I sent in an application to Forsyth County Schools last week. They asked me write an essay explaining how I will help my students succeed in my classroom and in school. It’s hard, to write an essay to a potential employer. I wish I felt comfortable writing the same way I do on this blog everywhere, but unfortunately, I don’t think that is widely accepted. It a rather blunt and direct way, this is how I plan to help my students succeed, and here’s a bit about the ones who did it for me:
My greatest inspirations for my career were two women: Libba Willcox and Rebecca Bowers. These ladies succeeded a teacher who was a good instructor. But when placed in comparison, there was no scale to describe the difference. It wasn’t because the teacher before was a poor teacher – she was prepared for class every day, we did a variety of mediums, she was kind. But Ms. Willcox and Mrs. Bowers did not stop at the minimum requirements. They did more.
I am a firm believer in that: more. More interest, more curriculum, more relevance to my students, more conversations, more critiques, more standards, more frustration, more choices, more respect, more words, more art, more struggles and more successes. The minimum is not enough. I felt the difference when these two teachers came to our school. I felt invested in and cared about. I knew they faced obstacles to give us the amazing curriculum they did, sometimes paying out of pocket for top-of-the-line materials, other times having tough conversations with other teachers. They weren’t our friends, but they were our allies. They were one my side and I feared their disappointment.
There is so much that happens in everyday life that can leave a student feeling small, unimportant, insignificant, insecure… but to watch a student discover that with a little time, some instruction (and maybe a bit of pixie dust), they can grow amazing amounts of talent is one of the most rewarding things in existence. With this comes strength, courage and pride in their work. They gain the skill of ownership – they learn to claim their work, to set their own standards, and to challenge themselves. But this all starts with the attitude of one teacher. It happens where belief exists. It takes a risk on the teacher’s part. Only in that space can students feel secure and safe. The teacher is the gatekeeper, and must provide that environment for his or her students.
Furthermore, every student is completely different. Standardizing and assimilating their traits, interests and experiences washes away all the magic that they possess. They are individuals, and that is a gift. Differentiated learning is tough to implement, but a necessity to the environment of a safe classroom. I have tried to implement differentiated learning at all levels, and have found a great deal of success at the elementary level. In the school in which I student taught, the art teacher would often have classes with an incredible diversity of students: Asian, Hispanic, African American, lower class and upper class, autistic, special needs, learning disabilities and incredibly gifted. Teaching a class of that kind requires differentiated learning. The instructor has to be prepared to modify and flex the lesson plan per student. For example, this week I have started teaching my Masks unit. The first day is a planning period, in which students trace a template and proceed to draw out or plan a design for their larger mask. It is simply a brainstorming and preparation day to get students thinking ahead before we dive in. Three of my gifted students asked if they could modify the template – they did not want to work within the limits I had set. So I asked them to trace the template and then on top, draw in the modifications they wished to make. On the other end of this spectrum, I had students that could not trace a stencil, and had to assist one on one and follow them through each step as a team. Every student deserves the ability to have a full experience of your curriculum, and many teachers may not be willing to take the time to provide this type of learning.
I am not a believer that every student will like me. I know there will be students who will not, those who will take years to get through to, to uncover and discover. But I know that I will do everything in my power to let my students know I care about them and their success, and that I am invested in their experiences and futures. In the midst of an application, I asked one of my students which option she felt was most suiting of me. The question was: If asked about your teaching, your students would say: 1) I’m tough, but fair. 2) I challenge you. 3) I care about your success. 4) I make learning fun. Her response was “challenge or care.” I take pride in my ability to push my students farther and harder than most teachers are willing to go, because I know I can do it in a way that does not break them, but builds them. I am a motivator, and this translates so well into teaching. Students need an excellent teacher, but they also need an investor, an ally and someone to help make things happen for them. I want to be all of those things, every day. E.E. Cummings once said, “It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.” I have spent years of my life figuring this out, and wish to bring others to this joyous way of living. My students and I will always live a life full of “more.” They deserve it.