By Jim Delisle, Ph.D., author of Doing Poorly on Purpose: Strategies to Reverse Underachievement and Respect Student Dignity
This post was originally published January 17, 2018, on MiddleWeb.
For many years, I was a tenured university professor of education. Sure, I enjoyed my ever-optimistic undergraduates, but something was missing. When I entered the education profession as a K–6 special education teacher, I never realized that the more graduate degrees I received, the fewer kids I would teach. How weird is that: As an educator, the “smarter” you get, the more removed you become from the very kids who, initially, brought you down this career path.
With a Ph.D. and tenure in hand, it would have been easy to stay in my university position until retirement. But I came to realize that the longer I stayed in the ivory tower, the less relevant I would likely be to my undergraduates. Although many education professors are well-informed and current in their thinking, others haven’t been in a classroom in years, making their bromides about how to teach or discipline pretty far removed from the realities of lunch duty, parent conferences, and kids who enjoyed figuring out how best to get their teachers off topic. I didn’t want to become one of “those” professors. So, for the last seventeen years as a professor, I became a one-day-a-week teacher of seventh and eighth graders.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure that middle school was right for me—would the kids be smarter than I was? Would they eat me alive with their shenanigans? But I soon came to realize that there is nothing more enjoyable than lovable, frustrating, sarcastic young adolescents whose brains and bodies are moving simultaneously at warp speed. I became a middle school junkie . . . and still am.
And then, six years ago, I “graduated”—to ninth grade. Retired (kinda), I decided to offer my teaching services to a local high school filled with wicked smart kids. How smart? From eighth grade, they enter our small, public high school (190 enrollment) and begin to take AP courses and college classes in ninth grade. Four years later, upon high school graduation, most have earned 70+ college credits, all paid for through the relationship between our county schools and the university on whose campus our high school is located. Wicked smart, indeed.
Given the size and scope of the brain power in front of me in each ninth-grade class, I ask my students annually to reflect on their middle school experiences with people like us—teachers. My prompt to them is simple:
Each of you has had teachers who have either helped you learn or have hindered that process. It’s your turn to tell teachers in 100 words (or close to it) what they . . .
- Have done well
- Have done badly
- Should do more of
- Should do less of
- Did to “invite” you to learn
- Did that turned you off to school
Recognizing that my students had eight-plus years’ experience with teachers, I figured they could give some guidance into their worlds of learning and schooling. Guess what: I wasn’t wrong. Here are some representative student responses.
First, the good things we do:
- “In seventh and eighth grades, I was in chorus. The teacher I had was my favorite one ever. When we hit the notes in a specific song we were learning, a huge amount of joy and energy burst out of him. This energy transferred to his students. Now understand, I cannot sing well, but this teacher made me feel as if I could do just about anything with the right amount of work, effort, and support.”
- “My eighth-grade teacher integrated hands-on activities, lectures, humor, music, and my favorite: walks. We would take time off and walk the campus talking, skipping, or racing. We’d even toss balls or play football. Those small fifteen-minute breaks made my days and gave me the boost I needed to get through the rest of the school day.”
- “It is very helpful when teachers congratulate you when you succeed rather than scold you when you don’t. A few of my middle school teachers did this, and I thank them.”
- “I like to not just learn something but to understand how I will use this knowledge. What good is learning physics if you don’t understand how it affects you personally?”
- “My math tutor in sixth grade always got me excited to learn, not by necessarily teaching part of the curriculum, but by teaching little side topics that I might find interesting. When teachers go beyond what they ‘have to’ teach us, I get engaged and excited about the subject.”
And then, there are those behaviors we should avoid:
- “In eighth grade, my math teacher would pick one kid each day who didn’t do the homework and chew that kid out for ten minutes. That teacher made me feel stupid even when I got 100 on a test.”
- “Some teachers have made me want to count down the minutes until class ended. They either didn’t like what they were teaching or they constantly complained about things that had nothing to do with class. I want to learn from someone who wants to teach.”
- “I feel that teachers should work with other teachers to time their assignments better. A lot of us get stressed by school, and having four projects due in the same week doesn’t help this.”
- “When I was in sixth grade, I missed some school because my grandmother died. When I returned to school, my math teacher told me that I would never catch up and suggested that I return to a basic math class. I felt so discouraged.”
Teaching is one of the most human of professions and, happily, many of our students recognize that we are real people, not just their instructors. Here are some insights I’ve gained into how we are perceived, apart from our teaching prowess:
- Many teachers really try to relate to their students. They try to understand students and help students comprehend both their lessons and life beyond their lessons. This is truly a great trait in a teacher.
- You have those excruciatingly painful-to-listen-to teachers who make you wish you had never been born, but then you have the opposite: those who make you look forward to going to school every day. Both types teach you something unintentionally: The former teaches you patience and the other teaches you to be yourself.
- Ultimately, a teacher must be him- or herself, NO MATTER WHAT. Teachers always tell students this, but why not follow our own advice? The more genuine we are, the stronger connection we make.
One trait of young adolescents—their bluntness—causes their teachers to either rue the day they signed their teaching contracts or rejoice in the glory of their students’ unfiltered honesty. Me? I do the latter, as young teens’ unencumbered expressions of our roles in their lives makes me consider, time and again, the importance of listening to those in our care. So go ahead, ask your middle school students what works and what doesn’t in their education. And be prepared to learn.
Jim Delisle’s latest book, Doing Poorly on Purpose: Strategies to Reverse Underachievement and Preserve Student Dignity is co-published by ASCD and Free Spirit Publishing.
Jim Delisle, Ph.D., has taught gifted children and those who work on their behalf for more than forty years, including twenty-five years as a professor of special education at Kent State University. He has taught students in elementary and secondary schools and, for the past six years, has worked part time with highly gifted ninth and tenth graders at the Scholars’ Academy in Conway, South Carolina. The author of more than 250 articles and twenty books, Jim is a frequent presenter on gifted children’s intellectual and emotional growth. Jim and his wife Deb live in Washington, D.C., and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Free Spirit books by Jim Delisle:
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