I once had a university lecturer who generalized that early childhood teachers love children, primary school teachers are control freaks and high school teachers love their subjects. I would say that sentiment was pretty well right for many people. I have so often heard primary teachers talk about ‘my program’, ‘my students’, ‘my classroom’, ‘my teaching’, ‘my beliefs’ and ‘my approach’. I am writing today to remind teachers that what goes on in your classroom is NOT about you.
Your students and their needs are the central determiner of how you operate as a teacher. Before a whole heap of people leave outraged messages in the comments section below, please understand that I know that there are teachers who operate in highly effective ways each and every day. Please understand that I know that there are schools that mandate programs teachers know to be ineffective and have no control over and please understand if you are getting the job done, this post is not intended to apply to you.
I am talking about the many, many classrooms where decisions that are in the teacher’s control do not benefit students. I have some questions to ask. Do you truly believe that all students can learn and plan ways to build success for each and every one? Or, do you view learning as the prize in some kind of competition where the ‘good’ children who ‘behave’ get to learn and those who don’t, miss out on the privilege? Have you ever thought or said out loud, ‘I taught it, if they don’t learn it, what do you want me to do about it?’ (Incidentally, I have heard this exact statement in a staffroom). Do you make your teaching decisions based on data, what you know about students and current evidence or do you dream up elaborate units of work based on what you would like the perfect lessons to look like?
It seems to me that there are often times when teachers teach ‘through’ the group of children like a bowling ball knocks down pins. Those children who do not fit the mold, who need some extra understanding, who are learning at a level below their peers are knocked down and left stunned by the classroom goings on. Some wobble but stay upright and then those who are still standing proudly are held up as the evidence of the teacher’s skill.
Here in the NT Soundfield systems are in most schools. They amplify the teacher’s voice so that children can hear much more effectively. On any given day a very large percentage of our remote Indigenous students will have a mild hearing loss due to blocked and runny noses or conductive hearing issues. To the teachers who say that they don’t need to use the system because they have a big loud teacher voice or they just ‘don’t like it’. Guess what? It’s not about YOU.
To the teacher who changed a child’s visual communication system because they had one that they liked better. Guess what? It’s not about YOU.
To the teachers who see a traumatized or disabled child as a nuisance who gets in the way of their lessons. Guess what? It’s not about YOU.
To the teachers who resent having to go back to basics because they are upper primary teachers and they shouldn’t have to teach phonics, sentence structure or use manipulatives in maths. Guess what? It’s not about YOU.
Student centred teaching starts with the students and their goals. Powering on regardless of the needs or responses of your students or casting some aside because it’s all a bit too hard is simply not acceptable. When we see each child for the person that they are and design learning to address their needs, we honour the child. When we actually use the Individual Learning Plan written with the child’s parents and the special education teacher, we honour the child. When we seek information about our student’s learning difficulty and ask questions about how to make our practice the best it can be, we honour the child. We all say that we are in this profession for the children, but what we need is deeds not words. We need a fundamental shift in thinking. I am not, of course, calling for 25 different lesson plans or discovery learning. I am, however, asking teachers to pay attention to the trouble maker, the withdrawn student and the quietly anxious struggling reader in their class. Find ways to build success. Show them that they are worthy of your attention and time. Make changes to the way that you teach so that they too can be the pins that stay standing. Structure, routine, predictability, step by step classroom operations, systematic and explicit teaching benefit so many.
I acknowledge that I am writing from frustration tonight. Frustration that I am part of a profession that continues to ignore the evidence around effective teaching practice. Frustration that our profession does not recognise, celebrate and learn from the schools and individual teachers who are getting it right. I am writing from a place of plain old anger that ‘we’ condemn so many children to a life where they think that they are dumb, when they’re not.
Please think about your practice and take a really honest look at what goes on in your classroom. What would it look like if the focus shifted back to students and not you?