I’m not typically one of those people who needs to be validated by others in order to feel confident in who I am and what I’m doing; however, over the past couple weeks, I’ll admit to being a little downhearted. I don’t know about you, but I get like that sometimes. My marking begins to collect faster than I can get it back to students; I get bogged down in the paperwork; I put too much stock in the politics and standardized tests; I get depressed that the technology I want is inaccessible; I lose sight of the reason I wanted to teach in the first place–to make a difference in the lives of my students–and focus on all the reasons why I feel I can’t make a difference. These dark times don’t often last very long, and all it takes is a day like today to snap me out of my funk and remind me that teachers really do make a difference in the lives of their students.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to briefly share my day with you. I began the day at Sexsmith Secondary School in Alberta. As part of my ELA coaching position, I was asked to judge the school’s first poetry recitation competition. There were two levels, one for jr high and one for sr high. I was blown away. Memorization isn’t something I’ve required of my students before, though I offer it as an option in a couple of units. Watching these students today was inspiring and made me want to push my own students out of their comfort zone a bit. It was easy to see that the teachers at SSS are pushing their kids and the kids are thriving. It was validating for me to see that other teachers are continuing to sail out of the harbour and take some risks, and their kids are right out there beside them.
Next up was my own ELA 10-1 and 10-2 combined class. I didn’t know if I’d make it back for the beginning of this class after the poetry competition, so I lined up another teacher to cover my class during her prep. (That cooperation was validation of its own–I love my school, colleagues, and students!) However, I did make it back in time, only to have this teacher offer to sit in with my class anyways. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and set aside my plans for the day in order to talk one-on-one with each of my students. It was a great experience. I let the students know upfront that the conversation was not because I had any particular issues to discuss, but rather that I wanted to give them each a private forum to voice their concerns and opinions about the course so far. These conversations reminded me that each of my students is an individual: I had varying comments on different issues, ranging across the spectrum of possibilities. For instance, workload was a hot topic for some, feeling that I expected too much, while others were content with the expectations, and some felt like they could certainly handle more. This was a great reminder of one of my goals for this term, which was to bring a deeper individualization to my courses. It was also validating to hear that my students were unanimously appreciating the “book club” feel that I am attempting to bring to the course, where we are much more conversation oriented as we study texts. They enjoy the critical thinking inherent in this framework, and many of the students mentioned they were much more engage despite harbouring a distinct disliking of ELA in general. It also deeply moved me that each student willingly shared their ideas and opinions with me, something I was a little wary about when I decided to hijack these 84 minutes today. (By the way, when they weren’t talking with me, students appreciated the time to work on a couple of the tasks we have on the go.)
Finally, I had my junior high drama option for the last two periods of the day. I’ve decided to take a different approach to this course this year, bringing a “short film” focus to the term. I’ve done this for a variety of reasons and have heard a variety of opinions from students and parents about the decision to do so. But this isn’t the point. Suffice it to say, the goal is that each student will create a short film on a topic of their choice, in a genre of their choice, by the end of the term, and we will present these in our own film festival. Over the past couple of classes students have been creating the plot and point of their short film. Last class we began to peer review the stories they’ve written. Today I wanted to introduce them to the notion of critique. We talked about the differences between critique and criticize. We talked about the life applications of learning how to provide critique to others, as well as accept the critique of others. I began the critiquing session by sharing my own ideas for my own short film. And the students amazed me. They asked smart questions for clarification, mentioned positives in my ideas, but more importantly they offered polite suggestions for how I might go about improving my idea. It was validating to hear them interacting as I had hoped, but feared to expect. This continued beautifully through student volunteers who shared their project ideas with the class, faltering only slightly as a grade 7 boy decided to persistently question his older sister. All in all it was a great end to a great day.
Sometimes we teachers can get so caught up in all the responsibilities of teaching that we forget our number one priority needs to be our students. Luckily, we can’t ever escape these same students, and it won’t be long before they remind us that we do make a difference in their lives. At that point it’s up to us to decide whether we will have a negative or a positive difference. That’s certainly an easy decision to make; we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we weren’t always striving to better the lives of the kids we love.