Three and a half years ago I graduated from college. I couldn't wait to get a teaching job, take on the world, and make a difference in those young kids' lives. I interviewed like crazy. I researched schools, applied for jobs, filled out resumes, showed up at schools unannounced telling them I wanted to teach there. It was a weird time.
Several of the applications that I submitted asked me in some form or another to submit my teaching philosophy. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and so I did the thing I learned to do best in college- I B.S.ed it. Let's see, My "teaching philosophy"? Children are our future. They are vessels and I must fill them with knowledge. Teach them facts. We have to keep them engaged by having high powered, extremely structured lessons. These kids will some day be the president of the United States. Less time watching TV and more time reading books. I will get all kids to love reading or die trying.
Or something like that. Pure B.S.
One interview I went to the principal asked me, "If there could be a sign above your door that had one word that encompassed everything you believe about teaching what would it be?"
"Uh...." I drew a complete blank. One word? ONE WORD?
He stared at me in silence.
"Learn." I finally said.
"Because kids need to learn."
The principal raised his eyebrows and stared at me a little longer as if probing for more information, but I sat mute in my chair. He moved on to the next question. I didn't get the job.
I have thought a lot about those two different questions since I have been teaching. After 3+ years of teaching do I know my personal teaching philosophy? Do I know what one word I base my entire teaching practice on?
No. But I have a couple of ideas.
MY TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
1. Teenagers only care if you care about them first. This is the absolute most important part of teaching and there will be no real successes in the classroom until students know that their teacher genuinely loves and cares about them. The difficulty of the curriculum you teach them, the poignancy of the works you read, the strategies you employ are all completely moot if they don't think you care. As soon as they can feel that you care about them, the game is completely different. They do their work, the discipline problems stop, they come to class not because they have to, but because they don't want to let you down. I believe this, more than anything else, creates a successful classroom.
2. Teenagers need a voice. This could go a couple of ways. For starters it means that kids need to feel comfortable speaking out in your class. They have to feel safe to explore ideas or add to a discussion or say something they would never dare tell their parents, or even their friends.
Secondly, it means that kids need to know that you will listen to "their side". A teacher can't be a dictator. This year I had an experience where Mark was constantly causing problems. I moved his seat about four times and he was still constantly talking, disrupting, yapping. The last time I moved him he stood up, shouted out a curse word and then slammed into his desk.
"Mark. Do you need to take a minute outside and calm down before you can come into class?" I asked.
"Yah, actually, I do!" And he stormed out of the classroom. He didn't come back.
The next time in class I asked him if we could talk for a minute. We went out in the hall and I said, "I could tell you were upset last class period- I'm not mad, I just want to know why you didn't come back to class."
Mark looked really taken back, like he had just been expecting me to chew him out. "I just felt like it was unfair that you kept moving me."
"Why did you feel that was unfair?"
"Because the first two times you moved me it was Kade who was talking to me and then the next two times it was always the girl next to me who started it up, and I was the only one who got in trouble every time."
I thought about this for a second and realized I probably had been too harsh on him. There always was someone else involved and that person had gotten off scott free. "I'm sorry, Mark. I didn't realize I was doing that, but I understand how frustrating that would be for you. I like you and I'm glad you're in this class, it is just difficult for me to teach when there are constant side conversations going on and I probably took that out on you too much. I will try to discipline more fairly from here on out if you promise me to do your best to stop chatting when I'm lecturing. Fair enough?" The look on Mark's face was one of total relief. I wasn't mad at him, he had been able to speak his opinion, and he wasn't in trouble. His attitude since that chat has done a complete 180 and now he's the one yelling to the class when they get rowdy, "Guys! Shut up! Teacher needs to say something!" To be on my side all he needed to know was that I was willing to listen to his side.
3. Teenagers will do anything for you if they know you love them. The problem with most teenagers is they feel like their teachers hate them. We don't hate them. We're just frustrated/tired/ornery and teenagers are teenagers. They hand their stuff in late all the time, they think they should be talking when we're talking and their parents call in begging us to let them take a test that was due two months ago. So we get frustrated. I can't tell you how many students have told me, "That teacher hates me." I know that's not true, we just might sometimes act like it. I try to tell collectively and individually to my students how much I like them. On their papers I often try to write something that has nothing to do with their actual writing, but just their personality, "You're funny!" or "I'm so glad you're in this class!" or "Third period wouldn't be the same without you." When they head out the door I yell to them, "Have a good weekend, I love you guys, don't do anything stupiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid!" It always throws them back the first few times I tell them I love them, but they get used to is pretty quick and they'd never admit it, but goshdarnit I know they like it.
4. Kids need to know they are smart. Or nice. Or funny. Or witty. One of my students, Able (as talked about here) is like a walking encyclopedia. He will one day win Jeopardy, I have no doubt. The problem is he can be a tad annoying, he never knows exactly when to shut up, and he can't stay on one topic to save his life. On a recent essay on Lord of the Flies he was supposed to write whether or not he agreed with the author's implication that man is naturally evil. Instead Able started writing on Lord of the Flies and finished off with a deep explanation of Norse Mythology. I gave him a C and wrote at the top of his paper, "Able, you are beyond brilliant but you MUST STAY ON TOPIC." That was it.
At parent teacher conference last week, I met Able's mom. "I just want to thank you for what you wrote on Able's paper?" I searched my brain. What did I write, what did I write, what did I write?
"That he needs to stay on topic?" I asked.
"No- that he's beyond brilliant." She was almost getting choked up about it. "Able has had such a tough times this year and he has been so hard on himself. It means so much to me and him that you would say he's brilliant." It surprised me how much this comment had meant to them mainly because it was pretty obvious that Able was brilliant. Everyone in the school knew it. That was kind of Able's claim to fame. He worked hard to be smart and to show that he was smart. So why did me telling him that so obviously help him out? It occurred to me that sometimes we just like to hear it. My funny kids need me to tell them they are funny, my dependable kids need me to tell them they are dependable, my thoughtful students need me to tell them they are thoughtful.
5. Mercy is stronger than Justice. Probably the toughest calls I make in teaching have to deal with mercy vs. justice. (see this post and this post.) Do I let the kid re do a plagiarized paper? Do I let the girl hand in a two week late project without which she will fail? I finally came to the conclusion last year that it is not my call to make on who deserves my mercy. I will show mercy to all and let some higher power take care of the rest. My first year of teaching Neil was at a 45% with one week left in the quarter. There was no way he should have passed. His mom wrote me an email that was just straight up begging. In order for him to pass the class I would have to let him hand in SEVERAL assignments that were weeks and months past their due date. Against my better judgment, I told him he could. I explained to him that I was doing him a huge favor and I would not be making such concessions ever again. He and his mom thanked me profusely. He got his grade up to a D-.
The next three quarters he had no problem passing my class. He was pleasant and usually handed in his work.
He took my class his junior year and passed all four quarters. He was a great student, constantly adding to the discussion and participating fully. Anytime I passed out an "anonymous" survey I could make out his messy scribble, "This teacher helped me out so much. Did me a huge favor. My favorite teacher. She will do anything to help you pass. I owe her big time."
His senior year he took my class again. He not only passed the class, he got As and Bs. He asked if he could be my teacher aide during another period. I said sure. He brought me diet coke for no reason. His mom wrote me one of the nicest letters of recommendations I have ever received. She never stopped thanking me for showing mercy to him. He is one of my all time favorite students. Now he occasionally tweets me and updates me on his life. I miss him like crazy and count this as one of my sweetest teaching experiences.
I know this isn't how it always works. I know some kids take advantage, and some kids never learn to try, but like I said, that's not my job to decide who deserves it and who doesn't deserve it. I was able to reach out to Neil and build a relationship with him because of mercy, not justice.
And the one word I would have hanging over my door that encompasses everything I believe about teaching?
And also "Teachers need to get paid more." But then, that's not one word, is it?