The new school year is starting, and before I walk through those beautiful purple doors, I want to be ready. Not ready with a handful of lesson plans, curriculum, premade IEP due date calendars (though, admittedly, I’ve already completed the latter) — no. Ready with something much more important.
I need to know what I believe.
I’ve spent my past two years in the classroom turning theories, philosophies, and ideas over in my head. I came into teaching with a clear idea of what I believed — but it was shallow. How could I possibly understand what I believed about teaching, about children, without ever having stood in front of a room full of them and felt my heart fall out through my ribs?
This is a statement of my teaching philosophy, but also a working-through of it. The truth is that I cannot stand in front of a room full of students without understanding, to the fullest extent possible, what I believe is right, and seeking to enact it in every way possible, from the content I teach to the way I teach it, from the color theme of my classroom to the way I handle students whose needs are not being met.
The first thing I wanted to recognize is that teaching is not about me. It’s about my students. It doesn’t matter what I want to do. It matters what students need.
So, I started my notes this morning by asking myself this question: What do students need?
I came up with this answer: To not feel trapped.
I could be wrong about that. But when I think back to my childhood, my education, and middle school especially, the feeling that shrouds everything — the same feeling I see in my students now — is the feeling of being controlled. As a kid, no one listens to you; no one takes you seriously. For the students in my classroom, students who are defined as having a learning “disability” (a term I take with more and more salt as time goes on, but that’s a different blog post), they often feel controlled by the school environment, which marches them along despite their complete bafflement at the classroom content. At home, so many of them feel controlled by circumstances that are deeply painful — even when it’s not family life but the internal life, the spiral of anxiety and depression and self-loathing that’s all too common to being a teenager.
So, to me, something feels right about this idea of not feeling trapped. If we want to phrase it “positively” — remove the negative sense of “not” feeling something — I suppose we could say liberation. What students need is to not feel trapped, or to feel liberated. I prefer the former, though. Because that oppressive sense of feeling trapped is where it all starts.
So what does not feeling trapped look like? Four concepts came clearly to my mind when I considered this.
Not feeling trapped is:
- Being able to make choices.
- Loving yourself.
- Having hope.
- Being loved by others.
The fourth item on the list is possibly optional, only because it is external. But as a teacher, considering what my students need, I am not going to remove it. I am not trying to simply seek to hand them all these internal states or abilities without also seeking to create an environment that loves and welcomes them from the outside. I think that’s critical for children to have. As a young person, it’s almost impossible to produce all those states for yourself. I mean, it’s nearly impossible even as an adult.
So this basically accounts for my teaching philosophy. As of right now. It’s about what students need to not feel trapped — at least in some small ways that I might lighten the load.
OK, so how will I do it?
Students need to be able to make choices.
- Provide choice as often as possible in classroom activities.
- Provide choices for students to meet their needs.
- Give students the opportunity to make choices about what they are going to learn.
- Give students the opportunity to make choices about their classroom.
Students need to love themselves.
This one’s not as easy as making choices. You can’t make someone love themselves. But you can create conditions that make it easier.
I’m getting anxiety just thinking about this, trying to consider ways I might bring this to life in my classroom.
- Show students they are worthy of love.
That one comes in every little interaction. Words, gestures, attention given. Intervention in bullying or other painful things students face.
- Provide students opportunities to feel successful.
It is so disheartening to feel like a failure over and over and over. It becomes personal, we take it personally. OK, so I want to challenge students, but I really want students to feel a sense of mastery over their work. Feeling a sense of success gives you a sense of greater control over your environment. And vice versa.
Affirmations are a tough one, because they feel really hokey and fake. I know they work, but I can’t make a kid convince themselves that they work (can I?). So this one’s a toss-up for me.
Students need to have hope.
I mean, how do you even begin to instill that in someone? Someone who feels they are at the whim of all the circumstances around them? Where does hope come from? How do we feed it?
I guess that’s a start. We learn from watching others. If I can display hope even in the face of great disappointment, maybe my students can see that and learn from it in some way.
- Create long-term opportunities and projects?
I guess this one makes me think about hope in terms of the fact that those sorts of things give students something to look forward to, and having something to look forward to can make you feel hopeful when nothing else does.
- Use class content that reflects reality but does not eliminate hopeful futures.
How will I do this? I don’t know! But texts are really important for this, I think. Finding texts that reflect student realities without giving up on a vision toward something brighter.
- Talk to students and their families about their hopes and dreams.
I really need to stop projecting my own values onto students, and this is a challenge I’ve been coming across for a while now. Why teach, why do work whose entire point is to help shape someone’s future, if you don’t want to instill in them some sense of a future? But it’s not fair, it’s not fair to these families and to this community for me to think that my values about what someone should want to do with their life are shared. And it’s actually coming from a space of privilege, since my extremely privileged white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied (with the exception of certain mental health issues) perspective is so limited as to what might be the “right” future for someone. Until I step back and start listening to the voices in this community, I absolutely have to stop myself from thinking I have any idea what kind of future would be best for these kids.
Students need to be loved.
Dang it is hard as a teacher to remain patient, when the whole world seems like it’s on top of you and you can’t get a sentence out without a kid interrupting you! But it has to happen. It absolutely has to happen.
- Intervene immediately in situations of teasing or bullying.
I struggle with doing this, or doing this well, because I don’t know how to stop the thing that’s happening at the source. I usually intervene, but I don’t really do a good job of shutting the situation down. How do I do this better? I’m not sure. But I have to work on that.
That’s it for now. I know I have more, but I think I need to go back to the pen-and-paper notebook. This visioning process is messy and has gone through three different mediums already, but I need to keep working until I feel like I have at least a working picture of what I believe, and how I can stay true to those beliefs when they don’t align with the beliefs of others.
I believe what I believe for a reason. I have to remember that.