Last week, when I met with my new crop of Spring semester students for the first time, I asked them to write one sentence that told me how they’d come to teaching.
Do you know what almost every single student wrote?
“Because I love working with kids.”
It was a reminder, for me: these young, idealistic, preservice teachers, on the very cusps of their careers…were here because of LOVE. For children, for learners.
We will spend the next three years with them working on their teaching craft, their pedagogy, their educational philosophy. We will offer classes in professional inquiry, classroom management, instructional design, content area methods, technology integration, special education, and more.
But we do not offer a class on why most of these students become teachers: a class on caring for kids.
We cannot offer such a class, because what would we put in the syllabus? It’s very simple: just remember to love and care for each of your students, day in and day out.
And that, for me, is the key. To remember we care for kids. To keep our students at the center of our classrooms.
I don’t believe anyone can be a good teacher if they merely love their students. Good teachers must, in addition to caring for their students, have mastery of content, pedagogy, and methods.
Whether or not our instructional practices show our care for our students is a good acid test for teaching reading and writing. Does assigning a book and then creating fifteen “gotcha” pop quizzes make students feel competent and confident as readers? No. Not a good practice. Nor are so many of the worksheets, textbook curricula, or 1990s-designed unit plans I’ve seen employed by some teachers.
But those are boring, you say. Well, what about something more fun? When teaching high school English, does assigning a reading project of tracing your hand and making it a turkey on which you list five books you’ve read make students feel competent and confident as readers? No. Not a good practice, either.
You’ll notice I’m measuring good teaching and good learning by student competence and confidence, and not by some other measure of “students are having fun,” or “students enjoy themselves.”
There are five core human drives that apply across all societies, all classes, all ethnicities, all ages, all genders. One of them is the drive to learn. All students want to learn, to satisfy curiosity, to demonstrate mastery–both to themselves and to others. Offering them learning opportunities to achieve and demonstrate this mastery show our love and respect for students, not our supreme wisdom or sublime control or smart strategies as teachers.
I’ve been troubled, lately, by how much talk there is in education about “fun” in the classroom, about how “students wouldn’t need grit if we made learning more fun,” and so on. When we make things too easy on our students (and too hard, or too meaningless), we aren’t showing our love and respect for our students.
Teaching and learning are difficult, complex things. They can rarely be boiled down to an algorithm, a strategy, or a single method. Carol Dweck, coiner of the phrase “growth mindset” (the foundational principle behind books I’ve loved like Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds and Choice Words), recently gave an interview in which she expressed heartfelt regret that her work was being turned into an easy and fun strategy for teaching. This “false growth mindset” essentially says that all you have to do to foster learning is praise kids for effort, whether or not that effort was successful.
When we focus too much on praise, or effort, or one simple strategy that will solve everything!!, we run the risk of teaching the strategy rather than the student. Amy recently shared with me a piece that it took me about four reads to unpack: “On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing.” This excellent blog post reminded me that when we do something like book clubs, if we spend too much time teaching students how to do book clubs, we aren’t spending enough time getting kids to actually do the work of literacy.
That’s not to say I don’t find value in book clubs, or the multigenre project, or any other lens through which kids might read or write. There is great value in using a few core strategies, again and again, to help students make sense of what they’re trying to understand. The key word is a few–so that students keep their focus on literacy, not the strategy or the project or the assignment. Keep it simple: quickwrites, book talks, constant revision, constant talk, and a high volume of diverse reading and writing. Period.
When we keep our classrooms simple, doing more with less and simplifying our instruction to include mostly reading, writing, and talk about reading and writing, we are keeping our care for our students at the forefront of our work.
As we launch into 2017, let’s remember why we became teachers in the first place: because we care about our students. Keep that love for learning at the heart of your work, and growth, competence, and confidence will be your rewards.
Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.