Editor’s note: This is the last post of Trent DeJong’s series “Lessons Learned.” Check out “4 Phases of Teaching,” “What I Learned About Learning in K-2,” and “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 3 and 4,” and “What I Learned About Learning: Whales.”
Throughout my own education there have been episodes that I now realize taught me something important about teaching.
Miss Last was my fifth-grade teacher. I thought she was old. The funny thing is, I ran into her in a coffee shop many years later and she wasn’t old anymore. Fifth graders obviously have no concept of age beyond 20.
What I remember about Miss Last is her stories about working with the Zuni and Navajo first nations in, I’m going to say, New Mexico. She was obviously passionate about her work there and the people with whom she worked. She obviously loved the cultures and she enthusiastically shared with us various artifacts and the stories attached to them. She showed us pictures and slides. Back then, everything projected on the screen was special.
We loved these stories, and not just because they were diversions from doing worksheets. I remember the Zunis and the Navajos to this day. I never encounter the terms hogan or Dine’ or a piece of turquoise without thinking about what I learned from Miss Last. These stories formed and positively shaped my understanding of indigenous peoples and cultures for the rest of my life.
Lessons Learned: The teacher’s enthusiasm for something is often caught by the students. So don’t be apologetic about teaching and talking about what you love. Unless it’s your cats. I don’t think cats fall into this category.
I don’t think my grade 6 teacher had a very good year. She didn’t have a lot of experience and some of the boys—well, it seemed like we were in one of those movies where the new, young school teacher had to deal with big farm boys who didn’t value “no book learnin’.”
I don’t think I took too much of a part in the shenanigans, but I felt guilty, nonetheless, just by being a student in the class.
I recall doing a lot of singing in grade school—I remember every classroom having a piano and all the teachers playing piano. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it seems true. My Grade 6 teacher offered to teach the boys how to sing alto. I liked to sing. I wanted to learn how to sing alto. I wanted to raise my hand. No one raised their hand.
I felt sorry for her.
Lesson Learned: I learned that students far prefer a disciplinarian than a teacher that didn’t have any control. This lesson was reinforced many times over. Students’ love for their teacher has nothing to do with being fun or permissive. Nothing. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know it accompanies many different styles of teaching, and I know it’s important. You need it if you are going to be a teacher.
I also learned that most of the students are with you, even though it might not seem like it. It’s just that there are powerful forces silencing these voices (that would have loved to learn how to sing parts).
Grade 7 was the first year we didn’t have the same teacher all day long. We had specialist teachers, and so, we thought we were special. I always considered myself a little above average when it came to school, but when the disciplines got separated, my actual aptitudes for specific subjects became a little clearer. It became clear that I was not very good at English or Math.
I don’t remember anything about what we learned in my English class except diagramming sentences. My guess is that we didn’t do this all year, but I wonder why we did it at all. In grade 7. I’ve read a lot of books over my lifetime and I’ve become a bit of a writer, but I’ve never drawn upon my skill as a sentence diagrammer. Actually, I never got the hang of that skill. But it’s never mattered.
Lesson Learned: As a teacher, I really think about what we spend our time on. I’m not preaching pragmatism here; many things are worth doing that have no practical purpose. But some things clearly don’t work—at least not for 12 year-olds. When I first started teaching grade 7, I gave spelling tests every Friday on 20 words that someone else determined were important. Meanwhile, many students, some of whom got 20 out of 20 on the quizzes, were still misspelling “led” and “surprise” or misusing there, they’re, their, or confusing “then” and “than.” So I abandoned the Friday tests and got my spelling marks from their daily writing. And guess what? Their writing got better!
I always felt like my English teacher liked me—she encouraged me and I tried harder. The math teacher didn’t. Didn’t like me? I don’t know. But I was not encouraged.
I had a hard time with fractions and decimals and converting one to the other. I remember going up to his desk and asking a question. He gave me the merest edge of his attention. And then he seemed to be annoyed by my lack of numerical literacy. I stopped asking questions. And I didn’t learn much math.
I didn’t need to be loved by my teachers, but I did need to be seen. I didn’t feel seen. Maybe he didn’t like students who sucked at fractions. Or maybe his marriage was falling apart. I don’t know. But I still remember that feeling of not being seen.
Lesson Learned: I learned that it is important to see our students. No, not to just see them, but to have them know they are seen. Some students seek it out, even with negative behavior. You see these every day, whether you want to or not. But I need to see the others too. At least once a week, ask them a question or tease them a bit, or let them see you smile at them. Whenever any student asks me a question, I want to start by seeing them. They need to receive my full attention. And they need to experience it as a positive experience.