Teaching

An Introduction: Bringing Ideals Back into the Classroom

…because WHO SAYS IDEALS ARE BAD?  All good educators begin with a picture of what kind of ideal education they wish to provide!

An excerpt from my Graduate School Capstone Pedagogy Paper…

     Damien [Note: Fictional Character] walks into the classroom, warily glances around the room, and parks himself in one of the desks in the back.  He is expecting just another routine history class of lectures, notes, tests, essays, and maybe a project or two.  He expects an aloof, cynical teacher who will tell him what to do, or what not to do.  He knows she already expects him to fail, and he probably assumes the same of himself.  He is uninterested, believing the teacher is more concerned with giving busywork and unbeatable tests than whether anyone is really learning.  He is ready to give up on this ordeal called education.

     Every secondary teacher faces students like Damien almost every year of his or her career.  These students walk into the classroom with preconceived notions of a humdrum semester, forced to learn about a bunch of dead people and past events that they simply do not feel applies to them in any way, shape, or form.  According to John Goodlad (2004), the problem arises in that while the students are “the school’s primary clients” (p. 29), the teaching that occurs in the classroom has become irrelevant to their lives and experiences.  The educational system has lost sight of its role simply because it has been given a plethora of roles to play in the students’ lives as well as the community.  Which is the correct role?  How do we reach students like Damien before he slips through the cracks as another dropout statistic?  How do we make the content and learning experience relevant to his life?

It probably seems almost cliche, this idea of reaching the unreachable student.  Even in my own three years of teaching, I’ve realized just how difficult this task is – to enthuse the jaded, uninterested adolescent in a system that is SO necessary in their lives but SO overexposed and overdone that the very people it is meant to help are the ones who do not find it so necessary anymore.  The education they receive doesn’t seem to fit into the “real life” they experience…and one can hardly blame them!  Education has become a standardized testing system in a world that is all but standardized.   

George Wood (2005)…states the numbers educational experts utilize to gauge and fix what they see as a broken educational system have unfortunately taken the limelight in education.  Standardized test scores, student-teacher ratios, dropout rates, class grades, and other such statistical data overshadow the real issues ever-present in our classrooms: the inability to engage and challenge the student.  The classroom also fails to give students a safe haven that fosters a sense of belonging in the student.  While the world outside of the classroom may not fully comprehend such student needs, the teachers within the classroom must realize that teaching must begin and end with the student in mind by creating learning experiences that are relevant to their life experiences.  

In so many discussions I’ve had with friends who do not work in the field of education, I’ve found many of them do view education in the form of these statistics.  I honestly don’t blame them.  After all, how else do you most efficiently measure the success of any institution but through the numbers they produce.  We as educators, however, know that the classroom is not like other institutions.  Our “clients” (the students) do not care (or need to care about) how high our test score records are or what the dropout rate is.  The measure of a successful classroom in THEIR eyes is how what we have to teach will better them personally…and how it will catapult them to bigger and better things.  Our clients depend on us teachers to provide them the tools to be successful in a world that expects them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.

Still, the statistics and numbers are not going away…and others who are invested in the system (the parents, colleges, businesses, and even the community at large) expect our schools to put forth statistics and numbers that show how many of our students we lead successful post-secondary lives.  So, how do we as educators go beyond the system (where numeric, standardized measurements are a constant and everlasting presence) to challenge and engage students to learn the skills needed to make it in that career or higher levels of learning that they seek to pursue?  How do we make what we teach them relevant to their life dreams and goals?  How to we as educators provide quality education to our “clients” in a system of standardization? 

The first step to pursuing student-centered teaching is recognizing that we have the tendencies to lose sight of the students in our everyday classroom pedagogy.  This could be in the form of focusing on the statistical data of student achievement rather than whether students were understanding and learning the content the needed to succeed.

“Student-centered education” is a phrase I coined for myself as I dreamed of my ideal classroom.  I vowed I would NEVER get caught up in the whole “test-scores” rat race and focus on teaching my students to think for themselves (and they’ll figure out what they need to know for the test if they learn to think for themselves).  Of course, like all the teachers who have gone before me, I have become a bit more realistic…that sometimes, there must be some amount of “teaching to the test” that must occur because, otherwise, my student can’t graduate because they can’t pass that darned End-of-Course-Test or the Social Studies portion of the Graduation Test.  However, I know that even in the midst of my “giving into the reality of education,” I can still maintain my educative ideals.  I still believe that I can provide a “student-centered education” by utilizing:

  1. classroom management skills to build a safe environment conducive to learning
  2. differentiated instruction and assessment tactics to cater to the different learning styles present in my classroom
  3. relevant modes of inquiry to create relevant learning experiences, and
  4. constant reflection on my teaching and student learning in the classroom (is what I’m doing really working?).

By following this basic (and admittedly generalized) formula, I believe I can be proactive in the implementation of providing education that is focused first and foremost on the student and providing learning experiences that capture and challenge their young minds.

This is obviously something that teachers have all heard before (I believe any decent teacher education program covers these things effectively).  And I’m sure I am “preaching to the choir” when stating my approach to effective education.  The trick is unfolding what is and is not effective implementation of these aspects of teaching.  All teachers think, “Sure, I’ve been told all this before…but HOW DO I DO THIS?”  The answer is…it depends…on the teacher (who YOU are!), the students (every class of students that walks in will demand different experiences), and the content you teach.

Unfortunately, I can only communicate my own experiences (maybe some of the experience of those who taught alongside me…if they are willing to share), therefore the scope of what I have to share will be limited.  My hope is that this blog will simply be a place that helps pique each teacher’s own creativity and their thought process of their craft, to consider ideas they may not have thought of before, or even simply to validate that they are already that effective educator they hope to be…trusting themselves to extend the reaches of teaching beyond what the system has “standardized” (though I, for one, am not all there yet).

Above all else, I hope teachers will COMMENT with their own thoughts and experiences to help ME rethink and reflect upon my views on education and being an educator (TEACH ME YOUR WAYS!!).  After all, every teacher has something different and wonderful to offer…which is what makes this profession so versatile and exciting!

References

Goodlad, J. I. (2004).  A place called school.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wood, G. H. (2005).  Time to learn: How to create high schools that serve all students.  Portsmouth: Heinemann.

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