Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Can You Identify Something Commendable in Every Student?

I wrote a version of this post for another blog I write
('Pedagogy and Education for Life'). That blog is specifically for teachers in Christian or faith-based schools, but the topic is just as relevant in all schools.

Let me first ask a question. Do we believe there is something commendable in every child we teach? In the first week of first term in any school year you won't have much of an idea, but if you're well into the year and you still haven't recognised something it's a problem.  It might just be that we don't know them at all. But I'd hope that after 2-4 weeks we would know something about every child. Their name (more difficult for secondary teachers), and a little about their personality. Maybe the things some are good at, and even some friendship obvious friendship groups. But at the 2 month mark we should know much more about all students.

Some children hide in the background of classroom life. It's easy to quietly withdraw, keep a low profile, look out the window, and count the minutes till recess, lunch and home time. This presents a problem for every teacher, for we must get to know our students, including their strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears and life challenges.

Across my teaching career, I observed children who could be disinterested, under-performing and at times difficult in one class, who suddenly blossomed in a different class. "Why is this so"? I'd hope that we never see children in our classrooms who we assume haven't anything to offer.


Above: My students in 1978

I taught in three different elementary schools across all age ranges. In many ways, it was my third school where the challenge to know all students became even clearer and more important to me. I was the sole teacher and head of a small school. While it had two buildings, two classrooms, a small library, a staff room and office, I was the only teacher as well as 'Head' of the school. I was the person who ran the 'Tuck Shop' each week etc. I had 26 children across seven grades (and at one stage 31). That is, Kindergarten (5 year olds) to Grade 6 in the same room. The school was situated in a small town with just 300 people.

So why am I stressing the imperative to know our students? Because, all students need to understand they are known, valued and seen as capable of doing new things. This makes a difference! Perhaps this is obvious to some, but how is it achieved in the busy life of the classroom? Let me tackle this from three angles.

a) Every child needs to feel valued, and seen as able to do things

An important ingredient for any child's success is the realization they can be successful at something. It took me until 4th grade to realize that I was good at a few things. I enjoyed Kindergarten and learnt to read and write. But by grade 3, I spent most of the day looking out the window and thinking about the fun I'd have when I got home. I managed to learn to read, write and so on, but I was pretty naughty and easily distracted. But, in grade 4 a new teacher invested some time in me. He could see my problems, including a tough home background and my previous disruptive behaviour, but he was prepared to invest in me, even in a class of 41 students across two grades (see below). I'm 4th from the left in the back row.

Mr Campbell had the sense to channel what he saw as potential in me, in a way that would motivate. I became the garbage monitor, milk monitor, duster cleaner etc to no doubt to try to keep me out of trouble (to little effect at first). This was against a backdrop of the Principal who saw me as a 'drop kick'. He simply caned me every time I messed up, which was often the case in his eyes in grades 3 to 5 Grade. But even as my behaviour improved, he found excuses to cane me. Once when he saw me looking out the window during a lesson (bored stiff), as he walked along the verandah past my classroom. He came in, took me out and caned me twice!

But a big change occurred when an aquarium with tropical fish was purchased by the school and placed in my classroom. My teacher put me in charge of it. He handed me a book on tropical fish and asked me to study it. He later asked me to give a presentation to the class on raising tropical fish. It was a success, and the fish and I both flourished.

The challenge for all teachers is that some students will present as disinterested, difficult and annoying (as I was), while others will take the front seats, smile, look engaged and answer all the questions. Being able to identify the gifts and abilities of all students is our greatest challenge, and much more important than seeing their weaknesses and problems.

Years later, after I'd become a teacher, I recall a day while on playground duty at a small Primary school in my home city that had an impact on me. I was standing next to the Principal who would come out from time to time to watch our students. The boys were playing cricket and a new boy broke a cricket bat. The Principal called him over and said "how did that happen?" The boy replied "I don't know Sir", I just missed the ball and hit the pitch. To which the principal replied, "I'm watching you son, I can remember your older brother breaking a cricket bat when he attended this school too." A colleague nearby whispered in my ear, "and I bet he's never forgotten it." How easily children are labelled. At that moment I thought to myself, I was that kid once, and this principal was like my old principal in primary school who had caned me over 40 times before Grade 5.

A fundamental mark of a good teacher is the intent to look for the good in students, and seek to identify their abilities and potential, not just their weaknesses and failures.

b) Teachers need to gain the trust of their students and in the process, seek to identify gifts in unusual places.

In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I share a vignette about a student name Chanda who I taught while living in the US as a visiting scholar at Indiana University some 40 years ago. As part of my research, I team taught with a relatively new teacher who was keen to have me working with her. I met a student named Chanda almost immediately. She was a larger than life boisterous student who made her presence known; but often not in the right way. 

Chanda rarely did her work. In fact, after being in her class for 6 months, I couldn't recall her completing any task. Often, she didn't even start them. One morning as usual, the children raced down the corridors having left the buses that brought them from the Trailer Courts that most lived in. Chanda burst through the door, and threw her bag onto her desk. It bounced off, fell open at my feet, and a bundle of scrappy looking paper dropped out. I was helping to pick them up and she quickly grabbed them off me. I said, "Hey, that looks like writing!" She quickly replied, "It's nothin Sir, just some music I did at home." As I held one piece, I saw it was in the form of a song. I asked could I read some. As I took one, she said, "Sir, you won't like it." I pleaded, "let me read some, PLEASE?" After saying no three times, she reluctantly agreed, and said "just a couple". There must have been 30 works in the bag. I quickly realized she was writing music, which was in effect poetry.

None of her writing had been revealed previously to her teacher or me. It's difficult at times to gain the trust of our students so that we are in a position to identify special gifts. Chanda was a difficult student from a troubled background. She didn't enjoy school subjects, but had hidden potential. You can read a bit more about Chanda and see one of her songs/poems in my book "Pedagogy and Education for Life" (Ch 2, pp 25-27).

c) Students need to know their teachers know them, and in some way 'get them'.

This statement might sound like waffle, but in reality all relationships only succeed when both parties understand the other. Mr Campbell was the first teacher who 'knew' me. He could see beyond the grubby and sometimes difficult poor kid, to a child with potential. Even the extreme introvert in a classroom can be understood. But it requires patience and close observation of the child in class, as well as their behaviour and interests outside the classroom. The latter is difficult, but nonetheless there are ways to read the signs that disclose what makes each child tick. In particular, what they like, dislike and feel passionate about. As a young teacher, I coached many of the school sporting teams and spent much of lunchtime in the playground talking to students, playing paddle tennis with other teachers (and some students). In essence, I was observing and getting to know them in different contexts. This was easy at my One Teacher School, but a little harder with classes of 35+ as I had in my early years of teaching in large city schools.

Teacher expectations matter. The school principal who caned me so many times in my early primary school years had no idea who I really was. I say that even though my sister had been at the school before me and was well-loved. Her sporting skill and a beautiful singing voice made her a stand out. Mr Whitaker saw little good in me, and had no idea who I really was. But Mr Campbell took the time to get to know what made me tick. My interests, my hidden abilities and what switched me on as a learner, weren't that obvious. As a result, I often withdrew and gazed out the window. Dreaming up ideas for what I'd do after school. Projects to start, cubby houses to build, boats to build and bushland to explore near my home. 

Working hard to engage every student is a challenge for all of us. It might well be that it's only across many years of schooling that each of us experience teachers who see something special in us. One such teacher will make a difference. Mr Campbell was mine. Who might you inspire and help to shape? Perhaps a kid like me, or Chanda?

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