Last night, we had back to school night for my middle school son. I am simply astounded, amazed and thankful for everything the teachers are doing in the classroom, integrating blogs, podcasts, online assessments, and more into the classroom day in and day out. The opportunities my son will have are ones I don’t think I would get if I sent him to private school, and I left excited for him, and frankly, wanting to go back and do it again myself.
Because I am writing a book on differentiating instruction in the classroom currently, I got home and looked at all the resources the teachers had provided us with, and then I compared it to what resources were online for other instructors in the same school, and I was surprised that there seemed to be a big difference- some teachers had little or no information about their class online, and if they did, it was basically limited to due dates and assignments only. I came away feeling like the kids within this school are going to end up with radically different experiences depending on the teacher they have gotten. The kids in advanced classes will get an education that makes me hopeful for American education at large. The kids in the mainstream classes will get an education as well, but it may not be nearly as exciting and engaging on a daily basis.
I’m starting to understand in a more practical way, how a teacher, along their attitude and enthusiasm for learning, dramatically transforms an educational experience for kids. For teachers that love their subjects and can’t wait to show the kids the new video they found over the weekend, or share a podcast or more, it’s not the technology that makes the classroom cool- it’s the technology that breaks down the walls of the classroom and makes anything possible that’s exciting. The same can be done in an analog way, but it’s much more exciting to share something that is multimedia, or interactive than just giving kids another article to read. But at the heart of it, it’s the enthusiasm that sparks kid’s interest and creativity. Teachers are the gatekeepers to so much nifty and interesting stuff- they just have to let kids in and let them play.
I think it’s the sense of play, exploration and adventure that makes things exciting to kids. When I tell my kids about the “old days” (mid 1980’s) when their dad and I worked in labs during college, extracting and sequencing DNA in gels, now something that’s done incredibly fast with the help of computers, we can all have a good laugh. I catch myself thinking how exciting it was then, and how much has changed in that relatively short time frame, but how still, I can tell them all the cool things we got to do and communicate how amazing it is, and how lucky they are to learn these things. This sense of fun and story and personal engagement is at the heart all of the best learning, and we need teachers who want to do that for kids every day.
Largely, your child’s experience and thus also their opinion of subjects are held in the hands of whatever teachers they pull that year. They might get lucky, they might not. And I don’t think we can bottle education and serve it up online or through videos alone- kids need that mentor, that guide, that facilitator that makes the whole subject area come alive- and that’s something that’s really hard to communicate through a screen.
But it also means that teachers who hold onto their knowledge like it’s a zero-sum resource; that each effort they make, each fact they give out, somehow makes them poorer, or uses up the limited supply-these teachers give kids a fundamentally different view of education. Maybe education is something you have to earn in their eyes. Maybe it needs to be hard and difficult rather than a playground for them, because maybe it was hard for them. But I can tell you, the teachers who look at school like one giant opportunity to send the electric shock of learning through their students- those teachers are worth their weight in gold, and I wish I could clone them.
I don’t know what to do or what we can do to prevent our children’s education from seeming like one giant crap shoot, dependent on which teacher they get assigned for which class. I know it’s frustrating when you get one who isn’t engaged, just like it must be frustrating for teachers getting students who seem to care less. But the more we can match teachers who do care, the more students who naturally will as well, and then we all will be better off.
But here’s the big secret: it’s not the school and the curriculum that matter as much as the teacher and their level of engagement- all the kids in our school will have different opinions and know different things by the end of this year, not so much based solely on the curriculum, but based on the instructor. I am sure of that.
by Whitney Hoffman
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Photo graciously provided by Phil Roman, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved