, both in and out of the walls of my classroom. The exact design of the letter depends on the class and time of year, but I always keep the letters open-ended and give full credit to everyone who approaches it with fidelity, in the hopes that being freed from worries about points and commas will create a space where students can tell me what they need in the way that feels most comfortable to them.
- Two-Way Feedback. While requesting student feedback at the end of the semester is common, it is far less common during the semester itself. As someone who has written a book on feedback, this has always seemed backward to me. Feedback is information that is meant to help one improve, which is hard to do if the year is over. At that point, it is more assessment than feedback. Therefore, I seek feedback from my students as often as I provide them feedback—generally every 1–2 weeks. This feedback comes in many forms, ranging from quick Google Forms that ask how the class is going to asking students to reflect on the process of writing a paper before turning it in (which also comes with the positive of reinforcing the lessons of the unit).
- Burn Five. Several times a week, I do this activity that I first discovered in Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire. On these days, I walk around the classroom, engaging students in informal conversation for up to five minutes after the bell has rung. What might appear briefly like poor time management is actually a key part of my approach to learning from my students. The little details I learn about them and what they care about in these organic moments add up over the course of the year to an impressive wealth of knowledge that more than makes up for any class time that got “burned.”
- Moments of Genuine Connection. Teacher and author Dave Stuart Jr. keeps a clipboard where he records each time he has a moment of genuine connections with a student. He explains his approach here, but the idea is that this ensures that he connects with every single student on a regular basis. I have found this to be invaluable and found the clipboard to be a wonderful place to store quick little details about students, the kind that are hard to hold onto when one has 160-plus students like I regularly do.
What lessons have I learned from my students this year? Relationships matter tremendously. Kids will buy in to your instruction not because you stand on a desk or carry a baseball bat in the hallway but because you listen to them and take time to know who they are as humans.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Andrea Baney is a 4th grade teacher at Danville Area school district in Danville, Pa. The 2021–22 school year is her 14th year of teaching. Andrea was named a 2021 Extraordinary Educator by Curriculum Associates, and she is currently one of 12 finalists for the 2022 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year:
Many educators will claim that the 2020-21 school year was the most difficult of their career. And while, professionally, I would agree, I cannot say that it was my most difficult year. The 2015-16 school year tops my list. My husband and I endured some of the most difficult hardships that I would not wish upon anyone.
The night before starting my 8th year of teaching 4th graders, I suffered my second miscarriage. I missed the first two days of school and returned to my students asking where I had been. I quickly responded that I was sick and acted as though everything was now OK. Behind the scenes, my husband and I requested further testing in hopes to figure out what was causing the miscarriages.
What the testing turned up, independently, was the discovery on Friday, Oct. 30, that a mass had been discovered in my husband. On Monday, Nov. 2, my husband called me at work and told me that he had gotten a last-minute appointment with urology. I frantically spoke to my building principal and requested to leave early. I am forever thankful that he told me to go immediately and covered my class for me, because at that appointment, we received the devastating news that it was testicular cancer.
My husband had to endure four rounds of chemotherapy. One round, for him, was Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to noon, every single day. In other words, that was 20 days of chemo, plus additional appointments and treatments. I tried to be with him as much as possible, but as an elementary teacher, there were many days that I could not be with him, and instead, I was trying to distract myself as much as possible by teaching my students.
I started missing a lot of school, and my students, as well as their families, started asking questions. Up until this point, I had elected not to share what was happening with my students and their families. I didn’t want them to be scared or worried. However, after missing so much time, and the questions of my absences increasing, I stood at the front of my classroom and shared the news.
As I stood there, I prepared myself for the questions that would be asked. And many of them, I expected: “What kind of cancer is it?” and “Did he lose his hair?” and “Will he be OK?” I answered them all just as I had recited in my mind, doing my best to assure them that he would be OK and that the prognosis was good. But there was a question that caught me completely off guard. It was a question that I did not prepare for, and I definitely did not expect to come out of the mouth of a 10-year-old.
I looked at the boy sitting at the front left corner of my classroom and called on him. He said, “I’m glad your husband is going to be OK, but, Mrs. Baney, how are you doing?” I worked really hard at keeping my emotions in check that day, but that question hit me hard, and I found myself fighting back the tears. Until that moment, I didn’t realize how much I was suffering and I definitely didn’t realize how powerful the words, “How are you doing?” could truly be.
That day, that student changed my life. I began recognizing that I was suffering and that I needed time to heal. I also had the realization that anyone can walk into a room and look 100 percent healthy on the outside and be 100 percent suffering on the inside. Over these past five years, I have made it my mission to check in with my students, co-workers, and administrators. The social-emotional well-being of human beings should be what is most important in life, and I thank a 10-year-old for teaching me that.
Thanks to Aisha, Jen, Matthew, and Andrea for contributing their thoughts.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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