Thursday, January 3, 2013

Are You Challenging My Teaching?

1. Throwing the challenge flag is a good thing in the classroom.
As a younger teacher, I sometimes found myself intimidated when students would challenge material I presented them in class. Students did not confront me often, but that was not a reflection of the "truth" that I spoke every day. It was a reflection of the timid nature of my kids and a lack of their inquisitive drive to challenge their teacher. Veteran teachers will tell you that students would challenge them more often years ago- and somehow I think we have lost that in schools today. Teachers should welcome this dialogue from students.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post for East Leyden Principal, Jason Markey's learn365 blog. You can find it here:
In the blog, I referenced a quote that a colleague said about our Leyden students six years ago. The quote was, "Leyden students may not be the smartest, most creative or even the most athletic, but they will run through a wall for you if you ask them to do something." I thought overall, my colleague's assessment was complimentary in nature. But in sharing my blog post with my some of my students, one of my kids challenged this quotation in an email to me that night. With his permission, below is the text of what he wrote me-

"Mr. Sharos, I just wanted to randomly comment on one thing. Without a doubt, I think that person who told you Leyden kids are not the "smartest" was 100% wrong.... All those other schools with higher ACT averages do NOT have smarter kids. They just happen to have kids that were given more opportunities to learn in their lives - not in the classroom, but through their educated parents, through their environment, and through the culture in which they were raised. All Leyden kids have the same potential as "them". We were just born into a different zip code. The Leyden kids that have been able to use our outstanding teachers and tools to become the ones scoring 4s or 5s on AP tests or above average ACT scores are the smartest ones in my mind. They learned to overcome their poisonous environment to compete with those that have been spoon-fed all their lives, so to speak. As for everyone else, it may take longer or more effort, but they possess the same potential to be just as successful as the "smartest" kids in the nation.... Just my personal thoughts."

I was so struck by his email, I actually got off my IPhone and logged on to my computer so I could read the entire thing on a bigger screen. And while this student really wasn't challenging me or my opinion (because I agree with everything he said), I enjoyed seeing some push-back and some reaction from one of my kids. Our job as educators is to encourage students to challenge the status quo, to question the presentation, and to arrive at their own opinions on how history, literature, and scientific theory unfolded. This particular student will never need me to encourage him to do these things- but many of our students do need us to foster an environment of inquiry and challenge. 

2. New teacher training should encourage ingenuity, not uniformity.
The pressure to perform "the job," -you know, meeting specific learning targets during a lesson, fulfilling all the departmental mandates or responsibilities, and teaching towards a common curriculum- can sometimes mask our personal talents that we bring to the classroom.

New teacher training programs seek to provide structure in the classroom for the teacher and the student, but can often produce "droid" teachers. Every day, they begin class with a seven minute warm up activity. They follow that activity with a short presentation of content. They direct students to an activity that relates to the content. They hand out an exit slip. They collect the exit slip. They explain the homework for the next day. Thank God it's over!

But what happens when that new teacher is 5, 10 or 15 years into his/her career? When do we as school leaders encourage that teacher towards creative lesson design that doesn't necessarily follow the cookie cutter Harry Wong, "Model of the Well Managed Classroom."
If we do not encourage risk taking and creativity right away, when do teachers know that it is acceptable not to be a "droid?" Some of the best teacher's I have worked with just do things differently-which leads me to the last thing I know is true...

3. Every school needs first year teachers, but successful schools will go as far as the veterans will take them.
A few days ago, I wrote about the merits of first year teachers and how much they contribute to the positive culture of a school building. In fairness to that post, I also believe that veteran teachers play a crucial role in shaping the direction and the ultimate success of schools. We in the Twitterverse and Blogosphere are generally in the first halves of our careers and are progressive enough to stay current with the shock waves that travel through education. But how about our colleague across the hall that still uses a text book and doesn't own a cell phone?

Veteran teachers transcend us. Their longevity in the building alone should shape our understanding of school culture. Their experience in the classroom should be shared and modeled in front of our younger staff. Their advice should always be taken seriously. Their crusty methods, (gasp), might actually work. Veteran teachers establish the heartbeat of a building. If their resolve is still strong and their passion is still alive- they have the power to drive a successful school. Let us not shelf, but celebrate our veteran teachers...and happy first year of retirement, Dad- after 37 years of teaching- you deserve it.

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