Last week, my students finally hit the breaking point.
Maybe it was knowing that my stressed-out little preservice teachers had just one more week until spring break. Maybe it was the fact that Betsy DeVos had just said or done something stunningly idiotic. Maybe it was the fact that we were reading and thinking and writing and talking about yet another heavy topic.
Whatever it was, as we discussed the futility of policy changes in education, one of them burst out, “it’s hopeless! We’re just teachers! There’s nothing we can do!”
Channeling my inner Pam Allyn, and directly quoting her, I exclaimed, “Yes there is! Teaching IS social change!!!”
And by exclaimed I really mean shouted.
My students sat up a little straighter, possibly slightly afraid of me at this point. But I was not deterred–I opened a google doc they could all access, put them in groups of three, and asked each group to come up with one actionable change that teachers could do in class tomorrow that would address some of the issues in our readings.
Ten minutes later, they’d created a pretty nice list.
As I re-read it this morning, I’m thinking about the patterns I see in these actionable changes. The overarching one: kindness.
Kindness requires thoughtfulness, which in the fast-paced world we live in can actually be quite difficult to enact. I think that, if we can slow down for just a moment, we can enact social change in our classrooms by modeling, teaching, and living simple kindness. Here are four ways to think about that.
Teach who matters, not what matters.
My fellow 3TTers and I had a pretty robust conversation the other day on Twitter about the merits of the “AP list” and limiting kids’ choice to it in AP classes. After much wordsmithing and hashtaggery, our basic conclusion was that it doesn’t matter so much WHAT we teach as it matters WHO we teach, and how. (Because we’ll never agree on what matters, anyway!)
We teach readers, not books. We teach writers, not five-paragraph essays. We teach wordsmiths, not grammar. When we frame our teaching like this, we remember why we got into teaching in the first place: because we love kids and want the best for them…and what’s kinder than that?
Be kind to other teachers.
I recently spoke with our NCTE student affiliate about why it’s beneficial to be connected to a larger teaching community on Twitter. During our conversation, I loved watching the students’ faces as they saw the likes of Tom Newkirk, Penny Kittle, and Chris Lehman come alive on the screen. These weren’t just mysterious high-tower authors who wrote the books they read–these were real people.
Their eyes were bright with wonder as they realized that they, too, could join that community of teacher-writers whose thoughts and opinions were valued, no matter how new or old one was to the profession. And that’s compelling evidence that we need to build a kind teacher community–because it ushers practitioners into the world of research-based best practices and creates a safe space for trying new things. Teachers can be mean. We need to stop. Cover a colleague’s classes. Nurture them when they need to grow as practitioners. Join them in their classroom. Smile at them during staff meetings. Try not to get frustrated, and apply the previous strategy–work with the person, not the teacher of Beowulf.
Allow yourself some freedom and autonomy as the teacher.
Standards are standards. But as Louise Rosenblatt says, they’re just ink on a page until you bring meaning to them. If we apply the transactional theory of reading to the Common Core, or any other set of standards, then they’re really not so bad. When I read a standard like this…
…I get excited. But many teachers don’t. As a high schooler, my teachers generally addressed this standard by assigning literary analysis papers. It doesn’t have to be that way!
A twitter chat. As an assessment.
WHAAAAT??? HOW AMAZING IS THAT?!
But hey–if you can teach a rockin’ literary analysis, then by all means, do it. The point is that we have more freedom and autonomy than we often allow ourselves–whether because we’re pressured to conform to a school culture, or offered a prescribed curriculum, or confined by a set of district-wide initiatives. So be kind to yourself. Stretch those boundaries however you’re comfortable and be yourself, teach to your strengths, and make your job fun.
None of us is perfect, not any day, not any week, not any school year. We hear constantly about being reflective and reflexive practitioners, and we can be hard on ourselves when we reflect on our teaching or respond to our students’ confusion. It’s when we do not forgive ourselves for those imperfections that we become resistant to change.
We can never grow if we aren’t comfortable discarding our old skin, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of doing that. Forgive yourself if you, too, started your career by alienating kids with pop quizzes. Forgive the kid who called you a rude name yesterday, because hopefully he was having a bad day and isn’t just a jerk. Forgive the 9th grade teacher who slaughtered your students’ love of reading by giving 83 tests on TKAM. Teach your students to forgive the crappy first drafts of their narratives.
If we forgive, then we open the door for growth. And that’s the kindest thing of all.
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 or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.