Are you teaching to you or to them?

I know you think you’re a good teacher, and maybe you are. After the first couple of years of teaching, I think we all feel like “I got this.”
But I often reflect on Marshall McLuhan’s premise that the “medium is the message” – that the medium used to communicate a message has a distinct affect on the content itself. And in some ways the medium itself becomes the message, drowning out the original.
In a similar manner, it’s hard to take the teacher out of teaching. Your own experiences, your own preferences, and your own learning style can all creep into your teaching over time. Find yourself lecturing a lot? Or using a lot of videos in your lessons? Take a moment and consider whether or not your ‘go to’ instructional techniques are simply reflections of your own learning preferences. If they are, you may need to put yourself in your students shoes for a bit. Ask them how they like to be taught? It could just change your teaching game for good!

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Dear Parent: Let’s Work Together On This

There’s a recent article making the rounds on social media titled, “Dear Parent: I do not plan on disciplining your child.” I get where the author is going. I’ve been that tired teacher…tired of spending so much time on discipline that I couldn’t teach. Ready to quite literally give up on students who seemed to care less about my class. I was that teacher who used to assume that if a student wasn’t taking part in my class, that a.) it was a decision he was making, b.) that it wasn’t my fault but his and c.) that it was personal.  I was that teacher who bought into the ‘Us” vs. “Them” mentality of classroom teachers vs. parents.  

So what changed for me? 

 I did this crazy thing. I started teaching in for an online school. I was a generalist teacher with 60 students. Part of the job required bi-weekly 30-minute phone calls with the student AND the parent. Do the math. By the end of the 36 weeks of school, I spent a total of 9 hours talking to the student and their parents. Nine hours. When was the last time you got to spend more than a 15 minute teacher’s conference with a parent and student?

Do you know what I learned during those 9 hours? I learned that…

  • …sometimes they’d stopped working because they were sick, sad, or clinically depressed
  • …sometimes they had very little stability in their lives, being shuffled from one living situation to another
  • …sometimes they just didn’t understand why what they were to learn was important
  • …sometimes they weren’t working because the lessons plain stunk! 

Most importantly, I learned that the worst way to get a student to engage in my course was to give up on him and make it a “me vs. you” thing.  I assumed there was a problem preventing them from engaging before accusing them of being lazy. I looked for ways I could help a child struggling with a difficult life situation.  I looked for ways to connect what they were learning to things that were important to them.  I created alternate lessons for them to better match their learning style and interests.  And most importantly, I engaged students better when I engaged the parents better…as partners.  

Here’s my letter to the parent of that same disengaged kid from the Ed Week article.

Dear Parent,

It was Einstein who said that we cannot teach people, but instead provide conditions in which people can learn and grow. I’ve noticed that your son is not engaging in class, and therefore not working. Is there anything wrong that might explain his behavior? Or do you think he is making a decision to not take part in learning? I’m hoping we can work together to make sure he has the best chance of success in our classroom. Let me explain how we can collaborate to make this a success.

Your child is not working to his potential, with little effort and participation in class tasks. That’s just not acceptable to me – and I am sure it is not acceptable to you. I plan to do everything I can to make the class fun, interesting and fair. I believe in giving students second (and third) chances, understanding that we all make mistakes. I am not successful unless he is successful – that’s my job.

To be clear, I’m not laying blame on you. I know that students at this age must be held responsible for their actions. We both want what is best for your child – we all have our roles.

The other day I was working in the building on the curriculum, and my substitute was sympathetic with my concern over your child’s lack of motivation to complete the assignment. We agreed that none of us can force others to get their work done. So instead we came up with some ideas – based on what we know about your son – to make the lessons more engaging and related to his interests. This is based on my philosophy of instruction:

The classroom is a place to learn. Teachers are there to create an environment that is safe and conducive to learning. At the same time, I know that learning looks differently for everyone. Some students learn better through listening, others through watching, still others through doing. Some like to learn alone, others in groups. Some need a lot of guidance and structure, while others like to be more open-ended in their learning. In my classroom, I work hard to make the courses fun, engaging, and related to student’s interests and learning styles. I set up my course to encourage hard work, fun, and to help develop students into lifelong learners.

I put in a lot of time and effort in designing my courses to be this way. But I also expect my students to exert the same time and effort into learning. I think that is fair. I try to be a positive role model, and I don’t reprimand or embarrass students. The classroom is a place to be free to see how a decision has natural consequences. Sometimes, the consequence for “not working to potential,” may be failure of the course. I look forward to having the chance to discuss this with you and your son as soon as possible about the implications of not engaging in class. I recognize that children of this age sometimes need guidance since they lack experience.

Your teenage son is in the middle of a wonderful learning opportunity, and I need you as a partner in supporting him to learn and grow, as Einstein asserts. I’m doing all I can to lead all of my children to learning, but I can use your help and suggestions if what I’m trying is not working. Please know that I will always be there in the classroom to offer stimulating learning opportunities and provide support, knowing that the reward for your son could be the experience he needs to do great things.

Thank you for your time,
Rob Letcher

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