The following is a reflection I wrote for a professional development class. Figured I might as well hit two birds with one stone and post it on a blog.
On when I knew I wanted to be a teacher
I first knew I might become a teacher when I was working as a teacher assistant in college. Grading papers, getting asked by peers whether I was teacher, it felt cool. When grading papers was my only responsibility, it seemed kind of fun. Now I hate it. Later on, when I started coaching basketball, I got fired up on education and working with young people.
On my early experiences as a teacher
The summer before my first year I was preparing to teach by trying to write out all of my lecture notes. I had no idea what it meant to be a teacher or what it would be like. The first two weeks were a disaster. Vivid memories of bombing a 70 minute class, sweating and nervous. It was overwhelming. It wasn’t until the following year when I really felt comfortable in calling myself a “real” teacher.
On the problem of educational inequity
I believe educational inequality exists partly because we try to force a one-size-fits-all approach onto the entire system. Students have different needs, different desires and different perspectives on the world. We give everyone in the state the same standardized test and declare half the state “above average” and the other half “below average.”
The differences in educational attainment across society are pretty much lined up to socioeconomic differences. The problem of poverty is multifaceted and has numerous effects. Our education system is unmoved by these differences. The same approach is supposed to work for everyone (and perhaps this is the noble goal of public education).
Problem is that it’s harder to instill “behavior management” in a low-income classroom (behavior management being the necessary vehicle to instill a standardized education). Therefore teachers get frustrated and leave more often. Thus, the students don’t trust their teachers and are less likely to develop bonds, feel safe, take risks, and grow.
Money and resources are problems. But declaring this monolithic thing “education” and forcing it on different types of people…there are always going to be inequalities.
My theory of learning
I think real learning happens when a person finds it personally meaningful. Day after day, students are forced to complete mindless assignments that don’t have any importance on their lives, and probably never will. When I was growing up, I completed all my assignments because I had to, and developed a compulsive need to “get it done.” Most of the time I didn’t think twice about what I was doing. I rushed through to get it done at the last minute and moved on to the next thing. It wasn’t until college that I found something academic I wanted to learn (because it became personally meaningful). So I learned it. Then I taught that subject and learned twice as much about it.
How this affects students in school
Students don’t care about 90% of what they’re told to do in school. As a result, they are going to forget 90% of what they’re supposedly learning in school. They’ll retain some basic skills, no doubt. But really, they are trapped in a coercive system where they must follow the orders of adults and complete a bunch of paperwork to graduate. Best case scenario, someone gets fired up on a certain subject area — maybe it’s math, maybe it’s science, maybe it’s English or an elective — and are inspired to pursue it more on their own. That, and the relationships, are what ends up mattering in our schools. Everything else is just a game played for upward social mobility.
On teaching successfully
If a student leaves my class inspired to work with the subject matter on their own, I have succeeded, because I have presented or articulated the material in a way that personally connected to the student. In my economics class, I can be successful if a student puts lessons into action in the real world. I just talked to two former students, one has already started a 401k because he learned the power of compound interest, the other one bought a cheap used car instead of a new one, to avoid a car payment. In both of those cases, the lessons made an impact because the material mattered to their lives.
That’s easy with lessons on personal finance taught to seniors in high school. How do you do the same thing with algebra? With reading novels? With chemistry? My own solution is that students should have some control over what they learn. If you force a student to read something they don’t want to read, most of the time they end up copying someone else’s answers. Or failing. You can be as inspirational as you want, you’re not going to find 32 kids in a class who all want to learn the same thing at the same time. Even if you can convince them all to do the work, it won’t matter if they don’t care. Because they won’t retain, or be able to apply, any of the material. For every example of a student who’s saving for retirement at age 19, there’s another one who got an ‘A’ on the personal finance test and then bought an iPhone X on credit.
You can encourage and you can inspire and you can facilitate another person’s learning. You can’t create a pre-packaged “curriculum” and force it into everyone’s head.
My approach to teaching
I suppose the most important thing that a teacher can do is make their subject matter relevant to the lives of the students. That’s my approach. Try to sell it, make it meaningful, and provide opportunities to explore and learn and grow within the subject matter. In history, that’s thinking critically about social events and making arguments. My job is to gather material, prepare activities and provide feedback and encouragement as they develop those skills.
In terms of behavior management I try to create a safe place for people to pursue that learning. You can never force someone to care or put in their full effort — but you can keep them from distracting others and hurting the learning atmosphere of the class.
I believe that this positive approach is, in the grand scheme of things, better than the drill sergeant approach, which may cause more students to answer more multiple choice questions correctly, but which does not promote applied understanding or inspire a love of learning.