What’s it take for good teaching to happen?   I think good teaching happens when teachers connect to their students and when teachers get their students to connect to the subject matter (Parker J. Palmer, 2007). For me my best teaching moments happen when my students and I connect on a person to person level. Let me explain what I mean.

As some of you might know, I’ve been a special ed teacher for a long, long, long time- some days it seems longer than others.  Quite a few semesters ago I had these two young lads (I’ll call them Sam and Dwayne)  in my grade nine learning strategies class who were extremely proud of their reputation for being bad. The first few days of the semester, as we were getting to know one another,  Sam and Dwayne told me they had been the best of friends since kindergarten and that they were proud of their reputation for were really bad. They  enthusiastically shared all kinds of stories of what they had done to teachers in the past. Scary, to say the least. Oh, did I mention they told me hated teachers and school?

The first three weeks of the semester did not go well. I  realized Sam and Dwayne could make this class this semester a living hell for me if I didn’t do something fast. They were a very dynamic duo, let me tell you.  I figured although they hated teachers maybe if they got to know me as a person who is a teacher (emphasis on person), things might not go so badly. I often tell my students that teachers are just people who teach. I don’t want them to lose track of the person in the teacher, and I try not to lose track of the person in the student.  I knew I needed to connect to Sam and Dwayne on a person to person level fast.

When I was thinking about strategies I could use to help make that person to person connection between Sam and Dwayne and myself,  the word Scrabble popped into my head. So I took out the Scrabble game, and I sat down at a table between the two of them  and started to set up the Scrabble  game. Sam told me he didn’t play any games with teachers. Oh, great ! Now what.  I just ignored what Sam said, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. Pretending not to hear what Sam had said, I continued to set up the Scrabble game and surprisingly, to me at least, both boys proceeded to play Scrabble with me. I think I told them that day any words they made that were verbs got double points, another day the bonus words might be adjectives or adverbs. I liked using Scrabble to help my student  improve their vocabulary and grammar  skills. We played Scrabble together for part of each class for about eight days and got to know one another as people as we talked about “whatever” during the games. To my relief,  Sam and Dwayne became more and more cooperative in class and d hardly  disruptwd the class. We continued to play Scrabble from time to time throughout the semester because,  as it turned out,  they did like to play Scrabble with a teacher.

Although, I used playing Scrabble to help me make a positive connection with Sam and Dwayne, there are countless other  ways to make positive connections with students. It all depends on the teacher and the students. I like playing Scrabble, so I used playing Scrabble.  I was able to play Scrabble in my learning strategies class because the learning strategy class it isn’t really content driven like my math classes are. If Sam and Dwayne had been in my math class, I would have had to come up with another strategy to use to help me make a positive connection with them.  Making that the positive connection is the important thing. There isn’t just one way to create that positive connection.

From time to time, Sam and Dwayne came back to visit me after graduation  to tell me about the positive things that were going on in their lives now.  I had to chuckle when Dwayne told me during one of these visits  “Miss, I remember one day  in grade nine you just changed  and everything was better after that”. That day was the Day of Scrabble. That day was the day I made a positive connection with Sam and Dwayne.

Resource

I’ve found Parker J. Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach  (1998) very useful in helping me to continue to refine my philosophy of teaching.

 

The Sochi 2014 Winter  Olympics is in day five so there’s lots of talk in the media about what’s going on in the various Winter Olympic sports.  Yesterday I was listening to a local radio station, probably CBC Radio 1,  and I heard a someone ( sorry, didn’t catch the name) say that kids participating in sports and losing can teach kids valuable lessons. The speaker noted not everyone who participates in sports wins, in fact, the vast majority of people who participate in sports lose. He thought losing in sports could help kids learn how to deal with defeat. To be honest, I hadn’t considered participating and losing in sports a learning opportunity- other improving technique, strategy and trying harder. I did think about how losing in sports could teach kids something about entitlement: just because you participate in sports doesn’t entitled you to win.  I don’t think the trend to not keeping score when kids participate in sports and thereby not have winners and losers is especially helpful.  What does it teach kids?  How does that prepare them for life?

I think additional learning opportunities present themselves when  kids participate in sports and lose: kids have the opportunity to develop their emotional intelligence, their  ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Emotional intelligence includes

  •  managing one’s own impulses
  • having empathy for others
  • communicating effectively
  • solving problems
  • using humor to build rapport
  • remaining optimistic in spite of stresses
  • managing change

What’s the big deal about high emotional intelligence? Why is emotional intelligence worth developing? Individuals with high emotional intelligence are able to make better choices for better consequences in life and at work and are better able to achieve a balance between work, home and recreational life.

As I write this post, I’m beginning to see the teaching opportunity I’d have and the learning opportunity my students would have when they  lose or for that matter when they win when participating in sports. I could help them develop their emotional intelligence. I could help my students who win become more empathetic toward my students who lose. I think I could help my students learn to manage their own impulses, remain optimistic in spite of losing, and so on.

Maybe other losses students experience could also be teaching and learning opportunities.  I guess the thing is someone has to be there when students experience losses and help them deal with their  losses in such a way as to strengthen their emotional intelligence. I want my students to be able to take something positive away from any losses they experience. I want my students to be able to make the best possible choices for the best possible outcomes in their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

Given that school is about to start up again, I thought it useful to repost this article about using 21st century students’ expectations to inform our teaching practices.

Usually during the summer break after I’ve been away from the craziness of the June classroom for a while, a good long while, I begin to reflect on my teaching practice for the previous year. Usually this reflection includes reflecting on expectations, mine and my students. I want to be sure my expectations are reasonable given the nature of the changing 21st century classroom and students. I’ve taught for 30 years so some things have really changed and some haven’t. Today, I’m reflecting on things my students have told me they expect from teachers that really have nothing to do with cell phones, ipads, tablets etc or the 21st century. Students have told me they would like teachers to

  • not abuse their power and order students around as if they control their lives;
  • respect students personal lives and not bug them about personal things that are none of their business;
  • not yell at students because that just makes them mad and not want to listen;
  • not talk about themselves all the time and show that they’re smarter than students are because students find it discouraging;
  • not treat students like they don’t know anything;
  • have respect for students no matter what they’ve have done before;
  • listen to both sides of the story;
  • be equally fair to all students;
  • try to help all students have the best results in class;
  • give less homework because it is hard to do homework by themselves if they cannot ask the teacher;
  • give more free time in class to do homework;
  • give less homework because it is boring and takes away from time with family and friends;
  • let students eat in class because sometimes they are hungry in class and can’t stay awake in class;
  • not give homework before the holidays;
  • let students listen to music while working in class;
  • let students watch videos in class and not have to write about them;
  • to want students to pass their classes;
  • to be helpful, respectful, and fun to be around.

Basically students want teachers to respect them, but then of course teachers want students to respect them, too. Respect is a two way street that is constantly under construction. My students’ expectations help inform my teaching practice and enables me to create an inviting classroom where my students and I can do our best.

You might want to ask your students to tell you what they expect from teachers. I found students are not shy about revealing their expectations. The expectations also make good starting points for discussions.

Doing well in school and in life depends on more than a high IQ. I’ve taught students who have had a range of IQ’s. Not all my students who scored high on IQ tests did well in school. Not all adults I know who are really IQ “smart” have lived up to their potential either. High IQ is not sufficient for success in school or in life. I tried to help my students in my Learning Strategies Class to understand this and would teach a unit about characteristics of successful people.   We’d  read about  successful people to determine the  characteristics they shared. I’d like to thank Angela Lee Duckworth  (TED talk below) for sharing her research findings that grit is a significant predictor of success. She defines grit as the

passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Grit certainly could explain why some people who had the misfortune of being born into dire circumstances are able to rise above everything to do well in school and in life. (There I go again, wanting to challenge the definition of the good life by quoting Socrates’ and other philosophers’ definition of a good life- one of my last courses was a philosophy course and it’s still fresh in my mind.) Of course grit isn’t a sufficient condition for success either. It’s a necessary condition. Things such as having emotional support are necessary  for success as well.

When I ask my students what they think success is, many say having lots of money. The more money you have, the more successful you are. Sad.  But, that’s a whole other topic.  Even making lots of money usually takes grit.

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