Thursday, September 4, 2014

The teacher becomes a learner

I took a photography course this summer,
and now I’m becoming a much better photographer.
But at the time, I wasn’t so thrilled about my learning.
The first morning, as I settled into my seat,
it took me only about two minutes
to realize I was the least-experienced photographer in the class –
and that my camera was, by far, the simplest model.
I wondered if I even belonged there.
And, as our teacher dove into explaining camera technology,
I was quickly in over my head.
For most of the two-day course,
I felt a concept or two behind.
The most painful part was the challenge to my self-image --
knowing I was the “weak student”.
It’s an unfamiliar feeling, because, as an adult,
I can focus most of my learning in areas where it’s easy to feel I thrive.
(I haven’t, for instance, taken any engineering classes
or enrolled in graduate level chemistry lately.)
But, despite my lack of confidence,
I persevered,
I improved,
and, when the course was over,
I walked away much smarter – and happier -- than when it began.
This week,
I went back to class again,
this time as a teacher.
Now I’m exploring the strengths and challenges of my own new set of learners.
Some of my children may also struggle to learn –
perhaps for an hour or a day.
Perhaps for a month, perhaps for a year.
Whatever the reason for the struggle,
and no matter how long it lasts,
these are six things I want to remember:
1)    Each student’s equipment is uniquely shaped to accomplish his purposes.
I’d chosen my camera,
so much less complex than my classmates’,
because it fits my purposes;
it takes good-enough pictures, yet is small enough to carry easily.
Each child in my class has also come with his own set of learning equipment.
It’s differently developed than his classmates’,
but is perfectly designed to accomplish his purposes in this world.
Just as my photography instructor didn’t scold me –
or ignore me –
because I hadn’t brought a more sophisticated camera,
I don’t want a struggling child in my class to think I’m disappointed with his equipment.
Nor do I want him to feel he’s less valuable to me, just because his equipment is different.
2)    My children need to have me point out their strengths.
When I felt so humble in that photography class,
I was quick to reassure myself with
I have strengths in other areas.
When one of my children struggles to learn,
I want to help her do the same thing:
to know she has strengths in other areas,
to understand what those strengths are,
and to be able to tell herself so.
I also want her to know that the strengths not listed on her report card
may be just as important as those that are.
3)    My students carry more than I realize -- and their burdens may be heavy.
I had a migraine the whole first day of my class,
and I wasn’t surprised that the pain made it even more difficult to absorb new information.
I was fascinated, though,
that the headache made it very easy to get distracted by thoughts I can usually ignore.
My migraine reminded me how hard it is for children to learn when they don’t feel well –
and, even more, that some of them carry much greater burdens than a day-long headache. Family sorrows.
Money worries.
Playground conflicts.
World-size fears.
I marvel, sometimes,
that a child can even pretend to care about addition facts and capital letters
when he’s afraid someone will say mean things to him at recess,
or worried Mom might not come home tonight.
I aim to know my students’ needs and joys as well as I can,
but I can’t know everything.
For the moments when a child doesn’t listen,
doesn’t try,
and doesn’t seem to care,
I want to let him know I care about him anyway.
And for the times when I just don’t understand,
I will extend grace.
4)    My struggling learners might not want to ask questions.
Although I often needed help in that photography class,
I sometimes had no clue how to phrase my questions.
Other times,
I knew what to ask,
but was too proud to show my teacher and classmates how much I didn’t know.
As I, at my age, had a hard time with that,
I reminded myself how much harder that can be for my children.
When a student struggles to learn, she too may not know how to ask for help,
or she may be too embarrassed to ask.
I want to make our classroom a place where she feels it’s always safe to ask.
More than that,
I want to remember to ask her questions,
specific questions that show me how much she does or doesn’t understand,
and how much I still need to teach her.
5)    My little learners might get tired of trying.
At the moments when I felt most discouraged in that photography course,
I got a bit childish –
I didn’t even want to practice my developing skills.
I almost –
but not quite –
fell into the trap of believing “I’m never going to catch up with my classmates,
so why should I try?”
I could see why a discouraged young learner can easily fall into that trap,
one he doesn’t know is there.
He has not yet learned that persistence is essential –
and that it has benefits.
I want to go beyond encouraging that little learner to try.
In every situation,
I want to show him how to try,
and I want to teach him that trying is worth it.
6)   If I’m a good teacher, I’ll be an adaptable teacher.
Just as my instructor adapted his teaching to help me get the best use from my camera,
I need to choose my words and methods carefully
to help my children get the best learning out of their equipment.
If one of my children struggles,
I want to take time to adapt the content I teach,
and the methods I use to teach it.
I need to understand how she learns,
and I need to teach her in the way she learns.
I may be confident I'm a good teacher,
but if I don’t adapt my teaching to the needs of a struggling child,
I am not a good teacher to her.