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Understanding Learning

Dan talks about oblivious teachers, wondering whether awareness is learned, or inherent.

I hope that I’m living proof that it can be learned.

This year, I inherited a room that had a 3 foot hole kicked into the wall last year. When I cleaned it out, there were several dozen books that had wedged into the 1 1/2” gap above the light fixtures. I don’t think the students climbed on the desks to put them there, I suspect they were thrown. That’s probably a couple hundred attempts per book. It was a whole years worth of dedicated effort – I’m not sure where the students found time to make that hole.

So far this year, I’ve had to clean a couple of small pencilled scribblings off of my desk. Twice even. With some of the exact same kids that were in that room last year. I know I’m not the most exciting teacher, but I’m good enough that the biggest threat to classroom neatness is me.

It wasn’t always that way. My first year, I got eaten alive by the kids. I was trying to teach – but I didn’t know how to set up the foundation for that relationship. My principal pulled me out one day, sat me down in an office, and told me to consider a different career.

Part of the key is realizing that perseverance is not the answer: Keeping at it without significantly improving your game is not going to do anyone any favors. The teacher that had that room last year has been at this school longer than I have. They’re not giving up, but they’re not getting good either.

So, what turned it around for me? A lot of things, all of which were, I think, necessary. A supportive teacher next door. A take no prisoners department chair who didn’t let me off the hook, but also used every failure as a teachable moment, and spent a ton of time helping me deal with my problems. A whole cadre of excellent teachers who taught the same kids I did, without any of the difficulties or issues. It took knowing that it was possible, and that the root cause of what was going on was me, not the kids.

It also took familiarity. As a beginning teacher, there is a huge cognitive load. You’re trying to figure out what’s going on at the same time you’re trying to shove information into little heads, and it can be overwhelming. Eventually, you get a sense for how kids learn, and a feel for how you want your classroom to be. You don’t have to consciously think about whether someone is digging at your desk any more than you have to remind yourself to check your mirrors before a lane change after you’ve been driving for a couple of years. (I suppose that analogy is apt: there are indeed people who never learn to check their mirrors…). Just as we create an environment that allows a student to focus on the one thing we want them to learn, it seems that we should be able to do the same for new teachers as well.

So when faced with a teacher who can’t hold it together, I think it’s worth remembering our role as educators. We deal with 150 kids a day who, given their druthers, would rather be at home in front of the XBox. If we can get them interested and learning, we should be able to do the same for our colleagues, no?

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Per | November 17, 2008 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    This is good…

    It is so easy to forget what is needed in Teacher – Teacher part of beeing an educator to make a good school. Here in Sweden there is an unwritten code that you shouldnt comment on your colleagues practice and I think that is one of our school system biggest flaw.


  2. dani | June 2, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    A couple of years ago, I took over teaching 4 classes that a teacher quit on in January and had a ton of cleaning & organizing to do before I started. It is pretty amazing to see some of the classroom conditions that unperceptive teachers can have. (table in front of chalkboard, paint peeling off chalkboard – students couldn’t read writing, graffiti on the wall)

    I think that a teacher’s awareness can increase greatly over time but it can also diminish due to exhaustion. I had an unsuccessful 1.5 years teaching Alg 2 at a school where there were no consequences for students’ misbehavior beyond removal from the classroom (and even that was tough to do).

    I was reading a book over the summer (some Marzano Classroom Management book) and got very depressed because I felt that I didn’t have the awareness that is needed to be a successful teacher. At a new school with double the students I had previously, this year has been my favorite so far (mostly teaching Geo). I have been able to focus more on content and less on managing my stress. I feel as though I have been on top of the students’ misbehavior, misconceptions, and the little actions that they unsuccessfully try to bother me with – such as sighs, groans, and purposely asking confusing questions. Although, my one section of Alg 2 students are still a handful.

  3. K.Vance | December 28, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I thank you for this post. During my vacation I have been looking up things for the last half of the year and came upon your post about slope and intercepts. I got to looking around and found this post. It made me feel better. I want the kids to learn and retain it for more than the test. I am a first year teacher, and my biggest struggle is getting the kids to do homework or even study for a test. Without a major makeup work date at the end of the grading period they would all fail.

    I am in a classroom where the kids managed to get rid of 2 teachers last year. It has been a struggle and I am a teacher of old school. Do your homework, study for tests and above all use pencil. Take responsibility for your own actions. I some how managed to be asked to teach 4 different preps (every prep at my school but geometry). What was I thinking?

    I am struggling to keep the kids involved and the class fun. Any ideas?