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How Being the 'Worst' Transformed My Teaching

How Being the 'Worst' Transformed My Teaching
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"I’m the only one who doesn’t get it."

"I’m just not that smart."

"It’s so much easier for everybody else."

"How do people know these things already?"

"I’m the worst."

Each year, I hear sentiments like these from the sophomores I teach. By the time they reach high school, many students have experienced years of academic struggles and feel that they are "the worst" when it comes to school.

Remembering what failure feels like can be difficult for teachers. As adults, many of us—myself included—prefer to avoid situations where others clearly outpace us. We generally choose careers and hobbies where we experience success. But the young people who walk into our classrooms have far fewer choices in the matter. Compared with adults, students in many traditional school settings are more likely to be forced into situations where they can experience years of struggle.

I had a reminder a few years ago of what it’s like to feel outpaced by everyone, and it changed my approach to teaching.

The Weight of Failure

At nearly age 40, I decided to take a weightlifting class.

I’ve never been particularly buff. In fact, one of my most vivid memories of my own school career in West Texas is being a skinny, junior high football player. During workouts, I remember my peers stacking on more weights while my arms shook feebly under my empty bar. We fended for ourselves in the weight room. Our teachers did not emphasize improvement, and there were no systems in place to highlight progress. Instead, I was left alone to compare myself to the stronger kids.

When I began workout classes as an adult, I was transported back to that dusty weight room of my youth, once again feeling like a failure in comparison to those around me. I was partnered with a guy close to my size, and, just like in junior high, he still lifted twice as much as me.

But there was one big difference. This time, I had an exceptional teacher. My trainer, Jeff, gave me what all struggling students need: He focused my attention on personal growth by turning my gaze inward, never outward. He kept clear records of my progress, and when he noticed me looking dismayed, he would point to my chart as evidence of growth. He celebrated my addition of tiny two-and-a-half-pound plates with the same enthusiasm as he did for the guy who deadlifted 500 pounds.

Despite still lifting less than my peers, I was able to foster a growth mindset thanks to Jeff. I began to worry less about how far behind I was from others, and stayed motivated to wake up for difficult 6 a.m. workouts.

The weightlifting class made me think a lot about my current classroom. I wondered how often I taught like Jeff. How often did I help struggling students clearly see and reflect upon the process of their own growth? How often did I remind them that they all learned things at different paces and all had their own strengths? How often did I tell them that it was OK not to be the best at everything?

The Promise of Progress

Like most teachers, I rushed to cover a multitude of objectives every day. I had students take frequent assessments on new material, jumping from one topic to the next without much time for reflection. Unfortunately, this approach showed neither me nor my students much indication of growth, and it made learning even more frustrating for the students who most needed to visualize their learning.

Since taking my weightlifting class, I have started making shifts in how I teach by implementing strategies that present students with clear evidence of their development. First, I adopted my co-teacher Laurie’s mastery grading policy. As opposed to traditional grading, this standards-based assessment focuses on revision in order to help students understand how and why they are improving as learners.

Secondly, I repeat exercises so students can see how much they’ve grown. I often ask students to answer the same questions at different points throughout the year. For instance, in an elective course about borders and immigration, students repeatedly address the essential question: "What is the purpose of a border, and what has shaped your answer to this question?" Students can see how their thinking changes or becomes increasingly complex.

On the first day of my world history course, I have students write all they know about the history of the world on a blank timeline. Students repeat the activity a few times each month, and they keep their iterations in a personal journal. By comparing their ever-improving timelines to their original versions, students can see their learning in action. These simple strategies illuminate growth, rather than focusing on a series of disconnected grades.

I’ve seen positive results from these pedagogical shifts. Students who otherwise might check out early in the year have shown an increased determination to stick with difficult tasks because they see the results of their hard work. Others are more confident and enthusiastic about learning. I can’t help but smile when I overhear some students say, "This isn’t as hard as I thought!"

A New Approach

I have always tried to be sensitive to the needs of all students. But it took reliving some of my own struggles to deepen my empathy for students who feel a lack of academic belonging.

As a beginning teacher, I used to think that a little healthy competition inspired all students to succeed. Now I believe that this approach can merely reinforce preconceived doubts and lead to academic paralysis.

My hope is that by illuminating growth and diminishing comparison to others, all students, even those who have felt like the worst for years, can discover a renewed passion for learning.

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