Editor’s note: This is the first part of Trent DeJong’s series “Lessons Learned.” Stay tuned for the rest of the series: “What I Learned About Learning in K-2,” “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 3 and 4,” “What I Learned About Learning: Whales,” and “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 5-7.”
When I was in Kindergarten, we sat in a circle and said what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wanted to be a fireman or a lion. I didn’t know that being a lion was an option until the kid before me said he wanted to be a lion, and I thought that I might like to be one too. I also wanted to be a fireman. I was one of ten future firemen.
But instead, I became a teacher.
I didn’t set out to be a teacher. I remember going off to college with no idea what I would study. Actually, I thought it unlikely that I would study at all. It turns out I did study, and after deciding not to become an artist or an art teacher, I became a history teacher.
I have been teaching for a while now, and I am not the same teacher that I was when I started. For one thing, I now teach different ages and subjects. But a lot more has changed than that.
If I were to break it down into phases, I went through four in my career.
I’d call Phase 1 “By the Seat of my Pants.” For the first 3 years I had to rely on passion and personality because there was no time to think, and I had no experience. I taught a variety of classes from grades 4-9, including Art, Social Studies—subjects I knew, and Language Arts and Science—subjects I didn’t know. What’s more, there were 7 classes a day and I taught every one of those 35 classes each week. Before the school year began, my principal took me aside and said that this would be a tough first year and that I needed to take care of myself. I should take a day off here and there, a “mental health day.” He didn’t call it that back then, but that’s what he meant. I never took one; I was too busy. I actually don’t remember this grueling schedule as a hardship because I loved my students and I loved teaching them things. And I didn’t know any better. I had all kinds of energy—I took my grade 9 students winter camping every November and played badminton with them after school.
Phase 2 started in my fourth year. This phase I call “I Got this.” I changed schools and for the next 9 years I taught primarily grade 7 Language Arts, Bible and Social Studies. And I had prep blocks! With 3 years’ experience, some prep time and specializing in the Humanities, I had time to think, create units, and even to write curricula for BC Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation. The problem was that I was learning a lot more than my students, because I was doing most of the work. At the end of Phase 2, I was what people respectfully call a veteran teacher. All that means is that I was still working as a teacher after 10 years. This says more about my survivability than it does about my proficiency—I was still in Phase 2.
Then I began to slowly move into Phase 3, the “What am I Doing?” phase. As I got more on top of things, I had more time to reflect on what I was doing. I began to realize that some students were not as engaged as others. Some students weren’t learning to their full potential. Some, maybe, hardly at all. And some students were learning, all right, but they were learning the wrong things! In Phase 2, I clearly thought that this was their responsibility. In Phase 3, I began to see that a lot of it was mine.
It began to dawn on me that, while I routinely assessed student learning, I had long-established patterns and routines that also needed assessing. It is in my nature to critically analyze everything, so I began to consider everything that happened in my classroom. The first thing that went was weekly spelling tests. And then the lectures that I called “class discussions.” In class discussions, I’d ask questions and only three students answered, while the other twenty-five listened politely, or didn’t listen at all. I didn’t really know what they were doing.
In my defense, I was very good at this type of teaching and was very effective with students who could learn by this method. But I know that even if I were the best lecturer in the world, I wouldn’t be a good teacher, because many students don’t learn that way.
If Phase 3 was asking the hard questions, Phase 4 was implementing some of the answers—I call this the “Let’s Do This” phase. Phases 3 and 4 kind of blur together—I’m never sure which one I’m in, but it’s a good place for a teacher to be. I will retire sometime in the next 5 years. That means I have a maximum of 5 years to get this figured out. My goal is to achieve one year of competence in my 40 years of teaching.
I’m not serious, of course. As in the Christian life, we will never arrive, but I think a teacher ought to be very deliberate about trying to be the best teacher he or she can be for these particular kids, in this particular class. I’ve always wanted that, but I have become much more aware of the scope of this calling.
If I could go back and have a conversation with my younger self while I was comfortable in the “I Got This” phase, I’d tell myself to be more deliberate about discovering who is learning what, how much, and why. Basically, I’d tell myself to get into Phase 3 as soon as possible. The earlier we start this reflecting, the sooner we will lift the slope of our effectiveness, and when extrapolated over an entire career, it can have a significant effect on that teacher and on the learning of hundreds, even thousands of students.
The good news is you are not alone in all this. A lot of Christian educators are actively working on Phase 3 and 4 issues and ideas. Christian Deeper Learning is one place to find these people. I am happy to be doing some writing for the Christian Deeper Learning Blog as, together, we reflect on our patterns and practices, strive to more closely align our beliefs with our practices, share resources, and encourage each other as we carry out this impossible, important, and often delightful task.