Lessons From The Front Of The Classroom

Recently I finished my third and last year teaching English and writing at a public charter school.  Before that, I spent two semesters + a summer session teaching at a big state university.  Over these last four years, I fell in love with teaching more than I could have thought possible, especially considering it wasn’t a clearly defined career goal for me before actually doing it, and while I will not teach in a public school again until some major changes are made, I have a hard time imagining staying away from the classroom forever.

There is an old cliche that teachers use sometimes about their students teaching them, and it’s definitely true.  Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned at the front of the classroom.

How To Speak In Front Of A Crowd

I’m naturally a quiet, introverted person, and I’ve long had an intense fear of public speaking; any presentations I gave in high school and college were red-faced and stammering.  The first time I ever taught a class (a 200-level fiction workshop at the aforementioned state university), I was 25 and so nervous that I could not force myself to smile on that first day.  Who knew what those poor students thought of me.  However, within a few class periods I had loosened up (a passion for the subject matter definitely helped!), and over the years it’s gotten easier and easier to where I am totally comfortable addressing a class-sized crowd of 30-ish people or less (whether it be students, coworkers, parents, or anyone else).  There have been times where I’ve had to talk in front of a much larger crowd for my job– briefly addressing hundreds of people at school assemblies and the like– and that still is uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for me, but is getting better.

Most recently, the seniors at my school asked me to be the faculty speaker at their graduation, and I agreed.  My delivery wasn’t perfect and I was still very nervous,  but I managed to get through it calmly, speak slowly, and even smiled a few times.  No red face, either.  That definitely wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

How To Discipline With Empathy

Going from teaching college to high school was an interesting experience– I had absorbed and fully believed in the tough-guy-takes-no-bullshit professor persona that you can get away with in college classes.  Didn’t do the assignment?  You get a zero.  Missed too many days?  You fail the class.  No, you can’t argue your way out of it, and there’s no appeals process.

I still believe in setting and sticking to tough parameters and holding students to high standards, but I figured out pretty quick that being overly rigid with teenagers usually does more harm than good.  Teens have a tendency to give up on themselves if they’re (metaphorically) beaten down too much, and I found that high standards and discipline with a heavy dose of understanding and encouragement were much more effective.  I feel like dealing with teenagers on an almost-daily basis fort three years has taught me tons of lessons that will come in handy in the future event that I find myself with kids of my own, and this is one of the top ones.

How To Be A Better Writer

Grammar is a tricky thing.  For most of us who spent our childhoods with our faces buried constantly in books, writing comes naturally– it’s something I’ve always been good at without having to think too much.  However, being good at something doesn’t mean you know the technical terms for what you’re doing or can explain it to anyone else.  I’m sure my teachers taught me grammar at some point in my education, but the rules never really stuck… until I had to teach them.

By the time I started teaching high school, I already had an MFA in creative writing, was a published writer, and had years of freelance editing experience– but there were still certain grammatical mistakes I consistently made.  (And let’s be honest, there probably still are.)  Having to know grammar/sentence structure/organization well enough to put it in plain terms for my students, including all those scary-sounding technical terms like “dangling modifier” and “dependent clause”, made my own writing crisper and more confident.

How To Widen The Definition Of Success

As educators, we want to save everyone, and it’s really easy for teachers, administrators, and even parents/guardians to think that success is a one-size-fits-all outcome where a student gets top grades, has high standardized test scores, and scores dozens of college acceptance letters.  It doesn’t always work like that.  There are some students who, for myriad reasons (a lifetime of struggling with learning disabilities that have left their confidence severely shaken, traumatic past events, an unsupportive home environment, etc), will never be top performers or even do their work consistently, regardless of how much you encourage, support, or threaten them.  And as teachers are beating their heads against the wall trying to get students to do well in their class, that can be very, very frustrating.

However, there’s two things to remember when we’re tearing our hair out over students who aren’t turning in work or performing well for whatever reason:

1- If you take a group of students who have a past of academic failure (again, for myriad reasons), you probably will not be able to save them all… but you will be able to save some of them.  I’ve had students who society would easily write off as hopeless turn over a new leaf and graduate with decent grades, when before it didn’t look like they would graduate at all.  Even if it’s just 10% of the group, or 25% or 50%, each student matters, and you never know which students it will be.

2- Becoming too focused on that one definition of success discounts the million other things a student can get from being in your classroom.  You might have a student with learning disabilities, for instance, who will never pass a standardized test (it’s tough to score well on a science exam if you have a lot of trouble reading), but who will walk out of your class knowing much more (and able to tell you verbally all about it) than they would if everyone had already given up on them and they had dropped out.  You might have a student who will never turn in a literary analysis paper that’s worth a large chunk of their grade, but who discovers a love of poetry or creative writing in your class and that helps them get through tough times and maybe even steers their later education or career path.  Or sometimes, for some kids, it’s just knowing an adult is on their side and having a safe place to come every day.

If you can ask yourself “Is this student better off in some way than before he/she came into my classroom?” and answer “yes”, no one has failed.  It’s the kind of success that will never be reflected in standardized test scores, but it shouldn’t be underestimated, either.

Like virtually every list on my blog, this is an incomplete compilation.  I could go on and on about the things teaching has taught me– how to multitask like a boss, how to understand and respect my own limits, how to unjam copiers using a combination of light caresses and brute force, etc– but we’d be here all day, and it would still never be finished.

I do ask that you take a couple of minutes to read this article: A Teacher’s Tough Decision To Leave The Classroom.  It puts eloquently into words what so many of us are thinking and experiencing these days.  I’m returning to my summer job teaching at a writing camp so I’ll get my classroom fix in the short term; after that, I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing (and am much calmer about the uncertainty than I would have guessed), but I’m holding out (perhaps falsely naive) hope that something good will come around.  I do know, however, that I am going to miss teaching for however long I’m away from it.  I’ve said a million times that teaching is the steepest learning curve I’ve experienced, but once a passion for it gets under your skin, it’s hard to shake.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons From The Front Of The Classroom

  1. Jeanne G. says:

    As a trying-to-recover-perfectionist, I really like that question “Is the student better off?” I will keep that in mind!

  2. […] Lessons From The Front Of The Classroom […]

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