I’m Not Their Only Teacher

You don’t truly understand a concept until you try teaching it to someone else. While reading Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder, I noticed how much the main character, Jinny, struggles to teach her younger “Care”, Ess, about life. She struggles with taking everything she knows and figuring out how to actually teach it. She quickly realizes that just because you know how to do something, doesn’t mean you know how to teach it. Other children on the island offer to help, but she refuses. As the oldest, she thinks she’s the only one that can teach Ess everything she needs to know.

This got me thinking about how learning is less overwhelming when it’s viewed as a collaborative effort. As an ELA teacher, I forget that my class is not the only one students attend each day. I forget that there are 5 or so other hours of learning taking place each day. I forget that I’m not the only one responsible for their learning.

Teaching is the collaborative effort of students, teachers, administrators and parents. No single person is responsible for all of a student’s learning. Sure, we all have our focus areas but we’re in this together.

As I sit and plan for the upcoming school year, I need to remember that I’m not the only one helping my students grow. I’m not the only one they read with, or write with. I’m not the only one they speak to or listen to. I can’t possibly teach them everything there is to know about reading, writing, speaking and listening in 180 days. No teacher can. There’s far too much to cover. I need to focus on certain areas that are most important and teach them well, rather than overwhelm both myself and my students. This isn’t anything new. Most educators know this, but sadly, I need to keep reminding myself.

I also have this idea in the back of my mind that every student must master everything we attempt. Part of it comes from the demand grades place on students to pass everything. Mistakes and failures are still viewed negatively but that’s a topic for a future blog post.

While having high expectations for my students is important, I need to be realistic. If a student doesn’t completely grasp an understanding of comma usage during their time with me, I have to trust that they will learn it from someone else. I’m not saying I give up on a student when they don’t understand a concept, but I strive for progress, not perfection. I have to accept that students won’t leave my room with everything there is to know.

Showing students how to enjoy reading and writing is my top priority. It’s more important than any standard or topic. I know I won’t be able to teach every grammar convention or literary device, but I can focus on creating a love for reading and writing. I can show students how to find books worth reading and that reading isn’t something we just do for school. I can show them how keeping a writer’s notebook helps them better observe themselves and the world around them. I can show them how writing can give them a voice when they want to be heard.

Showing students the power of reading and writing isn’t something they will easily forget. It’s something they will carry with them. It’s something they will continue to learn from. It’s something that will help them grow as individuals in this crazy world.

At the end of this past school year, one student told me she no longer hates reading, she just dislikes it. Do I wish she loved reading? Yes, but I’m happy with her progress. She gained some enjoyment from reading in my class. Hate is a strong word. If students leave my room hating reading and writing, I’ve failed.

While I finish my summer planning, I’m focusing on what matters most, rather than try to teach everything there is to know about ELA. I’m letting go of the overwhelming feeling that I won’t be able to cover everything. I’m reminding myself that teaching is a collaborative effort of many people and not just me and the student.




Make Learning Relevant

On my end of year survey, I asked students to rate my class on a scale of 1-5. At that point, students knew to be honest when giving me feedback. They knew I wanted the truth as much as it may hurt. I was happy to see that 98% rated it a 4 or a 5. That’s a stat I’m proud of. I work hard at creating my classroom. Some days I feel defeated. It’s encouraging to see such feedback. And don’t worry, some of the other questions showed me the honest truth about certain lessons they didn’t enjoy.

I believe one of the reasons they enjoy my class so much is because of the relevance it has to their lives.

“When they discover the relevance, their energy for and attention to the task will soar. Getting their attention is about interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”

Beers and Probst, Disrupting Thinking

Our students beg for relevance. Whether they shout out “why are we doing this?” or sit and comply, students need to see the relevance of what they’re learning.

When I became a teacher 5 years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I was inexperienced and overwhelmed, but my intentions were right. I wanted to create an interesting, relevant and enjoyable experience for my students. I didn’t want them to experience school as I had. I played the game that we’re all too familiar with. I read for school. I wrote for school. I did my homework. I answered questions the teachers asked. I memorized facts, took the test and then forgot them days later. In other words, I was compliant.

Compliance does not lead to learning. Being forced to do something you don’t enjoy is bad enough. It’s even worse when you to have to do it everyday and get a grade for it.

As a child I was intrigued by computers. I started playing around with them, building my own, and learning everything I could by just doing. No one told me to learn more about computers. No one graded me or checked my comprehension. It eventually grew into a set of skills that I use everyday, even as a teacher. This knowledge is a product of my curiousity. It’s a product of learning about something that mattered. Something I found relevant. It’s not something I learned in school.

When we find something relevant, we have this urge to get better and better at it. It’s what drives me to read and write so much about education. While many people look forward to relaxing during the summer, I find joy in reflecting on the past school year. I revise some things, get rid of others, and plan out new ideas.

Anytime I’m planning out lessons or activities, one of the first questions I think about is, “how can I make this relevant for my students?” It’s more than likely the first question they’re thinking about. In my classroom, it means allowing students choice in what they write or read. It means showing them real world examples of how a certain skill will help them. Sometimes it means scrapping a lesson and creating something new. Sometimes it means going against what I’m supposed to do, because I know it’s in the best interest of my students. And because I know students learn best when they see relevance in what they’re doing.

Earlier last year, we wrote Amazon reviews. We spent the beginning of the unit figuring out how important online reviews, how influential they are and why they matter. I knew we couldn’t start writing until they saw the relevance. Luckily, many of my students use Amazon to purchase things. Plus, they had the chance to write about an item that meant something to them.

Creating lessons that all students find interesting is time consuming. Creating relevant lessons requires a lot of effort on our part. Unfortunately, some of us have less autonomy than others. Some of us have preset curriculum we must follow. Others are stuck in their old ways. But despite the challenges, despite the effort required, despite what we’re “supposed to do”, we need to create learning experiences that students will find interesting and relevant. Our students deserve it.

When there’s a lack of interest and relevance, students see no point in trying or caring. Some will comply and do their best, others will just coast by with the bare minimum and even worst, some will act out and eventually get labeled as problem students.

Relevance makes our jobs easier. It creates engagement. Cuts down on disruptions. It creates a connection between what we do in school and students’ lives. Most importantly, it makes them excited to learn.