I wasn’t prepared for my first classroom.
Hired right after completing a one-year fellowship with a scholarship foundation, and just before the No Child Left Behind law went into full effect, I slid into my first classroom idealistic, inexperienced, and ill-prepared.
I studied communication and sociology as an undergraduate, so I knew a fair amount about the history of schooling—and precious little about what it meant to be a middle school literacy teacher in the 21st century. But I was given the keys to my first classroom anyway.
Miraculously, my first group of students learned in spite of me. They are now fresh college graduates who are starting their own careers and lives in various fields.
What made it work? I wasn’t prepared for my first group of students, but they were ready for me—they had firm foundations and relatively stable home lives. Also, I “looped” with my first group of 6th graders, following them to 7th grade. And then I looped again with them from 7th to 8th grade. That’s right: three years with the same group of students.
In those three years, my students taught me how to be a teacher. They taught me that relationships are the entry point for adolescent literacy instruction and that rigor is a byproduct of trust. They taught me to be honest and patient, and to involve students as much as possible in the learning journey—from lesson planning to final assessment.
Looping changed my professional life.
Eleven years later, I’m finally back to looping again, working with a group of 26 7th graders whom I taught last year as 6th graders. I hope to continue the loop to 8th grade next year. I now teach in a large, diverse district with challenges that range from a steep achievement gap to scarce resources. I teach second-language learners and students living in poverty. The reading skills represented in my room range from 2nd grade to high school text levels.
Meanwhile, everything about my pedagogy—from the way I plan to the tools I use—has changed over the past 11 years, except this: Relationships matter. They drive the rigor and expectations behind the reading and writing-workshop practices in my classroom. And looping supports that.
Admittedly, looping may not be for everyone. It requires flexibility and constant reflection to avoid stagnation and a too-familiar or too-comfortable teaching and learning environment.
In other words, you cannot rely on something working just because it has in the past. Instead, you must train your eye on grade-level standards and expectations and be two steps ahead of the savvy students who know you so well. You have to seek to learn new things about each student and their families rather than relying solely on prior knowledge and previous interactions. You have to work harder to keep things fresh and relevant.
But the benefits are worth it, especially during critical developmental periods like pre-adolescence and adolescence, when so many other factors in students’ lives are in flux. Looping supports student learning and accelerates growth. By building on a foundation of relationships and learning history, the first day of school is simply a continuation of the learning journey.
Planning to Loop
Think looping might be for you? Here are three steps you can take today to plan for looping with your learners:
• Advocate: Deep knowledge of the needs of individual students is far more complex than knowing content and grade-level standards. If relationships are the driving force in your classroom, collect data and artifacts that demonstrate how looping with your students will accelerate their achievement. Communicate with your school leader throughout the year about your interest in looping—grounding your proposal in the student-learning information you’ve collected.
• Communicate: As you plan, keep in mind that looping is most successful when all stakeholders understand and have a voice in the situation. I surveyed my students and their parents at the end of the first year to give them a choice to opt in (or out) of a second year of instruction with me.
• Collaborate: Involve other teachers in your grade level or team in the looping discussion and scheduling decisions. Having multiple teachers loop within a grade level or content area can help with tackling new standards, curriculum, or grade-level expectations as a team. Aligning expectations across classrooms (regardless of whether students are looping) will ensure a supportive and equitable learning community for all.
Looping is a tangible investment in our students. It tells kids we care about them—that we’re in it for more than this moment, this unit, this school year.
Given my personal lack of preparation for entry into the profession and the myriad reasons teachers leave the profession, some days I still have to pinch myself. Not only am I still teaching, but I also love my work. A brief stint of instructional coaching that took me away from the classroom led me right back to it. I choose adolescents over adults and I choose looping over the merry-go-round of students shuffling through our classrooms and schools.
I can’t help but wonder … if more first-year teachers were hired with the expectation that they would loop, would there be more career teachers—and more successful students?