Slice of Life Tuesday: Six Lessons My Sixth Graders Taught Me

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Smithlings…

The last day of school , and also the last day of my teaching career, is exactly four weeks away.  It’s a bittersweet time in Room 202, the room in which my teaching life happens.  Amidst all the student work, books, and anchor charts that fill the room early this Tuesday morning, my eyes are drawn to the many photographs of students I have up on our walls and windows and classroom doors.  My kids.  The Smithlings, as one student dubbed us so many years ago.   Today, I’m thinking about what these kids have taught me about the craft of teaching…

Really Listen To Us…Pay Attention and Notice the “Small Things”

Teachers talk a lot. Part of that is in the nature of the work we do, but part of that is also due to the fact that most of seem to feel far more comfortable in the role of speaker rather than listener. Even when we listen, it often seems to our students that we do so with our own thoughts foremost in our minds.  Our kids can tell.  First, they become reluctant to share their thoughts (after all, what is the point?), and then they revert to doodling and checking the clock instead. It is boring to listen to one voice for the entire length of a class period, because listening is only one small part of either engaging in learning or caring about the endeavor in the first place.  I learned to listen, to wait for my kids to muddle through thinking and formulate their ideas, to honor their efforts so that they felt empowered to keep trying.

Listening goes and in hand with noticing.  Our kids show us a hundred important things in small ways.  Their world weighs upon them every bit as much as ours, perhaps even more because they have so little control over their world.  The act of noticing can be life changing, even life saving.  Of course, noticing can be messy; once you notice you are compelled to respond, to get involved.  In a school setting, involvement can mean time, paper work, meetings…in addition to all the other things in our school day which require more time, paperwork, and meetings.  But, our kids make the effort to listen and notice so worthwhile.

Respect us

Respect is one of those words we teachers bandy about with great frequency; we require it of our students without much of a sense of true reciprocity.  There are so many ways in which our kids see their daily interactions with  us as a litany of disrespectful acts: we waste their learning time with irrelevant anecdotes from our personal life and meaningless “seat work”, we ask them to speak politely and take their turn even as we often are dismissive of what they have to say, interrupt their responses, and are quick to be sarcastic or curt.  We expect them to understand the pressures we face in our own school lives without taking the time to know how stress is part of their lives, as well.  We assign tasks that are easier for us to grade but simply boring and mechanical to do.  My kids taught me that respect given them is earned in return, which made our life together all the more pleasant and productive.

Give us Meaningful Work To Do

Kids rise to the occasion when we give them meaningful work.  Even when the work seems beyond their sixth grade grasp, my kiddos will reach for it every time IF they  feel that the work has meaning and relevance.   Kids want to be taken seriously, to be given the opportunity to rise to high expectations, and to have the satisfaction of  (to quote Teddy Roosevelt) “the chance to work hard at work worth doing”.   Students deserve to know why their learning time should be spent doing this or that, and how the task connects to and extends the learning that came before.  I jettisoned workbooks and worksheets long ago in favor of student centered (and often designed) work, and I have my students to thank for that move.

Show us how to do meaningful work

Working hard at work worth doing is a learned thing.  Even my most industrious students struggle with organization and pacing.  It took me time to learn this, and time to figure out the best way to teach the “how” of  our work.  I learned to teach process, to model different strategies of process,  and to make that sort of work as visible as possible.  My students taught me that I needed to make sure that they had consistent practice in this kind of habit building, and that their failures were turned into opportunities to fine tune these habits.

Make our Work Relevant to Who we Are and the World we Live In

I will always be grateful to the students who pushed me out of comfort zones (mine as well as the school’s) to answer the “why do we have to know this?” questions.  They taught me that the social studies lessons I had labored to devise would be soon forgotten unless I could make those lessons relevant to the world outside our building.  In truth, my students taught me that this question was the foundation upon which to build all our learning – it’s the one that opened doors of interest, curiosity, questioning, and wondering.  If I could answer this question, I’ve found, my kids would remember what we we learning, and their learning would therefore matter.

Greet Each Day as a New Day

No matter what had happened the day before, my kiddos always walk in to class each day expecting new chances to learn and grow.  They’ve taught me to leave yesterday’s grievances at the door when I first turn on our classroom’s lights and think about the day ahead.  Each new day is a chance for me to be a better teacher, a chance for them to better students, and that has been an incredible gift.

Thank you, Smithlings, for lessons learned…I will carry them with me always.

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14 thoughts on “Slice of Life Tuesday: Six Lessons My Sixth Graders Taught Me

  1. Such important lessons. We learn as much from our students as they learn from us. Wishing you well as you begin the next chapter of your life.

  2. These are such good lessons to learn from a life of teaching.

    I did not realize that you were retiring this year. I will miss your voice from the classroom.

    I hope you will write. And publish.

    With great respect,
    steve

  3. Now upon retirement, time to write that book about “lessons for young teachers”. You will teach them as you learn new things yourself, from other teachers, just as you wrote of these lessons from your students. Sending hugs for a special four weeks, Tara! “Tabula rasa”

  4. I have to echo all of the above comments. We are so lucky to have you in the classroom. Transcribing your thoughts and lessons learned has been a give to our community of teacher learners.

  5. Thank you Tara for your voice and thoughts throughout the years. I wish you well as you continue your journey but hope to continue to read your insightful words.
    As educators we have days of learning to be grateful of. Thank you for these reminders that will carry me through the last month of school.

  6. Your words have been a gift to everyone who stops by and reads your blog. You learn from the kids, and the reader learns from you. You always look deeply into the craft of teaching and there is always something to think about after reading. I am so sad for the kids who did not get to be a Smithling. Hopefully, that book will get written so there will be many more Smithlings learning from the wisdom you share.

  7. Congratulations on learning so much from so many. I have been thinking about the messages kids give us when they say things. Often it’s completely different that what we hear. I have come to think recently that while we do like to talk as teachers, we more like control or just non-messiness. When the kids are driving, we aren’t ever completely sure where they are going to go. However, we should try to just enjoy the journey.

  8. The post highlights what it means to respect and care about students. I wonder whether you are going to be like Deb, saying you retire and then going back to sub as much as needed and as much as you wish, or you will go to the farm and start a fresh page of your life, writing a book, like Linda recommended.

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