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[Cross-posted at The Cornerstone Blog]

Can one student threaten the stability of an entire classroom and prevent a teacher from being effective?

Is it possible to bridge the gap for EVERY child?

How can teachers and students keep from drowning in the sea of distractions that compromise learning each day?

These were the questions I was wrestling with during the four-hour drive to Orlando last month for the 2009 ASCD conference. A special group of students were weighing heavily on my heart…the ones who just can’t seem to experience a consistent measure of success in any area. Even though it’s springtime, adhering to the well-established group norms has proven too great a challenge because of the extensive issues these children bring into the classroom: learning disabilities, emotional impairments, social difficulties resulting from bizarre and dangerous home situations, and personal wounds that run far too deep for my comprehension.

Every teacher has these students, and those in high-poverty schools usually have the most. The neediness of these children wears us down, their lack of progress causes burn out, and their unresponsiveness to traditional teaching methods makes us feel like educational failures.

I kept these children—and their loving, frustrated teachers—in the forefront of my mind as I chose conference sessions. Sure, I’d love to attend a workshop on 25 new strategies for teaching vocabulary, but I don’t NEED that. What I need is strategies for helping special needs students (diagnosed or not) attend to my present variety of otherwise effective lessons instead of constantly sabotaging them. What can I do to keep ‘Jose’ from banging his head on his desk and sobbing every time he gets a wrong answer? How can I help ‘Sara’ compromise when doing cooperative work, instead of resorting to violence or a string of four letter words whenever her partner expresses disagreement? Is there some way I can convince ‘Deshaun’ that he’s a capable reader so he’ll stop defiantly tuning out before I can even explain the assignments?

An outside observer might have noticed only the slightest continuity between my session choices: neuroscience and its implications for learning, personal efficacy, strategies for challenging students, successful traits of high-poverty schools, using rap to teach literacy skills, alternatives to suspension, and incorporating humor in the classroom. However, each session I attended was a deliberate choice that brought me one step closer to answering my own essential question: How can we as teachers have the fortitude to continue reaching out for the unreachable?

I mulled over several important understandings garnered from my conversations, studies, and reflections during the conference weekend and the weeks that followed:

-The opportunity for students to actively construct knowledge MUST take precedence over the need to cover curriculum. Not in theory, in DAILY practice. Learning takes place through personal involvement and discussion, and attending this conference shamed me into realizing that I simply MUST let my students TALK. Conversing with other conference attendees (and synthesizing what I learned via the internet for those who weren’t present) made the greatest lasting impact on my own learning: why would this not hold true for students? As a teacher, I cannot afford to skip this step, cutting off children’s discussions in an attempt to impart a few more facts before the hour is up. I am now focused on going narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow, and I am consciously slowing down my instruction so that kids can share more. I am choosing to forgo the whirlwind review of an entire page of problems so I can allow my students to actively reflect on the strategies they used for the first few. I’ve always known this is best practice, but allowed myself to be intimidated by the sheer amount of curriculum I’m expected to teach. The increased student involvement I’m seeing confirms that I should have prioritized my kids’ need to interact many years ago. I’m also establishing a deeper personal connection with my most challenging students, and forging a greater bond with those children that I simply had not listened to enough.

-It seems like teaching is getting harder because it IS: we’re attempting to reach more kids than we used to, and address a wider variety of issues and needs. It’s critical for educators to understand the magnitude of what we’re attempting without letting the results overwhelm us. Low-performing students from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and those with learning problems are no longer siphoned off into special education classrooms while we wait for them to drop out. As much as we bemoan the pitfalls of NCLB, in our daily practice we are in fact attempting to leave no child behind—not even the ones who WANT to be left to their own devices, or who don’t have the cognitive or emotional capabilities to try. And the 3 R’s are just the tip of the 21st century iceberg: we want our kids to graduate with technological and communication skills, well-developed creativity, interactive problem-solving abilities, financial savvy, an applied understanding of personal health and nutrition, environmental awareness…and the list is growing every year. We are trying to do it all, and we’re expected to succeed. Yet we cannot become discouraged when our students, our administrators, or we ourselves fail to achieve an increasingly impossible mission. When teachers become overwhelmed, the cycle of learning and growth is stopped cold.

-Students from impoverished backgrounds and those with other learning challenges can be reached, but their success is most dependent upon the fostering of a personal and collective vision within the school community. Are high behavioral expectations and consistently-enforced disciplinary actions important? Yes. Should there be strong administrative leadership with substantial teacher input? Definitely. Do we need ongoing school-wide activities that build a sense of pride and accountability in students? Of course. Other measures such as school uniforms and single gender classrooms also frequently contribute to success. But there must be a pervasive shift in perception amongst faculty and students if significant and lasting improvement is to take hold. Everyone involved must develop both the desire and plan for mastery and personal efficacy. Without a vision, the sense of purpose becomes lost among the innumerable day-to-day problems that exist in a high-poverty school.

All of the other issues on the table pale in comparison to this single truth. The commitment to a personal vision is what ensures success and brings both the teacher and student back into the classroom each day. And while it’s critical to create buy-in among students, the concept of a personal vision must originate within the teacher. It is the teacher who creates the classroom environment and community, and so it is the teacher who holds real power for systemic change.

I am convinced that the key to personal efficacy, effectiveness, and longevity in the classroom has more to do with a teacher’s internal state of mind than any outside attribute. Efficacy is impossible when a teacher is distracted by personal issues, taking offense at student misbehavior, holding onto grudges against administration, and constantly judging parents for the way students are raised. These poisonous attitudes will slowly destroy a teacher’s vision…and the phenomenon is pervasive. Even the most self-aware amongst us fall prey.

There are certain internal attributes–a mindset for successful teaching–that must be developed for a teacher to be effective for any sustained amount of time. Now more than ever, I attribute my own success to these unarticulated traits and trace my shortcomings back to the attributes that I have not sufficiently developed. This visionary mindset is the key to avoiding burn out and staying motivated…and of course, to getting even the most challenging students to become motivated and engaged in the learning process.

My time at the ASCD conference reinforced the inestimable value of interaction and discussion that makes every in-class moment dedicated to those activities worthy of the investment. And it solidified my belief that social media tools are astoundingly powerful and almost fundamentally important ways for educators to connect with one another and extend their learning. To an increasing extent, this holds true for students as well. But most importantly, attending this conference caused me to reflect on personal efficacy. It has triggered a desire to learn more about the mindset of successful teachers and to help other educators find and sustain their personal vision.

What IS the mindset of a successful teacher? How can educators create a personal vision? What keeps you going back in the classroom day after day even when faced with insurmountable odds? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

More of my reflections on the 2009 ASCD conference, including notes from 3 of my favorite sessions:
ASCD Summary Part 1: Observations and Analysis
Notes on Pushing the Effects of Poverty Out of the Classroom
Notes on Maintaining Efficacy in Difficult Situations
Notes on Teaching Strategies That Reach Challenging Students
My notes from all sessions

2 Responses to “ASCD Summary Part 2: Personal Reflections on Learning”

  1. So well said and so thoughtful. There are so many good thoughts in here it will take me awhile to shift through all of them. Thanks for the great post!

  2. [...] ASCD Summary Part 2: Personal Reflections on Learning [...]

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