What are the conditions that I create in a classroom so kids will learn? What is the energy, the atmosphere, the climate in my classroom? Does it lift children up or tear them down?
"Kids don't learn from people they don't like", said the late Rita Pierson, in one of the most beautiful and inspiring TED talks on education I have ever watched. I link to it at the end of this post.
And, I'd like to add: Kids don't learn much from teachers who don't seem to like them. And, they are so sharp that they can spot a teacher who doesn't like them or is annoyed by them a mile away.
Can you think of a teacher who really supported you and lifted you up- who seemed genuinely happy to see you when you walked into the classroom every day? I've had many of these and I learned a lot from them. I felt comfortable taking risks in their classroom. I felt I could make mistakes and I learned.
Now can you think of teacher you had that seemed almost irritated when the class showed up, who seemed to hate his job, who taught with contempt and ridicule? How well did you learn? What are your feelings when you summon that experience in your mind and heart?
I had a Spanish professor in college who once actually made fun of the way some of us were speaking Spanish. Can you even imagine?! He mocked our pronunciation in front of the whole class. At the time, I felt deep shame and embarrassment and I almost let his arrogance take something away from me that I love- learning Spanish. I knew what he was doing was wrong and my friend and I complained bitterly about him to each other and gave him the worst possible evaluation when it came time to do it, but he remained on the faculty.
Even my 20 year old self knew that he was a bad teacher and he was doing all the wrong things. Now that I've become a language teacher myself, I'm absolutely appalled about how he was allowed to remain a professor there and continue to terrorize in his classroom. I didn't learn from him either- in fact, I grew more self-conscious about my speaking abilities in Spanish and it took some really hard work and courage on my part to break through that.
I have a student right now who arrived just two months ago. He doesn't say much yet but he has this enormous, beautiful smile that he regularly flashes at me.
When we do math, we work in small groups at tables and I sit with the kids and help them. When he first started, he seemed so unsure of everything, kind of fragile and lost. I had him sit right next to me in math and I noticed that when I explained something to him, he often physically leaned on me. I'm not sure what was going on- maybe he just needed some human warmth, maybe his culture doesn't have the hang-ups about personal space that we have, maybe he needed someone to hold him up for a while. I just let him lean away. It seemed to help him.This child is sharp; he gets things very quickly and he works so hard- He has firmly implanted himself in my heart. Oh, he has such a long way to go, but I know he's going to make it.
This past week he got the lowest score on a unit test I gave my class. He was the one I complimented the most. Considering where he started the fact that he got 10/20 was a huge accomplishment, a victory. He glanced around and I know he realized that his score was low compared to the others.
He still doesn't understand a lot, so I used a lot of gestures and slowly I said to him, "Today you got 10/20. Next time you'll get 12/20, the time after that 14/20, and you'll keep going up, up, up. I'm so proud of you. You're making me happy." I put my hand on my heart, pointed at him, and smiled as big as I could. Then I proceeded to give him every non-verbal sign of approval I could- a high-five, a fist bump, a thumbs up, and a side hug. I just wanted to be ABSOLUTELY sure he got the message. He got it......He actually started looking sort of embarrassed about all the fuss I was making :)
So, you can't just be an expert in your subject matter to teach. You've got to genuinely like your students. You have to be interested in them. You have to want to know about them. You've got to see their strengths and abilities. You have to be their champion. YOU are the one on their side.
I think my students are fascinating. They are 11, 12, 13, and 14 year olds, yet they have already lived so much in their young lives. We just started having them write their autobiographies. We've been doing a lot of small group work on this. As they write, we have a lot of conversations as we try to coax more details into their stories.
One of my students was talking about this project to me and reflecting on school in his former country. He said that the great thing about school in America is that the teachers are really interested in you; they ask a lot of questions about your life. He said that really surprised him about school here but he liked it. He went on, "Miss, in my country, you come into the classroom, and the teacher says, 'Shut up, Sit down, and I'll tell you what you need to know.' Here the teachers want to know you."
Don't we all learn better from someone who genuinely seems interested in us? Who seems to like us? Who is not only on our side but is cheering us on? Who makes the time and effort to make a connection with us, build a relationship with us?
Now, please take 7 minutes and 48 seconds and watch this talk from Rita Pierson. It makes me want to stand up and cheer:
Rita Pierson- "Every Kid Needs a Champion."