Education stakeholders who have never lead a classroom often want to know what kind of impact a teacher is having on a student this year. Those of us in the classroom often buy into the idea that we should be able to positively impact students immediately because we crave the validation that all the hours and stress we have spent trying to engage students in our content areas has been worthwhile. Just think of it like this: If we were working on an assembly line in an automotive factory installing widgets, at some point, we’d be able to look out in the parking lot to see all the bright shiny cars we helped assemble.
Unfortunately, education doesn’t work like this. We can work for a solid 180 days installing our content area widgets into 116 kids’ lives and when we look out in the student parking lot at the end of that last day of school, it’s going to be empty (both literally and metaphorically).
It’s true that some students are going to shine under our tutelage. I suspect, though, that those students who show up in their class loving to read and write, and who then continue to blossom under our care would have succeeded whether we were there or not. They already have our widgets installed and maybe just need a few minor adjustments to keep growing and developing greater understanding, purpose, and motivation.
My concern is those students who arrive in our classrooms missing a few critical widgets. They hating to read or write, have never read an entire book on their own, or have never written an essay or short story or poem. Unlike the unfinished chassis of automobiles, these students will often fight us from the very beginning and we may never see any progress. But sometimes we do. Sometimes we hear from them a couple of years after they graduate, like the student couldn’t understand why I insisted they read and write so much in my class, but then sent me a message on Twitter during his second year of college to say that he had decided to major in English Education with the intention of becoming a football coach and later a principal because I had made English class fun.
Some students may take 5 or 10 or 20 years to decide they want to become a writer or teacher or editor. Or to discover that they like a particular genre of book and that reading isn’t such torture after all. It’s never too late–but it’s also not something we can test for or measure at the end of the school year. There is no test that will accurately measure the impact of our teaching. Such decisions are often never communicated to us, so when we do hear from a former student, it’s important that we hang onto those words for those tough days when we doubt that we’re making an impact, or when a current student informs us that our daily quickwrites have now turned their love of writing into a hatred of it. Apparently, my quickwrite “widget” doesn’t work in his particular model of car.
I share that last story because during the same week I read that in one student’s quickwrite notebook, another student wrote a scholarship application essay about how my independent reading and quickwriting programs had changed his life. This former student, who is now a senior planning to become an deaf education major, gave me permission to share his story here.
A Teacher Who Inspired MeThe first day of freshman year I had already memorized my schedule because I didn’t want to be that stereotypical 9th grader carrying it around. I noticed our small district had a new English teacher: Michelle Waters. I was a little nervous because I would be in her class for three years, and the only thing I knew about her was she had Twitter. I’ve always enjoyed English class, so I was excited that it was my first hour. The bell rang and I walked from my locker to her room. The second I enter, this friendly woman with a long ponytail greeted me, but then immediately she wanted us to fill out a rubric about grading ourselves as students and writers. I was completely lost because I had never even heard of a ¨rubric¨ before and I thought, “This lady is crazy. I will never make it in this class.”
By Hunter Trejo
A couple of months flew by and I was still indifferent about the class, but then she introduced bell ringers called “quickwrites.” During a quickwrite, we were given a prompt and five minutes to write as much as possible on the topic. I dreaded going to English because I knew that I was going to have think through another quickwrite. I could not understand why she cared to see me write, and I was ready to pull my hair out because nothing had changed. But then after spring break, Mrs. Waters started assigning us more independent reading. At first, I had trouble finding something I liked, so I asked her to help me. She listed several genres that didn’t ignite any interest. But somehow, we discovered I liked the show Pretty Little Liars. She suggested I read the first book– and I was hooked. The series captivated me, and I read 16 books in four months! That was something monumental compared to my eighth grade year. I had only read the Diary of Anne Frank, I was assigned it, and I only read the first chapter, so it really didn’t count.
During my sophomore year, I became Wayne’s first male cheerleader. One of our quickwrite prompts was: “What is your biggest accomplishment?” I decided to write about becoming a cheerleader and what it took for me, not only physically, but emotionally. That quickwrite turned into an essay for the Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English writing contest–and it won.
Mrs. Waters always told us we have stories, and we need to share them because our stories could help inspire others. I thought she was just being that cliche you-can-do-anything-you-want-in-life type. I never in a million years thought anyone would care or take an interest in my story, but Mrs. Waters proved me wrong. Mrs. Waters is the true inspiration because she expressed an interest in me as a person when I asked her my question about a book, she showed me how a book was like a letter from the author to me, and she helped me see that my story is worth being told.
As just one person in a classroom with 12 or 20 or 40 students, you’re not going to be able to align your lessons perfectly with every students’ needs. You can make a point to listen to students–find ways to help the student who struggles with quickwrites make personal connects to the prompts and find books to recommend to non-readers based on their interests. Basically, you’re finding ways to modify your widgets so they can work for that particular model, which is necessary because, unlike cars and trucks, students aren’t standardized and teaching is an ever-evolving journey. The only way to survive this journey and to have the most positive impact on the most students is to step outside the factory and start finding ways to make your class personally meaningful. Some of your students will partner with you and blossom in your class. Other students may require a change in perspective that won’t happen until after they leave your class, or school. Some students just require a few modifications.
The best you can do is stay hopeful and keep looking for answers!
What are your stories that help you maintain your hopeful attitude, that help you regain your motivation even when you’re faced with a student who doesn’t appreciate your efforts to help them find their voices?
I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my Master’s of Education in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education, and a NBPTS candidate. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify my students’ voices and choices.