Would you put an “X” for “yes” beside your own English class if you were a student with a course enrollment sheet in hand?
If you were a student today, would you choose to sign up to your own class?
The answer to that question may well be the million-dollar question.
It’s a “million-dollar question” because school policy makers pour millions of dollars into staff PD piggy banks each year. But a great source of improvement for our classes and by extension our schools is free. We can improve most by sitting on our living room couches and answering this question.
This summer, I encourage you to sit on your couch and ask yourself:
If you were a junior high/high school student, would you like to come to your classroom and park your bottom behind a desk and listen to yourself teach?
At the end of the school year, would you say that your time spent in your class was worth it?
Consider the subcategories of the “would you enroll” question:
CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT & ATMOSPHERE
- Would you feel respected in your own classroom?
- Would you feel supported in your own classroom?
- Would you feel safe in your own classroom?
- Would you feel that education is a priority in your classroom?
- Would you be able to focus in your classroom, free of distractions from others?
These questions can be painful. You may realize your actions do not show respect for students. You may realize that in your classroom, interruptions are tolerated at the expense of learning. You may even wince as you remember that time you yelled at so-and-so or the time you took two weeks to mark a pile of papers.
But pain is good. It’s the fire forcing you to take action.
Before acting, imagine: Imagine in detail what a well-managed and respectful classroom would look like, and work from that end vision to achieve it in concrete, measurable actions (e.g. “To achieve greater sense of respect and high standards, I will greet my students at the door each day and look them in the eye; I will use their names often; I will not tolerate blurting out during my lesson—I will use X procedure to deal with blurting.”)
SKILLS & ACADEMIC CHALLENGE
- Would you feel intellectually challenged or bored with the lesson materials?
- Would you feel intellectually challenged or bored with the projects?
- Would you feel more competent and skilled after leaving your course?
- Which specific skills would you leave your class with?
- Which specific values or mottos might you leave your class with?
It’s useful to think about the specific skills your students should leave your class with; e.g., “By the end of June, my students will be able to write clear, logical, and coherent paragraphs and essays; they will be able to write narratives that engage through X, Y, and Z techniques; they will be able to present powerfully to their classmates; they will understand that practice makes perfect.”
Choose a few valuable curriculum-based skills your students will excel at, and focus on those. Cut out the fluff.
- Would you find your lessons interesting and topical?
- Would you find your projects to be interesting?
- Would you find your projects and assignments, especially homework, to be meaningful, or just busy work?
School doesn’t have to be fun. If we measure our success as teachers by the number of smiling faces in the room or the volume of classroom hubbub, we’re not measuring the acquisition of knowledge.
And measuring our success by the “fun factor” may cause us to decrease academic rigor (e.g. picture books instead of written narratives; collages instead of essays, because picture books and collages are fun.)
Even though fun is not our measuring stick, it’s true that we get more knowledge when we are interested. If you were a young person, would you be interested in your own homework assignments or projects because of the challenge in them, the topical questions, or the personal connections?
From a student’s perspective, is the course material relevant?
Write Out Your Vision
A teacher is only as good as his or her vision. It’s the rock upon which he or she stands as the winds of administration, parents, policymakers, and students push her this way and that. It’s the source of a teacher’s integrity– it’s a source of power.
So, I encourage you to be honest with yourself and write a vision for the next year. Describe each aspect of your teaching in rich, vivid detail. Translate your abstract ideals (e.g. respect) into concrete actions (e.g. looking students in the eye; smiling; using names).
Real change begins in the mind.
This summer, let’s put our minds to work.
Always remember, what you teach matters.