Yesterday I found out that today would be my last Writing Development class at HGSE. I mildly flipped. Okay fine, I just flipped. I really loved this class. I learned so much, but one of the main things I learned from this class and from Jenny Thomson’s Reading Difficulties class is that you don’t have to be intimidating to inspire hard work. Or, the way a teacher approaches my work really affects the way I work.
Does this make sense? Let me backtrack.
One of my favorite classes in high school was with Ms. Klein. She was a tough woman and her reputation was that of a tough-grading feminist. She was awesome and I learned so much. I was deathly afraid of her piercing green eyes but over time recognized that she was just as passionate about us as she was about literature and writing. Because she was so tough, I felt all the more gratified by that B+ or A- than I did by an A from other English teachers.
I think something about this rubbed off on me. As a teacher, I wanted to be real with my kids and not just compliment them on effort but to push them to great writing that they could achieve (if they stopped being weenies!). I thought of my scary bio, chem, and math professors and subconsciously, I assumed that acknowledging a tough subject matter is serious by also being tough and serious when approaching the subject would really inspire and encourage students when they conquered such subjects! I can see how this isn’t totally off, but this year, I discovered something different.
This year, I think, was the first time where I physically panicked over a paper, and this was the first time where I really felt like I was faking my way through certain topics (more about this later). My teachers were far from harsh, but they weren’t necessarily soft and chummy.
I wouldn’t say Jenny and Christina are soft and chummy either. However, they did have a way of making their materials approachable. For example, in Reading Difficulties (with Jenny), I never feel stressed. I was learning about stuff I’ve never even tried to approach before (i.e. brain stuff, dyslexia stuff, assessment acronym stuff). But the way she conducted office hours was in a very understanding way – she acted like my ideas are good and I felt confident in my work. Sometimes my grade was good, sometimes it was not. Regardless, I still felt good and still felt able to go and talk to her about it, and I realized that the work I gave her was actually good work.
Same thing goes for Christina’s Writing Development class. She doesn’t go for this intimidating, “let me establish myself as a knowledgeable teacher,” but she acknowledges what we bring to the table. Her and Beth’s (the Teaching Fellow) comments on my writing has been the sweetest, most sincere words I have ever received and they made me want to think and write and respond more — which is what teachers should be inspiring in their students anyway!
You don’t have to make a feat appear great just so that kids feel great after accomplishing the feat. If the purpose is to learn something, then we should make it easy to learn it. If the purpose is to teach the kid to persevere, then let the kid know that this about teaching him/her perseverance, not necessarily the topic at hand! (This epiphany came from another wonderful class with Vicki Jacobs).
I remember a class where although I respected the teacher, I hated to ask questions, I felt overwhelmed, and when I left the class, I realized that YES I had learned a lot, but it wasn’t a gratifying experience. I got sick. I felt sick. I was scared for the full class, hoping she wouldn’t call on me. Everyone else acted like they knew what they were doing – we all did. It cultivated a classroom of pretend.
I know we don’t want to coddle students, and we want to teach them to live in the real world, but really, also part of it is making sure they learn. Why make it harder emotionally or mentally when the final output is just as good or even better if we give the students the confidence that they do know what they’re talking about and their thoughts and questions are just as valid as the ones we present?
I don’t want my future students to scramble unless the purpose of my lesson is to teach them to scramble (in which case I would let them know that yes, they are scrambling, but they’re supposed to be). Does this make sense? No more surprises, mystery, or posturing. There’s other ways to maintain order in the classroom and inspire great accomplishments.
“I used to think that to validate students and to inspire in students a sense of accomplishment, you needed to give them large, slightly intimidating goals. But now I think that being open, understanding, and providing positive, encouraging feedback does not communicate a “this is an easy class” vibe but actually empowers students to accomplish more.”