If Not Now, When?

When a school decides to up the ante in terms of rigor, there will be growing pains.  There is no doubt about this.  These growing pains will be true for all those involved.

Teachers, used to teaching one way, will experience frustration as they rework certain areas of their curriculum and instruction to meet the demands of the new, more rigorous approach.  Students, used to learning in one way or used to receiving high marks, will experience angst as they learn a new way of thinking, as they learn new strategies for growing.  Parents, even those who say they want their students to be challenged, will complain (sometimes very loudly) when their students go from making all A’s to making some B’s and C’s.  These complaints add to the mounting frustration of both teachers and students alike.

The combination of all this frustration, angst, and criticism all too easily leads to teachers, students, and parents throwing up their hands and saying, “It’s not working.  We give up.  Let’s go back to the old way.”  Of course, we can all see the problem in this.  We end up back at square one.  We end up choosing to do what is easy and convenient rather than what we know is truly in the best interests of our students.  This is true for all those involved.

So what’s the answer?  The truth is there is no “easy” answer, but there is an answer: stay the course.  Work through the frustrations, keep hammering home the message that challenge is good and grades are less important than growth, and seek support from those around you.  Teachers and administrators need to stand as one in this message in order to get the “buy-in” from the parents and students.

And one last question for those who would continue to put this off one more week, one more semester, one more school year.  If not now, when?

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Be Not Afraid

Well, it’s the end of week one of a new school year.  While there were certainly times when things were hectic and while challenges definitely arose, overall this might have been the best first week of school I have ever had as a teacher.  Want to know why?  I made a conscious effort to slow down, enjoy the moment, and let my students do the same as much as possible while still trying to communicate that my classes would be rigorous but worthwhile.

Usually, in my AP classes, I begin as if we are running in a track race and the gun has just gone off.  We sprint from the start and never let up.  Not so this year.  (Although some of my students, especially my newbies, may disagree with me.  But trust me, I definitely slowed it down. :))

How many of us have heard the old “never crack a smile until Christmas” rule?  How many of us start off in the mindset that we have to train the students before we can let them enjoy themselves in the learning process?  I used to subscribe to this, but I really don’t think it’s as true as we may believe.   Yes, we want students to understand certain procedures, and yes, we want to set certain parameters so that we can have a smooth, successful year.  But I think this can be done in a different way than cracking a whip at the start of a semester.

This week, on the second day of class, I had students sitting on the ground, working in groups and talking to each other about the historical problem with which we were wrestling.  Today, I played a review game with one of my classes in which, I admit, things got a little loud.  Of course it got loud!  There’s 20 kids sitting around the room in groups of two trying to “win” the game and the clock is ticking.  But that loudness and that sitting on the floor in groups talking with each other is not a sign of chaos or a lack of classroom management; it is a sign of engagement.

Did I worry that the kids might not take the class as seriously this year as other years if I started out slower or allowed them more freedom?  Maybe a little, if I am honest.  At the same time, I knew that if I could get them engaged and to “buy in” from the get-go, my job would be a lot easier the rest of the year.  Did I have students who tested me and the boundaries?  Sure.  But I would have had such experiences regardless of how I started the year, and I spoke with those students accordingly just as I would have done in the past.

On Thursday, I asked the sophomore students in my AP Euro class to email me how they felt about the class after only 3 days.  I asked them to tell me how they felt the class was going and about any worries or questions that they still had.  Granted, these were very short emails.  I found, however, that all the students responded quite positively. Yes, they were worried about keeping up in their first AP class, and yes, not all of them loved history.  But they all said they liked the class (so far!), that they were excited about the school year, that they were finding the pace of the class challenging but doable.

So if you worry about “letting up” too soon with your students as I did in the past, take it from me, it may work in your favor to do so.  You may find that the students engage more when you let them enjoy the process of learning and when you allow yourself to enjoy the process of teaching in August rather than October.