I Was Wrong

You can’t teach without making mistakes. At least I couldn’t. I’d get tangled up in a math problem or forget to enter a grade or get stuck in a logic puzzle. Often I pronounced words wrong. I learned to read at a young age and I read about topics I didn’t discuss with people. So I pronounced words my way in my head. And I said them my way, too.

When I blundered like this, I had some options. I could try to cover my mistake with fancy footwork or brush it off like it didn’t matter. But I found that what worked best was to acknowledge my mistakes and to thank students and parents for pointing them out.

I wanted to call forth the best in my students. So I felt I needed to be my best, but part of being my best was admitting my mistakes. And good things happened when I did.

I’d call parents and say, “You know, after reading your e-mail, I got to thinking, and I want to make some changes.”

Or I’d say to students, “I can tell that lesson plan didn’t work. What would have helped? What should I try tomorrow?”

When I was too hard on a student, pronouncing judgement without understanding, I’d ask the student to stay after class. “What you did was wrong,” I’d say. “But what I did was wrong, too. What can we do to get things right again?”

Admitting mistakes, I found, helped to build an educational community. Students could see that teachers are learners. And when I thanked a student for pointing out one of my errors, the class could see that students are also teachers. Feeling valued and knowing that their input counted, students became more willing to risk questioning a teacher. We were, after all, learning together.

And when I acknowledged failure with a parent, we became partners—collaborators working together for the good of the student. And between us we built trust, both of us human, both of us trying and failing and learning and trying again—all for the sake of the student.

Sometimes confessing fault took more courage than I thought I had. I felt vulnerable and more accountable. But the more I owned up, the more I could see that one of the biggest mistakes teachers can make is to think they have the right answers all of the time.

Learning to Drive a Stick-Shift

I learned to drive a stick-shift car in a hilly city. When our old car died, I agreed to buy a stick-shift because gasoline prices were rising and because, when I watched my husband, changing gears looked easy. But what seemed effortless from the passenger seat felt complex behind the wheel.

I had more control, I found. I could choose when to shift gears instead of the car deciding for me. But in the driver’s seat, too much needed to happen at the same time. I had to remember when to put a foot on the brake and on the clutch and when to release the clutch and to do that slowly. I had to keep the car from stalling and from rolling backward down the street from the traffic light at the top of the hill. I had to master the interplay between the clutch and gas pedals to keep from lugging or racing the engine. For weeks the car lurched and bucked like a bull. Beside me drivers glared, and behind me horns honked.

Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission reminded me of my first year in the classroom. Teaching is so simultaneous. At the same time I conjugated verbs with the class, one student passed a note to another, an announcement came over the loud speaker, the guidance counselor brought a new student through the door, the boy in the back row waved one hand frantically and pointed to the restroom pass with the other, and an office helper came for the attendance sheet.

Nothing came to me automatically that first year. I had to think about every move, teaching without instinct, without having the feel. And I had to keep teaching, despite the jolts of the sudden starts and stops and even with disapproving looks from more experienced teachers and irate phone calls from parents who didn’t want a first-year teacher for their kid.

By degrees, the habits of teaching became more instinctual. I learned to retrieve a passed note without pausing in a read-aloud, to nod to a waving hand while I answered the door, to delegate attendance sheets to a trusted student. I was more able to anticipate how to keep parents happy and how to seek advice from experienced teachers instead of irritating them.

And I found that I loved a profession layered with activity, pulsing with multiple rhythms. Teaching, I discovered, wasn’t boring.

How I Got Myself to School on Days I Didn’t Want to Go

Teaching was my dream. Through my school years I collected ideas from my teachers. I’ll do this when I’m a teacher, I thought—or, not this, for sure. I taught my younger siblings to read before they went to school, just for the pleasure of seeing words move from the page to their minds and out of their mouths. I pursued teacher training against odds, diapering babies and stretching money as I completed class after class. And finally one day I held my college diploma, the paper I needed to teach.

So imagine my dismay, when in my first year of teaching, I woke up some mornings wishing I didn’t have to go to school. I’d hear the clock alarm and groan. I didn’t want to answer a thousand questions again or smell thirty adolescent bodies fresh from gym or attend a faculty meeting about test scores.

But I discovered early on that a dragging teacher has no chance for a good day. And gradually, over the years, I developed some tricks of the mind to get myself to school. Here are a few:

  • I got to school early, closed the door, and turned up the volume on upbeat classical music. The beat brought the energy I needed for the day.
  • I tried to remember I wasn’t entitled, that other people with dreams lost them in concentration camps or prisons or slavery. My day could be different, dream bereft.
  • I thought of one student, who needed me that day. This took my mind off my needs, gave me purpose, and redirected my emotion.
  • Just start the day, I told myself. You’ll feel better after you start.
  • I brought a treat for my students. Buying doughnuts for homeroom changed the tone of their day and mine.
  • I wore my favorite outfit. Dressing well pepped me up—giving me energy to joke with students and step spritely in the classroom.
  • I looked back to one of my favorite teachers from long ago. Miss Bordeaux, for example, knew I liked to write and understood that I took critique as a gift. I looked forward to my returned essays, with her editing marks slashed across them and her knowing look as she watched me read them. Today, I’ll be Miss Bordeaux for Cassia, I’d think. And this gave me energy.
  • I’d look to a colleague for inspiration. One year, for example, I taught next to a primary music teacher. Mrs. Jones, I knew, went home each evening to care for a mother with a freshly amputated leg. Most mornings, she’d be in tears as she fumbled with her door key. But all day, through the walls, I’d hear the bouncy music of her small students and see them leaving her room in smiles. If she can do it, I can do it, I’d think.
  • Later in my career, especially, I’d look ahead to my retirement. When I sit on my rocking chair, I’d tell myself, I want to rock with a good conscience, knowing I’ve helped and with fond memories, knowing I’ve loved.
  • And I drank caffeine, lots of it.

With these methods, I’d fool myself, on bad days, into thinking I wanted to teach. And then, part way through the day, I’d remember again why I wanted to teach.

The Speaking of Students

Speech filled my classrooms. Some of it came from my mouth. But much of it came from students. And only some of their speech was the words they said. They complained about each other and talked about themes in literature. And as I listened, I learned more about students.

But sometimes what they didn’t say was even louder. When a student who was usually vocal contributed nothing in a round-table discussion, I listened. Did this student identify with the short story protagonist who struggled with self-harm?

I came to realize, though, that I had not been valuing another way students spoke. In fact I often disparaged this way of speaking. But I gradually came to see that students who rolled their eyes and crossed their arms were also sending me a message. Hair drooped over faces, feet tapping, shoulders slumped in hoodies, eyes averted—all these I had often taken as disrespect and mostly ignored. But I   had been losing opportunities. Each speech from a student, even a nonverbal—brings a chance to show care.

And so I started responding to nonverbal speech. In the hallway, I’d pull a student aside.

“You seemed so huddled up in your hoodie this morning,” I’d say. “Are you okay?”

Or after class I’d say to a student, “When I gave that assignment, I saw your eyes rolling. I’m curious. What were you thinking? I’d like to know.”

At lunch I’d sit in an empty seat next to the arm crosser. “You seemed upset during the discussion this morning. Do you want to talk about it?”

As I acknowledged their nonverbal speech, students opened to me. After all, I was continuing , rather shutting down, the communication between us. I discovered more about their thinking and their feelings. And I learned more about my teaching.

This new openness between students and me created more receptivity for learning. After all, no one likes to be ignored.

Cause a Commotion

Brains seek novelty. You can tell by the way students snap from their stupors when a new kid walks into class or mouse runs out from under a cabinet. The brain notices change. It engages most with what is new, different, or unusual. And often when teachers don’t provide enough novelty to make a class interesting, students do.

I found that I’d rather cause a little commotion of my own than to have students shoot spit wads to the ceiling with cafeteria straws or heckle each other or pass notes. Here are some ways to add variety to a classroom so students don’t feel the need to do it themselves:

  • Introduce new activities every eight to ten minutes. Explain a concept, and then have students turn and talk with a partner about the concept. Rotate individual work with partner work and group work.
  • Alter sound. Change your voice volume—whisper, then speak up. Play instrumental music. Use white noise during quiet work.
  • Vary visuals. Use slides and real objects and white boards. Teach with lights on and then off. Buy a lamp with multi-colored bulbs.
  • Move around the room. Teach from the front and the side and the middle.
  • Change pacing. Be urgent, then reflective. Push, then relax.
  • Tap into both logic and emotion. Discuss the theme of a book. But then tell a personal story about how that theme has shown up in your life. Stories invite emotion and increase understanding.
  • Incorporate micro-breaks. When eyes start glazing, ask students to stand and stretch before going on.

Teaching for high engagement, I found, takes some planning. But I prefer planning over writing detention slips. And my brain also enjoys the variety.

Bridging the Brain

“Your brain has two parts,” I’d tell students, “and the more the two parts work together, the better you can learn—words will flow, math will solve, concepts will sharpen, and interest will grow.

Then I’d tell them I knew an activity that could help make this happen, and I’d lead them in cross-lateral exercises—movements in which arms and legs cross from one side of the body to the other.

I wish I had known about cross laterals earlier in my teaching career. I learned about these simple movements in Eric Jenson’s book, Brain-Based Learning. Jenson explains how the corpus callosum functions as a sort of bridge across the fissure between the two brains. This bridge carries communication from one side of the brain to the other. And the stronger the bridge, the more information it can carry.

Cross lateral movements force the two parts of the brain to communicate with each other, strengthening the link between them. Examples of cross lateral movements are marching while tapping a hand to the opposite knee, opposite-side toe touches, raising a heel and touching it with the opposite-side hand. Students like following YouTube videos like Brain Gym  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VL4an7UC3wA) that show cross-lateral movements.

“You’re bridging your brain,” I’d say as they exercised. “This will help.”

Besides, the exercises rid them of fidgets and woke them up.

But beyond physical exercise in class, there are more academic ways to bring the brain together. Here are some examples:

  • As students read math story problems, ask them to draw what they read.
  • Sing the multiplication tables.
  • Use art prints to introduce concepts. How does the artist visually show elements of literature that will appear in a short story students are about to read?
  • With their bodies, invite students to create a frozen scene from a history lesson.
  • Use charts and diagrams and story maps to make concepts visual.
  • Play background music to stimulate the right side of the brain while students use the left side to read.

These activities bridge the brain, connecting the parts and bringing balance to learning.

Teaching Beyond Myself

I connected most naturally with students who thought cleverly and quickly. If students wanted to argue from a premise, analyze an essay, or construct a geometry proof, I was their kind of teacher. But I learned early on that my skill set, though valuable, was narrow. If I taught only with my way of thinking, I would miss most of my students. My teaching would be always limited by myself. To teach well, I had to come out of myself so I could see my students, not stamp my style on them.

I remember the exact day that set me on the path to discover how my students learned, what made them curious. This was back in grammar-teaching days, and as I had prepared the lesson I suddenly grasped some logic of syntax in a way I had never before understood. Impressed with the beauty of language, I made a chart to show students, sure I could catch their interest.

But I didn’t, except for a few—the logically clever.

So I experimented with my students, trying to learn from them. I tried different openings for lessons—openings that involved emotion and action and conversation and viewing art.

Jason, I found, thought mysteriously—out of the depth of himself, from down in his guts. He was alive with instinct and feeling, and at the first approach he didn’t think. Only after he felt, did his nerves carry what he already knew to his thinking brain.

Lilly learned as she heard herself talk. Her learning launched when she activated her social brain. Discussion, not logic, fueled her understanding. Other students learned by moving or making or hearing stories.

Teaching in a way that encompassed more students took more planning, created more mess. But it held more meaning, for them and for me.


Don’t Smile Until Christmas

Beginnings count. The longer I taught the more I saw the importance of the first week of a school year, the first day, the first hour, the first minute.

As a novice teacher, I tried to show at the beginning of a year that I wanted to be a friend, thinking that if students liked me, they’d learn from me. So I brought smiles and kind words and easy warm-up lessons to the first day of class. And my students took my gifts and trampled on them.

So after a few years, I caved to common wisdom—adopting the don’t-smile-‘til-after-Christmas strategy. I posted rules, set routines, and made my voice strong. Students followed my structures, but without spirit. Something, I felt, was missing.

My mistake, I came to see, was choosing between expectation and support. One did not need to exclude the other. And gradually I learned to start school years with a robust show of both, twining support and expectation together in opening exercises.

Here’s an example I often used with middle school students:

Before school started I’d go the bank and ask for a new $20 bill for each class.

“What is this bill worth?” I’d ask a class.

Then, as they watched, I’d crumple the bill. I’d drop it to the floor and grind it under my shoe. Next, I’d pick it up and try to smooth it. But the bill was wrinkled and dirty.

By the time you get to middle school, I’d tell students, you’ve been trampled on—by your friends and your family and bad deals in life. You’ve probably even hurt yourself a few times.

Once again I’d ask the same question: What is this bill worth?

My point, I’d tell them, is that bad times don’t diminish your worth. In this class I plan to recognize your value.

When I sat on a stool and said these things in a conversational tone, when I took my time and looked at each person, when I meant what I said and they could tell, I could feel them open toward me.

This, then, was the right time to talk about expectations. If I believed in my students, after all, I’d set high standards for them.




Creeping Fear

Even after teaching for several decades, I was surprised every year at the fear that crept in at the start of each school year. I brought some of this fear. On my class lists I found names of kids everyone hoped would be in some other class. Incoming students brought low test scores with them—and what if they didn’t show adequate progress in my class? As a beginning teacher, I worried that I was too young to handle a class. At the end of my career I suspicioned I was too old, too out of touch.

Parents of my students contributed to the anxiety. They asked for conferences, sent e-mails, and left phone messages laced with fear. My son has no friends. I just learned my husband has been abusing our daughter. My son hates school. Can you help?

And fear harassed my students. What if no one eats lunch with me? What if I flunk? What if someone calls me fat or dumb or a hillbilly? What if my lab partner is racist? What if someone calls me out on my thrift-store shoes?

This fear was insidious, almost invisible. But I learned to notice bodies hunched as if trying to remain invisible, faces with pinched looks, and darting eyes. And I’m sure students could sniff out my waves of nervous apprehension, as well. I couldn’t joke with students when I was afraid or plan creatively or see students clearly.

How can a teacher calm these fears that tighten brains, that leave students unable to concentrate and easily agitated? Here are some steps to take:

  1. Acknowledge fear. Tell a story about your first day in seventh grade. Admit you, too, had trouble sleeping last night.
  2. Demonstrate ways to deal with anxiety—breathing techniques and stretching or relaxing exercises.
  3. Avoid singling students out. Until you know students well, be careful even about spotlights that seem positive to you. Students may be trying to hide their intelligence or their uncanny knack at witty essays. Your showcasing of their abilities may be a social liability to them.
  4. Celebrate differences. Students who bring new cultures into a school may labor under what is sometimes called a fear of foreignness. I’m different, so people will think I’m wrong. I grew up in the hills, I’d tell students, and English wasn’t my first language.

Focusing on what students needed (instead of what I felt) helped me to sidestep my apprehensions, to teach from a place of love, not fear. I found, that though fear still lurked inside me, I could teach with compassion and wonder and intellectual curiosity. This, in turn, helped students calm their fears.