Monday, September 5, 2011

Teachers Make All the Difference

The other day I received an envelope in my mailbox at school. I opened it to find a thank you card. Before I opened it up I was thinking about whose baby shower I went to or whose kid’s birthday party I attended recently. As I opened the card I looked at the bottom to see that it was from a student I taught six years ago. Upon reading the note, this student who is now a senior in high school, went on to thank me for inspiring her to pursue teaching as a career. She cited a few examples of things I had done to “push” her in that direction. I was a bit humbled and proud all at the same time.

As teachers we spend time with kids daily and have literally millions of interaction with them. What I think we fail to realize sometimes is the sheer gravity of these interactions. One comment or seemingly insignificant event can make all the difference in a kid’s life, for the better or worse. A few anecdotes…
I good friend of mine happens to teach next door to me and lives close to me as well. We carpool to work and regularly talk about work, home, and all things in between. In one of our conversations he was talking about how his daughter hated science in school. However, after a biology class with a particularly good teacher, she now loved the subject. One teacher made the difference for her.

A few years back I sat in a parent teacher conference with a mom. Her son was in my class and he was a good kid making some bad choices with who he was hanging out with. As a result he was getting himself wrapped up in some negative situations at school. I spent a good hour talking with his mom about how he was a good kid just making bad choices. As she left, I thought nothing more of this conversation because it is one I have had with dozens of parents every year. A few years later this same mother sent me a letter thanking for “saving her son’s life”. While I thought that was extreme, she went on to explain how our conversation prompted some changes at home with her son. He started changing his peer group and landed with a great group of positive friends that helped him have a great high school career and I was none the wiser.

Yes, those two examples were what one would consider positive, and yet that is not always the case. I am also a coach at school and recently had an issue with a gifted athlete not come out for a sport. This particular athlete was playing a 7th grade sport where the coach belittled and yelled to a point where this athlete lost all desire to play. The coach might have had the best intentions but for this particular kid it turned them off from a sport they loved and excelled at.

Another example is from me when I had a student in my Language Arts class. The class was a gifted or enriched class with some outstanding students enrolled. One particular student struggled to keep pace with the other students and was often behind. I met with parents to discuss my concerns and how I thought their child would be better placed in a regular Language Arts class. This was in no way an attempt to ditch her or push her down. I saw her getting frustrated and burning out because she could not keep up. What resulted was the parents fighting my decision and demanding she stay in my class. When the dust settled this particular student had lost whatever love she had for Language Arts and floundered for the remainder of the year despite my best attempts to “revive” her.

The point of all of this is that you, the teacher, have more impact than you will ever even know. One gesture or comment to a kid in your first period can make or a break that kid’s day. Just remember to choose your words wisely and make your actions deliberate, you may never know who is watching or listening. That one passing moment that we have as a teacher may be the one moment that a kid remembers for a lifetime. How do you want students to remember you? What will your impact on their lives be? Remember that you might not even realize nor ever know what your impact was…

My Issues With Homework

Homework is one of those issues we see come up in educational debates on a fairly regular basis. There seems to be two camps where you either love it or hate it. For the most part, I sit in the later. Before going into my reasons behind that I need to be up front and honest. My students do occasionally have homework. This happens for a handful of students on rare occasions. If a student misses class they might have to do some additional work at home. Also, I do a great deal of group work and in class activities. There are times when students are not using their time as wisely as they can which requires them to finish up work in study hall or at home. I also do have students use time at home for additional prep work for assessments.

With all that being said, I rarely assign homework in the traditional sense. What I mean is that I do assign homework on the board daily. However, it is not what most would consider homework. For example, last Friday’s homework was to play outside and enjoy the long weekend. The day before that it was to pet a dog. Some of my students take these “assignments” seriously, while others see them for what they are, random acts of being a kid.

Here are a few of the reasons that I struggle with the idea of assigning students homework:

Haves and Have Nots
Many students have great supporting and resourceful families at home to assist them in finishing work and projects. However, not all do. Some parents can afford to take their kids to Hobby Lobby and drop a chunk of change to make sure their child’s landform project for Science class is top notch. Many kids don’t have that luxury and therefore their projects look “bad” next to their classmates. When students are assigned to build or create a project at home, it becomes apparent who has and who has not. The gap becomes more apparent and now the issue of “having” comes into my classroom where I try to support equality and fairness. Homework does the exact opposite.

Access and Support
Many students have internet access, home resources, and educated parents at home. However, not all do. Some students go home to empty homes and are charged with supporting and raising siblings, or keeping the home. In some cases parents are around but not highly educated and therefore not able to assist their child even if they wanted to. Not all kids have the same chance of success in doing homework at home and therefore how can we ask them to do the same work?

Overkill
How many times are students asked to do something 20 times when they have mastered the skill in the first 2 times? I remember being assigned 30-40 math problems a night even though I clearly understood who to do them while working them in class. If we do our jobs right in the classroom do we need to be sending home even more work?

Easy Way Out
Too often homework is an easy way out from actually teaching. It is much easier to send kids home with work than to actually teach them in the classroom. Yes, it would make my life easier to have students work through my curriculum at home, but then who is teaching them? Who is modeling for them? Who is guiding their practice?

Burn Out
Students sit in desk for 7 hours a day listening, reading and writing what teachers tell them to. Then when they get some respite and head home, they have more work to do. As with just about anything we do in life, the more we are told to do something, the more likely we are to burnout. We can make a safe assumption that a majority of kids do not find homework pleasurable. With that in mind, we will turn kids off to learning if we attempt to connect homework to learning. In my experience, homework does not instill a love of learning, it does quite the opposite.

Busy Work
Much of the work I see go home is simply busy work. How can a word search help a kid understand scientific terminology? Where is it written that we need to color maps in class to learn geography? Why are parents asked to go and buy poster board and glitter paint for a poster in English class? Is what you are asking your students do directly related to a learning outcome? If not, don’t ask them to do it. This goes for in and out of class work.  

Family Time
While this might be my weakest argument, it is important to me nonetheless. I have two children and enjoy every moment I am not at work and spending time with them. Our trips to the zoo, children’s museum, baseball games, family gatherings, and countless parks are moments I wouldn’t miss those moments for the world. When I am at home, I do my best to minimize the amount of school work I do while my kids are awake. I enjoy that time and wouldn’t want to deprive my students and their families of it either. Families need to play and learn together and sitting at the table doing math problems is not my idea of family time.

I am not na├»ve to think students will never have to do work at home. My goal is to inspire and instill a love for learning within each of my students. If I do that, they will want to learn outside of school without it being assigned. If as teachers we NEED to assign homework, we are failing as teachers.