reflective teaching

A Teacher’s Daily Moment of Gratitude

I’m grateful for the way my seventh and eighth grade students smile back at me as I greet them at the door of my classroom. Many of them even ask how my day is going. Surprisingly few give me the stereotypical adolescent scowl that one might imagine on the faces of middle school students.

Lately I’ve being trying to be mindful of the fact that my students will generally reciprocate the same attitude that I project upon them. This is not the case for all of my students, but it honestly is the truth for the vast majority. Sometimes it’s easy for me to fixate on the negative behaviors and attitudes of a mere handful of students, when I should be focused on the overwhelming number of students I have who truly want to give their best effort.

Accepting Vulnerability As An Educator

I had one foot out the door, sunglasses and beach hat in tow (parka, umbrella, and rain boots would be more accurate in my neck of the woods). The relaxation and rejuvenation that spring break would bring rested lightly on my mind. That was right before I found out that the week following spring break, one of my lessons would be observed by an entourage of people, including: four of my fellow teachers, two school administrators, who knows how many people from the district office, and a formative assessment educator. I won’t hesitate to admit that I was (and still am) scared.

My first instinct was to find a way to get out of the whole thing. After all, it isn’t a required observation. Then my thought process shifted to the idea that if I couldn’t get out of the observation, how I might go about getting a different class period to be observed. There are always classes that function more smoothly than others for any given number of reasons, and the particular class that is scheduled to be observed is not—to put it bluntly— my most smoothly running class period of the day. I spent several days contemplating how I might better adjust circumstances to benefit me and shed the best light on my practice before I finally internalized and accepted the importance of vulnerability and transparency as an educator.

I am wracked with anxiety at the thought of having at least ten sets of eyes watch my every move. I feel like my students and I will be specimens in a fishbowl. It’s humbling to have your performance as an educator assessed. But at the same time, all of the professionals who will be observing me have valuable insights, wisdom, and feedback to give. If I am willing to be transparent, humble, and accepting of constructive criticism, I have the potential of improving my practice in ten different ways. And, by the same token, if putting myself out on the line for one class period means that other educators can benefit from what I do well in the classroom, as well as areas that I have yet to improve on, then my observation means that we can grow as a community of educators. This not only strengthens our skills as professionals, it benefits the students that we are responsible for educating. These professionals are there to help me, to support me, and to grow as educators themselves. We are a team with the best interests of students at heart.

Ultimately, I have decided to accept this position of vulnerability with good faith that to be vulnerable is to open myself up to becoming the best educator I can be. Am I afraid that I will trip over my own feet, become tongue tied, or look foolish in front of my colleagues? Yes, I am. The risk, however, is worth the potential outcome.

Mean Teacher Confronts The Desktop Graffiti Bandit

Five or six of my seventh grade students huddled around me, sweet expressions of sincere concern etched across their faces.  “You are definitely not a mean teacher, Ms. C.,” they chorused as we stood together examining the writing that had been scrawled across one of the desktops.

I’ve certainly seen harsher words than “mean teacher” written by middle school students, but still, my feelings were hurt.  My initial reaction was to have the office summon the student from the class that he was currently in so that I could interrogate him and make him confess to what he had done.  What was he thinking?  Did he not realize that I would easily be able to figure out who had written the offensive remark?  Seventh graders do not keep secrets.  Wasn’t he aware that his peers would immediately tell me?  My initial reaction was defensiveness. 

Realizing that my first reaction is not always the best one to act on, I stopped myself from responding immediately to my student’s negative behavior.  Instead, I casually wiped the desk clean, thanked my fourth period students for their expressions of support, and moved on with my lesson. 

I continued to think about what could have caused my student to react so negatively toward me.  As I worked to recollect my interactions with him during the previous class period, I remembered him bringing his writing sample to my desk, as all students were instructed to do when they had completed their final draft.  The school district that I work for requires middle school students to complete a writing sample of their best work, and they ask that teachers do not provide guidance so that the samples will be authentic assessments of the writing that students are capable of constructing independently. 

My student had brought his writing to me and wanted me to read it.  I told him that I could not give feedback on it until it was assessed by the district office, but he still insisted that I read it.  (It’s important for me to mention that I was simultaneously trying to reply to the email of a concerned parent, answer the questions of a small group of students who had gathered around my desk, and now read the writing sample of the afore mentioned Desktop Graffiti Bandit.)  I skimmed his writing sample without giving his writing the consideration that it deserved.  I don’t remember the exact comment that I made, but I am certain that it was not thoughtful or substantive enough to merit the time and care that he had put into his writing.  I was a mean teacher.

He was clearly proud of what he had written or he would not have placed such importance on me reading it, especially since I wasn’t the one who would be assessing it.  It’s true that I couldn’t give him a list of suggestions for how to revise and edit his paper, but what my student wanted from me wasn’t feedback over how to improve his writing.  He wanted to know that I appreciated his work, his effort, and his voice.  Instead, I was distracted by trivial details that stopped me from being present for my student. 

The writing on the desktop was starting to make sense.  He was making a blatant statement that went something like: You don’t want to give my writing the consideration it deserves?  Then perhaps you will pay attention to the writing on this desk.  It was an intentional effort to grab my attention.  His negative behavior was most certainly his attempt to communicate a need, a need that I had clearly failed to meet.

He could have internalized his frustration at my insensitivity.  This is what the vast majority of students would have done; most would not have acted out in such an overtly defiant way. Of course I do not feel that students should regularly scrawl negative comments across desktops as a way to express their feelings.   However, his message was clearly one that I needed to receive and one that I might have failed to realize if it had not been presented to me in such an obvious way.

I mulled the incident over for much of the evening and came to school this morning prepared to handle the situation in a different way than I might have if I had reacted immediately after my discovery of the writing on the desktop.  I found my student in the hall before first period and brought him into my classroom for a one-one-one conversation.  I apologized for not taking the time to read his writing and give him the response that he deserved the previous day.  I told him that I had taken time to read his writing when I could focus on it in a quiet, distraction-free space and that I really appreciated the beautiful imagery and feeling that his words had evoked.  His countenance immediately lightened, and the sense of pride in his eyes was unmistakable.  I also reassured him that I wasn’t out for vengeance on the Desktop Graffiti Bandit but that I was more concerned about making sure that my students’ needs were being met so they wouldn’t feel inclined to write on my desktops.  Then I dropped it. 

Third period rolled around, and my student’s disposition had been completely altered.  He was more sunny and upbeat than I have seen him in months.  He was communicative and eager to assist me in any and every little task that I had on hand. 

This incident taught me several important lessons:  First, it’s easy to get caught up with rules, procedures, and trivial distractions and lose sight of what really matters—being present and available in the moment for the students who depend on me.  Second, the power of apology and attempting to rectify the situation when a student’s feelings have been hurt is huge.  Third, there are multiple ways to address a student’s negative behavior, and sometimes kindness, communication, and acknowledgement are more powerful than the administration of justice.