After a very busy few weeks at school, I am struck once again by the fact that teaching and everything to do with education comes down to individual people. It is the little and big people that fill our classrooms; it is their parents with their needs and goals for their children. It is our colleagues, who they are in school and all that they bring from their home lives and their background. It is our administrators and what they seek to achieve. And it is ourselves, with all of our strengths and challenges.
We never work in isolation or in a vacuum. We may plan alone and grade alone, but we always take whatever happens in that quiet space into the crowd of our schools. It is there, in the midst of other’s strengths and needs, that we practice our craft. Sometimes we understand what is influencing those around us, but most times, we do not. We especially have to try to bring out the best in students whose full experience of life is a mystery to us.
Teachers take that on every day. We walk into school, prepared to have to adapt to whatever presents itself. It is the joy and the struggle of being a good teacher. Lesson plans can only go so far. We are constantly inventing the best lessons that we can for our students and then are willing to immediately tinker with the design if it just isn’t working. We have to let the students be part of the equation as they bring all of themselves into the classroom. A lesson may fly with all the kids involved, taking on a life of its own as they engage in the work. Or it may crash to the ground, sometimes for no identifiable reason. We can present an task for the class and within minutes, it can become clear that they are not engaged. They are bored or distracted. What looked good on paper is simply not working, because the real people, who are our students, are not connecting to the challenge before them.
Teachers have a choice in those moments. They can decide that they know what is best and ignore the signs from their students. They can power on through the lesson and refuse to notice the minds that have shifted away from the learning and onto thoughts of what they are going to have for lunch or their best friend’s new shoes . The other choice is to be readily accept failure and let go of what is precious to you, the lesson that you planned, and focus on what is most important, which is the learning of the students. If we can model a willingness to accept failure and a commitment to learning, then we can give our students a tremendous gift.
Our plans can never be more important than the students in front of us. We are trying to lead them into a place where they love to learn. If what is happening in the classroom is training them to hate learning or to think that learning is boring, then it is time to adapt. Get out of that lesson, quickly, and dream up something new. Put out a game to practice a skill. Take a walk with them, and ask about what was going wrong and how it could be better. Anything that accepts that they are real people, who want to learn and be smart but who may have struggles with the lesson, with the day, with themselves. Teachers have to be therapists, magicians, active learners. We have to pay attention to the children who are before us and adapt to meet their needs so that they can have success. We need to show them that hard work, like we put into planning a class, doesn’t always lead to success and that sometimes hard work leads to more work, and that that is okay!