Recently I watched the movie The Grizzlies in the cinema (based on a true story). It starts with a brand new teacher straight out of teacher's college takes a job teaching history in Nunavut in an attempt to pay for his education. He's got a great job lined up back in Toronto for the next school year, so he's not planning to stay very long. Upon his arrival in Kugluktuk, the math teacher picks him up to bring him to his new "home" and on his way past the local Co-op and gas station, the movie switches to slow motion as the boys hanging out there get a good long look at him and him at them. They look at him like "who is this new (white) guy and who does he think he is?!" And he just looks at them in wide wonder, think "what have I gotten myself into?"
I remember getting that look every time I was a supply teacher at the local open custody detention centre for boys and the alternate sites in Ottawa. I rarely felt welcome, until they warmed up to me, but that took a LONG time!
The new teacher, straight out of teacher's college and thinking he knows about education and about teaching history and about what it is supposed to look and feel like in a classroom, starts off his first day with roll call and ends up getting punched in the face after telling one of his students that the student was going to have to go through him first if he thinks he's going to leave the class. In the next classroom scene you see the teacher going through his binder with all the lessons he has planned and giving the class an assignment that none of them are interested in doing and later giving them a hard time, telling they're going to fail if they don't do the work.
None of the students seem to care about passing or failing, because it seems like even passing high school doesn't get them anywhere but where they already are, so what's the point? These kids are dealing with suicide, poverty, hunger, running away from home, hunting, providing for their families, raising younger brothers and sisters. School comes after all of this.
This goes back to what I was saying in my "What comes next?" post, in that I believe it is paramount to meet my students where they are. At one point, you see the teacher throw the binder across his room and the papers go flying every where. He finally understood that there are so many barriers to the student's success that no matter how good his lessons are, no matter how tried and true, he wasn't going to get through to those students until he meets them where they are.
It took a few days, but he was finally humbled when he realized that if he really wanted to get through to these students, he was going to have to relate to them. He was going to have to remove some barriers, or at least acknowledge them and be understanding and accommodating of, and towards, those barriers. He wanted so badly to be in charge of the class, and get them to meet his expectations, but he couldn't even meet theirs.
The message (about teaching) that I took away from this movie, while there were a lot of messages, was the importance of being humble, and not thinking that I have all the answers and can help every student through all their struggles. While I want to, if I carried on day after day, telling them "what they need to know" and getting them ready for "what comes next," there are going to be a lot more students left behind in my class than moving forwards. As I've mentioned before, their world is the real world, and I need to respect, understand and honour that. Teaching, especially in 2019, is SO much more than curriculum. So much more than tests, or exams. Whether anyone likes it or not, we are living in a crazy world and it's not my job to get the students to my level. It's my job to help them achieve the highest level they are capable of achieving.
You have to understand that I truly believe there isn't one right way to teach, or to be a teacher. Everyone has their own style, personally and professionally, and every teacher has to find what works best for them. When I started teaching, supply teaching, I tried all kinds of different ways to be an effective supply teacher. I would wear suits, or just a shirt and tie, because I thought it would command respect and make me look like a "real teacher". I quickly found out, that for me, dressing like that made it awfully difficult to relate to my students, and thus, must have made it even more difficult for them to relate to me. So much about being an effective teacher, if you ask me, is having the humility to create authentic relationships with my students. So I stopped with the suits and the ties. I'm a pretty big guy, so I had to find ways to mitigate my (somewhat) imposing figure so as to be seen as supportive and helpful and non-threatening. I think my sense of humour and genuine interest in my student's lives helps with that and I find that I have meaningful relationships with most of my students. While I can't always remember all of their names, I can tell you something about each one of them, whether it's about their interests or their personalities. I bring this all up, because I think it's SO important to be able to relate to my students and that they can find some level to relate to me. What's the saying?
"They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."
And I try not to waste any time letting my students know that I care deeply about them and their education (and I use that term loosely). All this being said, if suits and/or shirts and ties work for you, then own it...It's just not for me. Sometimes I wish it was for me, because, as I always say, it feels good to look good, but I just don't love wearing a tie all day, everyday.
So much of being an effective teacher, in my mind, is about the relationships you create with your students. I think spending extra time at the beginning of the semester getting to know the students is SO important and sets the tone for the rest of the year. Getting to know about the things that my students like goes a really long way on creating a safe and productive culture in my classroom. I'll even go as far as to say that so many classroom management challenges can be curbed by having a safe, supportive and productive culture and relationship with potentially difficult students.
You have to get to know where your students are at in order to elevate them. I really like the term "elevate", but you have to find out where they are in order to have reasonable expectations. It's going to be hard to create any kind of positive relationships with a student if I set unreasonable expectations for my students. Imagine walking into class feeling like you'll never live up to anyone's expectations, so why even try?
George Couros wrote a blog post that I found poignant. It's called "Defining Your Own Journey," but the quote that really spoke to me was the following:
When I hear of "scripted" curriculums, the argument is that every student should have the same experience, but should they? They should all have a great experience, but I would say that looks different in every classroom for every student. This is why giving over ownership of the journey matters as much as the shared destination.
The point is, in my mind, that while the destination is the same, the journey should be, needs to be, different for every student. And why not? As I mentioned before, it's important to the learners in my classroom to have a relationship with their teacher (at least I think it is) that is safe and supportive. And they need to know that my expectations of them are reasonable and achievable. If those criteria are met, we are going to have a positive and meaningful semester. But I don't think it's fair of me to have the same expectations for everyone. Keep in mind, I'm not talking about curriculum expectations, I know why those have to be the same, but, for example, why should I expect everyone to be able to express themselves all the same way as in on a written test?
This, to me, is why it's so important to always be humble and kind. So I can meet my students where they are, establish strong, safe, caring and supportive relationships and set reasonable expectations for my students that can be revisited when, not if, those expectations are met and/or exceeded.