Monday, February 1, 2021

Hey students, what do you think?

In my 13 years of teaching high school, I believe I've been in the homes of zero students. Yep. Nada. Zilch. Nobody.

I've run into students at Trader Joe's, Target, Starbucks, the driving range and random public places, and I have embraced "the art of the awkward conversation with my teacher." Love that stuff!

With online only school, that has changed. I unwittingly have found myself in my students' homes via Zoom, and I see glimpses of home lives that I never aspired to see. In unexpected ways, I have gotten to understand my students better this year than in a conventional classroom, and maybe that is some sort of silver lining. 

As an educator, my approach always has been to soak in what is happening and use that to improve my teaching — and life. That remains my modus operandi, and I may be growing more as a teacher this year than any. Why is this? Answer: My students.

Before the shutdown, my students inspired me with their drive, work ethic and commitment to education. They also have inspired me with their personal stories, kindness, progressive attitudes, tech skills and overall awesomeness.

During Covid times, I've been inspired even more. I have heard numerous heartbreaking tales and, of course, wish we didn't have to go through all of this pain. However, the human spirit is resilient. I see students working through grief, dealing with anxiety and confusion, and as I look at them, I am amazed at how strong they are.

So today, I thought it would be worthwhile to ask students this: Hey, what's working, and what's not? When it comes to online only school, or school in general, what do you believe works well? What does not?

Now, I have my theories on what is working in schools and what is not, and I'll offer the "not" side with a brief self-assessment. Of course, this most likely is flawed.

Where Mr. Stevens could improve:

1) Less talking, more listening. I am making a concerted effort to keep anything resembling lecture to 10 minutes or less via Zoom. However, I notice that leading an opener, offering a health tip per class, explaining a lesson and clarifying assignments involve words. At least I use pull cards to call upon my students as much as possible.

2) Stop the madness of insignificant assignments, readings and tests. The good news is that I am an English teacher, and teaching the standards can be applied to a zillion readings. Giving students choice in what they read is huge. Some students have told me that by picking their own books, they actually are reading again. However, I have to make sure not to backslide into the trap of assigning waste-of-time materials, just because that's what was done when I was a student.

3) Grade for skills and understanding, not compliance. It appears that "doing the work" often is synonymous with "earning the grade." How often do teachers fail students because they missed an assignment or two but have shown grade-level competency? On the flip side, how many students earn high grades, even though they may not have mastered the standards? I'm doing my best to focus on the standards and not the compliance.

OK. Let me shift gears and throw out three obstacles that hinder teachers. These come from impressions I get based on the meetings, professional development and conversations.

1) Overload (AKA "future shock"). In his 1970 book Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term future shock to mean "too much change in too short a period of time." During Covid-19, I see that teachers have been thrown so much, so fast, that some may be shutting down or have shut down. It's just too much. Some are retiring; others are struggling.

I have no magical solution to this problem. Genuine support from the state, district, admin and colleagues would help, but if that's not there, teachers may be stuck with figuring this out on their own. I only hope they have a good support system at home.

2) Horrific self-care. Sugary diets, lack of exercise, negative thought patters, thought disorders — teachers could be struggling on these fronts. Self-care is HUGE. Sometimes, we teachers make sure to take care of our students and families, but what about ourselves?

3) Stuck in patterns that don't work. This is where excuses and ire toward "the system" or whoever is the perceived villain occurs. To me, when I hear teachers complaining, I lend an ear and am kind. However, a lot of times the complaints seem beside the point. While we do have plenty of legitimate concerns, I'm pretty sure that I have the most influence on whether my students succeed in my class or not as opposed to outside forces.

Of course, these Covid times present us with extremely difficult propositions and situations, but maybe that's why we teachers are more important than ever now.