Today, I Was a Teacher

This morning I was dog tired and running on empty. I decided to “go back to the gym” last night after a spirited afternoon of planning, study, and writing. Since coffee and I are “on a break,” a mug of black tea was the only solace I found amidst a desk covered in papers. My English 9 class was full of the usual suspects caught between “I skipped breakfast to sleep” and “it’s too nice outside to be in school.” We were supposed to be working on peer reviews of some big papers, but there was a new student in class. I decided to change my game.

Improvisation is usually my strong suit in teaching, but it helps if you’re well-rested and not pumped full of antihistamines. I picked out a good quote from the introduction to Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide to start the day.

I never know what to expect with my daily quotes and metaphors. Sometimes they inspire, sometimes they flop. This morning, I was the only flop. I wrote with the kids in my own journal and sputtered out some half-thought-through questions about defining “thinking” and “learning.” In my own head, I was doing marvelous work. I was pontificating, lecturing, and sharing some real cultural capital. I crafted supporting metaphors on the fly to explain the ancient sage’s wisdom. I pushed kids to talk more about what they meant in their summary responses. I didn’t get very far this period though.

I stalled in part because I was tired and emptying my nose every ten minutes in a sandpapery cloth someone jokingly mislabeled a “tissue,” but there was more to it than that. On a deeper level, I was failing because I was making my class about Confucius and my understanding of his words. I wasn’t doing a very good job of making my students a part of the ideas. I wasn’t letting them in beyond the invitation of “You! Speak! Impress Me!”

After abandoning the idea of scratching the prompt altogether for the next hour, I allowed another natural mutation in my pedagogical meme to occur. First, I broke out a new package of dry erase markers—that always feels good. I decided the next class was going to go differently. I planned to focus on using student responses as the fuel for the lesson rather than the goal. What they gave to me, I’d give back to them in a new form. My questions about Confucius started to take root as the students saw their own words being published and discussed. It looked a little like this:

The connections started to grow with the responses, each spawning the other in a cycle of student-driven call and response. I became a spectator, a referee of sorts, in their learning process. As I stood back and let the words fly from their mouths to the board, I almost felt in the way. “Move Mr. Moore” Darilesha hollered at me with a gentle sideways wave of her hand. I was clearly blocking the board.

The picture doesn’t say it all, but it shows enough of what happened to give you an idea. My final period of the day was one of the best in weeks. I felt ready to respond to my students’ needs and they were on their game working independently. Seeing a classroom full of students all working at their own pace, helping each other, and requesting my advice when needed is affirming and encouraging. My excitement built with each individual conversation I tended to.

Today, I was a floating tutor who occasionally addressed the whole class and posed new questions, not a distributor and arbiter of knowledge.

Today, I learned with kids. Today, I saw kids find flow.

Today, I was a teacher.

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4 thoughts on “Today, I Was a Teacher

  1. “Today, I learned with kids.”
    I really have nothing better to add than that…

    I have a crazy passion for making the kids do things I cannot do very well. I also have a promise to myself to always do something the kids are doing that I have never done before. Next week we are doing a poetry slam. I will be researching and writing…and then…ack…performing with them.
    Next week, I will learn with the kids.

  2. Paul…this is so exciting to hear. I am fortunate to have you as a friend and teaching colleague. What if everyone had this view of learning and teaching? Kids would start building real curiosity in our classes because we could model our learning process for them.

  3. I work with teenage boys in a locked facility. It can be hard to get them invested and excited and often I try to “push” their thinking only to find that maybe it’s me pushing MY interpretations on them, rather than allowing them to find their own (and that being okay). I like this article. Maybe I’ll throw this idea at them :)

  4. Thank you for the comment Erin. I think especially when kids come from difficult backgrounds (and know that’s how others view them) they are less likely to buy into what we sell them during class. Making what they think and say “okay” as you say is where the real learning comes from. Once I started to see that working, I’ve never looked back!

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