One of my favorite tasks at school is one almost completely unrelated to my real job. It is teaching students who find learning exciting. Every Thursday, I leave my juniors and seniors and head toward a classroom populated by kindergarten, first, and second grade students. I only spend a half hour to an hour there, but it helps me see what teaching and learning can and should be.
These kids bubble with joy as they show me what they can do. They look at me earnestly when I try to help them understand. They repeat a word to practice pronunciation. They eagerly answer questions to demonstrate their comprehension. They are excited to learn and more excited to show what they’re able to do. It is a breath of fresh air.
Our school is unique in that our students attend either three or four days per week and complete teacher-directed lessons at home the other one or two days. Our secondary students (mine) attend Tuesday through Friday. Our grammar students (not mine) attend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Some parents aren’t able to home-school their children on those Mondays and Thursdays and so send them to school for a one-room classroom experience. Thursdays — because secondary teachers have to be on campus instead of home-schooling their children — are the more popular days for the grammar one-room classroom. That’s where I step in — briefly, between teaching my own classes — to help Mrs. Holloway.
Mrs. Holloway, our first grade teacher and the master teacher of this one-room schoolhouse on Mondays and Thursdays, is the epitome of the perfect teacher. She effuses peace and friendliness, but she tolerates no nonsense. Students in her classroom are well-loved and well-behaved, and they complete their tasks before they finish the school day. She teaches clearly and precisely and joyfully. She is organized and businesslike, yet warm and loving. My son had her as his teacher when she taught fourth grade, and we both loved her then. When I grow up I want to be like Mrs. Holloway.
Meanwhile, in my real job, I teach juniors and seniors (and a few sophomores) English. Granted, I have more than a few, likely the majority, who find learning exciting or are at least motivated by college prospects to work, but it is the overt nature of those who don’t find learning exciting that colors my experience in the secondary classroom. One of my classes is Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition; I would say 75 percent of the students want to read and do (and likely will pass the AP exam in May). In my honors English classes, that percentage seems much less. Though most students are willing to work, happy to add to discussions, write strong papers, behave in class, and make teaching rewarding, the percentage of kids who want good grades but aren’t willing to work for them seems the overriding factor in teaching some days. (Probably because these students prefer to fool around rather than learn.)
Let me rant about that last, overriding (though small) percentage of students who aren’t willing to do the work. Even those students want good grades, even expect good grades. Some want good grades and expect bad grades, but still aren’t willing to change what they are doing (i.e. do the work for a change) to make those good grades. Most are capable but unwilling to work. Those will suddenly become attentive and frantically ask questions the day before a test. Some of them will do rather well.
That provides for a dilemma. If I could fail a student based on effort alone, I would. Certainly, those students fail themselves in that they don’t get the benefits of learning. But I have to provide assessments, and I have to make sure I’ve covered the material so that all students have a fighting chance taking those assessments. In addition to those not willing to work, I have those students who are excited to learn as well as those maybe diligent students who find learning more challenging. How can I give those latter groups what they need in a classroom without enabling the non-workers to get good grades they don’t deserve?
(I don’t have the answers.)
My problem is that I take it personally. Why don’t these kids want to work? To learn? Is it because I don’t inspire them? Is it because I make it possible to not work and not really learn and still manage a decent grade? What can I do differently? How can I make a difference? How should I be different?
(Teaching is perfect for developing an underdeveloped sense of insecurity.)
Thursday, as I worked with first graders on their math lesson, I noticed that a couple of them were coloring their shapes rather sloppily.
“Are you doing your best?” I asked them.
They smiled broadly and shook their heads.
“What if someone never met you and only saw your work? Wouldn’t you want them to see your best work?” I asked. “People can see just your work and know something about you. More importantly, we bring glory to God when we do our best.”
They began coloring a bit more diligently.
I believe that is the crux of the matter: knowing that what we do brings glory and honor to God and, somehow, getting students (and teachers) to buy into it. (I am still figuring out how to transfer that motivation to my students.) Whether we are doing something we like — like teaching those who want to learn — or doing something we don’t like — teaching those who care for grades more than true learning — we do our best because it brings glory and honor to God.
That is why I see what I don’t like in my students — and rant and rage a bit — and then focus on what I can do differently.
“Excellence in all things, and all things to God’s glory” is how our school’s office manager signs her emails. Matthew 5:16 offers the same idea:
“… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I don’t have all the answers. I am not yet a Mrs. Holloway or, likely, the best teacher Sara Dagen can be. But I want to be an excellent teacher; I do want to let my good deeds glorify my heavenly Father. So I can be my best today — and work harder to become even better tomorrow.
All for God’s glory.