The other day I wrote about how my students struggled with a comparative reading exercise. I contended that I thought the biggest issue for them was that they just were not particularly interested in the readings, and thus they had a hard time sticking with it. I acknowledged that the readings were challenging in terms of vocabulary and content, but I still felt like the biggest issue was that my students often seem to feel that if they are not personally and completely interested in a given reading, then the readings are not really worth the effort.
A former colleague reminded me, however, that there are four pathways to understanding a text, each successively more complex: text to me, text to itself, text to text (what I was asking my students to do), and text to the wider world. I assumed, wrongly, that my students were already masters of text to me and text to itself. They are not. I skipped ahead before they were really ready. Why did I do this?
Partly I did this because I really do love history, and I want to have deep conversations with my students about a subject matter I love. I’ve written before about the dangers of assuming when it comes to teaching. There are so many things we want to do with our students that we sometimes assume they are ready for certain kinds of thinking and reading and writing when they are not. As I’ve written elsewhere, making such assumptions is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as one makes adjustments when those assumptions prove inaccurate.
But perhaps the bigger reason that I pushed my students beyond their “zone of proximal development” was because I feel pressured to do so. Every teacher feels pressured to make sure that their students are ready for the next year. We want to make sure that our students succeed as they move forward, and I know that I worry (too much?) about what their future teachers will think of me based on the students’ preparedness or lack of preparedness. Sometimes this pressure is self-inflicted, but sometimes the pressure comes, however obliquely, from our colleagues. Perhaps it’s a comment here or a question there, but added together the inference is unmistakable. I know this because – and this is so painful to admit – I have been both on the receiving end and the giving end of such comments. There, I said it. Confession is good for the soul; it brings humility.
Here’s what all teachers must keep in mind, however. The teacher “above” you has no idea where those students were when they came to you. Your students could have progressed more than a year’s worth, but if they came to you “behind,” they may still not be at the level that another teacher feels they should be. Oh, well. Unless you teach in a very amazing, super-fantastic school, I would imagine every teacher wishes their students came to them more prepared than they do. It is what it is. You just forge ahead.
Forging ahead, however, does not mean skipping ahead. It does not mean pushing your students so beyond their abilities and understanding that no learning is taking place. I forgot that for a brief moment in my haste to make sure my students were prepared for next year. I was so concerned about what a colleague may or may not assume about me and my teaching that I forgot to put the needs of my students first. Another painful admission, but it’s the truth.
By all means, work on vertical alignment, communicate with colleagues, and try to improve your craft for yourself and for your students. At the end of the day, however, those students are your students for the year. They are not the previous teacher’s students anymore, and they are not the successive teacher’s students…yet. Meet your students where they are, teach them as much as possible within the limits imposed on you, and more than anything, enjoy them!