Gratitude and Impact

I spent a great deal of time these last few weeks thinking about teaching and what it means not only to my students, but also to me.  DC’s new evaluation tool–they call it IMPACT–has a way of making you think.  My first two observations yielded the usual comments for my “performance.”  It seems I know my content very well, and my students mostly appear engaged.   I regularly probe for higher level reasoning, and do a stellar job connecting the material to real life.  So far, so good.

Where I always run into trouble are the areas related to developing student understandings. I talk too much.  The observers say I am a dynamic presence in the classroom, too dynamic.  My “learning laboratory” is too “teacher-centered,” a bad word these days.   In my seventy minute class, direct instruction should take no more than ten minutes.  Most of the time should be used by students discovering the content for themselves through gallery walks or literature circles.  My Master Educator suggested in our post-observation conference that I employ an “I-We-You” method where I briefly explain the lesson, then model with the class whatever skill we are undertaking, and finally release the students to work independently or in groups.  My job then is to circulate among them, prodding here, poking there.

I admit my tendency is to teach to the whole class.  I hated groups in high school.  It always deteriorated into playtime with me and a few others doing too much of the work.  I prefer using my popsicle sticks to call on students randomly to answer questions, tackle passages, and provide insights.  I see the effect of all this in my students’ work.  Their essays are organized now and address the question directly.  They use the text to anchor their perceptions.  They seem to actually understand the purpose of writing, and they are learning to bring a questioning eye to their readings.  They routinely use our vocabulary power words in their writing–not because I asked them to do so, but because they can.

We are diagramming sentences now in all my English classes, and next month we will work to understand the relative design of the ten basic English sentence forms, and their respective impact on expression, communication, and flow.  They will begin analyzing their own choices in nouns, verbs, modifiers, complements, subordination, and rhetoric.  I tell them adverbs and adjectives are like hot sauce on greens–a little goes a long way.  I am looking forward to us making that leap past recognition into application and control.  I think the students are too.

Still, it is difficult juggling vocabulary, writing, reading, and grammar in a single course.  With my school’s block schedule (we meet only ten times a month) I usually try to attack two strands in a single class session, which sometimes makes for choppy transitions.  But there are not enough days to tackle all the goals I have set if I focus on, say, just grammar one day, and reading the next.

What I need to work on is pulling them in more with Socratic exchanges and the like.  Not that we don’t share thoughts; we just do it differently from what the rubric would like.  I guess I lean back on my own experiences with teachers who lifted my mind without me ever leaving my seat.  I had this one history teacher in high school who had actually written our textbook.  Hearing his words turn dusty events into action movies inspired me.  Then there was my tenth grade English teacher whose obsession with Tolkien’s precision and craft ignited me.  But I was a scholarship kid at an expensive boarding school whose trustees were flirting with the notion of small-scale integration.  It happened ages ago, and I suspect the expectations for high school students have changed since then.

Today’s evaluation tools prefer kinesthetic exercises, teaching soundbites, and lots of in-class homework.  I guess I am a bit “old school.”  I always tell my students the time for “ring around the rosie” is over.  Recess now comes at the end of the day, not in the middle.  How else are students to prepare for college where everything is not so “touchy-feely” I ask, not to mention the workplace after that.  For all the clamor about multi-tasking, I still favor a concentrated effort leading to the completion of something worthwhile.  I always look for mastery and learning in the  work they produce, and I assign a great deal of work.   But something is missing, the observers say.

My new Assistant Principal suggested in our observation conference that I might be better suited for work at a university or community college.  I have done a little of both, but found my calling in high school.  I love the silly sanity holding the place together.  So I have resolved to do better.  The competitor in me wants perfect 4’s on my evaluations, but the realist knows that will never be my fate.  I would settle for solid 3’s.

I am not going to pretend.  Some of the comments I received threw me. Some even seemed unfair.  Then, three weeks ago, just when I was briefly considering taking up my AP’s suggestion to move my talents elsewhere, the morning English III class took the occasion of my unplanned absence on a Monday to write me “thank you” notes.  Another teacher covering my class suggested it, but I choose to believe these incredible  young people knew intuitively that a pick-up was in order.  That’s another thing I love about high school.

Some of them wrote:

“I am grateful for you being my teacher because you teach things I never knew about life and myself.”

“You have helped me create some of the best essays.  All your stories are funny.”

“Your class is very creative and sometimes inane.  But it is still important, and I still learn from it.  I’m thankful for you letting me turn in my work late sometimes, even though it’s not good to.”

“Thank you for turning my sad face upside down in the morning.  Thank you for plucking my nerve every other day.  Thank you for teaching me verbs over and over.”

“Thank you for your energy.  I can have a bad day, but you put a smile on my face.  Thanks for your presence.”

“I look forward to coming to your class everyday because I know I am going to learn something new.  You are a teacher that can relate to your students, and your personal stories strengthen us.”

“Thank you for pushing me to do my best at all times.  Thanks for being goofy and my teacher.”

“Thank you for being the best teacher I have had so far.  You have taught me how to read and write.  Also, thanks for believing in me and not allowing me to be less than what I am.”

“Thank you for teaching me.  Thank you for your enthusiasm in learning.  Your sense of humor makes English fun for me.  You are the epitome of a good teacher and even though you may not feel so at times, you are greatly appreciated.”

I cannot overstate the impact of their words.   As I end my two-week winter break, I look forward to walking into a new year with my students present and accounted for.   I look forward to the AP results come spring, and reading Native Son in English III.  I look forward to winning more debate tournaments.  I look forward to luring my students deeper into the lessons of language and life.

I look forward to teaching.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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