August 24, 2009

Starting Well as a Classroom Teacher

On September 1, most classroom teachers in my area will welcome this year’s new students for the first time. In my current role – I homeschool my two elementary-aged daughters and provide childcare and preschool instruction in my home for teachers’ kids – my anticipation of a new year is a little different than for those who will soon stand in a classroom before a sea of new faces. But I remember from my nine years in the public schools what that was like. And I learned some valuable lessons back then that apply equally well to any classroom situation.

Each year, I undoubtedly received visits from one or more of my teaching colleagues during our on-campus teacher workdays. I certainly welcomed opportunities to catch up and an excuse to take a break from stapling up a roomful of bulletin boards. But often my well-meaning co-workers came bearing file folders and anecdotes about their former students – kids who would be “mine” in a day or two. They wanted to tell me all about Edgar’s temper or Kue’s learning disability or even La’s perfect attendance and beautiful drawings. But I learned very quickly to politely but firmly request that they not give me “the scoop.”

It’s not that I didn’t want to know my students; on the contrary, I wanted to know anything about each one that would help me teach more effectively. But I also believed in each one’s right to a clean slate upon joining my class. And so I endeavored to “hear no evil” (or good!) ahead of time – but instead to let each child’s words and actions speak for themselves starting at my door. And I even worked hard to purge myself of any preconceived notions about students whom I already knew. After all, circumstances might have changed over the summer so even my most difficult students deserved a fresh start.

Of course, once they were “mine,” I wanted to quickly learn as much about each child as I could. After all, as Dr. Kathy often reminds us, we do not teach English or AP Biology, Art or 4th grade. We teach human beings. Yes, we’re responsible for instructing them in a particular discipline or helping them learn the knowledge and skills associated with a specific grade. But we need to remember that it’s the minds and hearts of children – whether age three or 13 – that matter. And so we fail if we brilliantly impart every jot and tiddle of the state standards but do not know “our kids” in such as way as to enable the information to sink in and make an impact.

Thus, I orchestrated our first-week activities, in particular, to facilitate that getting-to-know-you process. Whether directly related to our curriculum or not, I designed every task to illustrate each student’s multiple intelligence strengths and weaknesses, personality, hobbies and interests, work habits, and temperament. Obviously, I continued to observe all year. But the information I gathered in those first few days often painted very accurate pictures of my pupils, which I then used in my on-going instruction of my designated content area.

I often felt that my self-imposed standard – avoiding preconceived notions on the one hand but then striving to rapidly know the kids once our year had started – was an intricately choreographed dance. I always ran the risk of tripping on my own feet – and sometimes I did. But in the end it was worth it every year – and my students came to respect and trust me for my efforts. That positive start always made our yearlong learning adventures so much better than they otherwise would have been.


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