The pandemic gave me the opportunity to start becoming the teacher I've always wanted to be--a teacher that demonstrates the type of learning she'd like to see her students celebrate.

In the beginning of my courses I always introduce myself and share some interesting facts about myself. One that I often share with teachers but not with students was that I hated school and thought about/tried to drop out several times in both high school and university. But the thing was I loved learning. I always give students the opportunity to ask me any questions they like and for the first time a student asked me why I hated school. I honestly didn't have an answer right away. Because at times school was too easy and boring, but then other times it was overwhelming and difficult. I was often terrified of failing, overwhelmed by deadlines that seemed to exist outside my lived reality, or I didn't see the big picture of what I was learning. Often it felt like I was surviving between tasks, performing for others, and that one mistake could tank a grade. In other words, the fear of failure often outweighed the joy of learning.

This year I had the opportunity to be open with my students with the challenges of our new 'normal' and that we would be in this together. I invited them to let me know what it working and what wasn't. I started surveying them frequently to check on the success of assignments and the format of the course. One of my course assignments was a two part book conversation--during these conversations we would often then use them as check-ins about the course. Students would be willing to ask me one-on-one questions about progress and discuss that where going well for them or struggles they were having. I wanted to build these course conversations into the course.

I started to build more choice into my course (developing learning groups with different projects) and I kept getting asked "is this for marks." As much as I tried to flip the script, to explain that I was a coach in the classroom and that my goal was to get them to their goals, I was still struggling to get them to 'believe' me. I then attended Brandon Black's Cohort 21 sharing session on unit conferencing as a way to get students to focus on learning progress and not marks.

After seeing how Brandon used the unit conference sheet, I was excited to get my students to focus on the learning goals for the course. I came up with an idea of having them build websites of all their learning and presented it to them. I was told, with love, that it was very overwhelming and that they did not like it. So we started talking about what would work for them, I explained my learning from the conference and showed them some examples. When they saw one of Brandon's templates they got really excited. Together we co-designed it for the course and set up course conferencing.

What came out of my course conferencing was some of my most rewarding conversations I've had in my career. I got to hear students openly and honestly discuss assignments that worked for them and ones that where of lower value. Conversations weren't about how to get different grades but about their own progress and their goals. Many students connected learning outside of the classroom and often their goals where about what they planned to do with the knowledge in their everyday lives. I got to hear students discuss failed tests as successes because of the learning that had happened from those missed questions. I saw my students take on riskier projects and celebrate the messy learning process. I saw my students make mistakes and roll right into the next steps. I saw my students fail with joy.

I started this year with a focus on equity in the classroom and I'm still working on it. I wanted to use trauma aware pedagogy to create a framework to determine when it is appropriate to bring bring traumatic material into the classroom. I'm still working on this project and have a stack of reading to do. If anyone is excited to work on this with me, I'm always excited to learn with others. I'm failing with joy and very much looking forward to taking on this project over the summer and next year.

We can often fall into the trap of trying to get a lesson or tool "just right," but in doing so we might miss the students that are in front of us. By approaching my courses as a collaborator and coach I was able to allow myself the flexibility to openly try new things with my students. When I openly and professionally embraced learning and risk in my own teaching practice with my students, I saw them do the same in their own work. When I became joyous and excited about the need for a redesign because something wasn't working--I started to witness that as a classroom norm.

I realized that as a teacher I was starting to burn out because I was starting to focus on perfection and 'getting it right.' I had lost the joy of learning and was focusing on the possibility of failure. Learning to become excited by failure with my students, brought true joy back into my teaching practice.  I can't wait to start my next series of failures and watch them roll into my successes.

This has been a exceptionally difficult year (what an understatement), but in the words of Luke Cage: "Never backwards. Always Forward."

2 Comments

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Going back to a classic tool for student support. 

 

In 2002, before google meets, zooms or online chats, I was a first year university student on a small rural campus. Attending a new school can be isolating, but one of the most stressful parts was getting stuck on homework and not knowing anyone nearby that could help. The isolation in one’s own room with a problem that feels unsolvable was a horrible experience. However, for my Ancient Greek and World Religion courses--there was the Greek and Religion hotline. We had our professors’ home number with permission to call anytime 12pm to 12am. The relief that that phone call would bring--the explanation and the support was unbelievable. Hearing the phone answered with “The Greek hotline, how can we help?” would immediately release the stress from my shoulders. (Although I now wonder what telemarketers thought when they called.)  I’ve always admired those two professors' dedication to their subjects and students. 

 

Teaching in a high school environment, I have many hours and in person contact with my students. I have traditionally felt comfortable that students are connecting with the material or that they have access to me and their community for help. However, during Covid with so many of my students in rooms alone with cameras off, I started to remember my own experience with being overwhelmed and isolated. Staring into the silence of muted online avatars while my students worked on graphing problems, I started to think about that Greek Hotline. We may not use a phone anymore, but I realized I could have multiple google meets organized during class. So I established the Google Meet Helpline. During times when students are working in small groups or independently, I have another google meet running that is connected to my headphones. Students can pop in, share their screens and ask questions without the rest of the class hearing. 

 

This idea of a helpline, is far from technologically advanced. However, I was suddenly speaking to so many different students. With the share screen function I’ve been able to walk them through graphing, and excel problems. Nothing will replace sitting at a desk with a student, but for these times my helpline has made me feel like my students aren’t alone.