Few will deny the many values of continuing education for all professionals–especially for educators. After all, how can we prepare our students for the world and the workforce of tomorrow if we as teachers don’t continue to learn, grow, and adapt? Technology is constantly changing. New teaching techniques are constantly surfacing. New information is constantly becoming available. It’s imperative for us to keep up with, if not ahead of, these changes. Naturally, attending workshops and conferences and enrolling in graduate level classes can help us learn about the latest technologies, techniques, and tools–but that is only the most obvious reason to continue our education.
Recently, my Instagram buddy and fellow teacher and writer, Kathryn Fletcher (check out her blog, Quill and Books), posted about a class she is taking, and the fact that being a student again helps her to be a better teacher. I, too, have noticed this phenomenon. From 2009-2013, I was enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Denver, and last month, I completed an accelerated graduate course on gifted and talented students through the University of Richmond. While my classes provided me with the traditional benefits of education–knowledge, information, skills–they also made me a better teacher simply because I was reminded of what being a student is like–of what being a student is.
Providing Examples to Clarify Expectations
I’ve heard two schools of thought regarding providing students with examples of projects, papers, or assignments.
The first school of thought seems to be that providing examples can be helpful to our students’ understanding of our expectations for their work, and is in fact integral to their ability to meet our expectations. Those who ascribe to this school of thought might feel that to not provide an example would be unfair, withholding information necessary for the students’ success.
The second school of thought seems to be that providing examples limits students’ creativity, imposing upon them a sort of template. In short, providing examples at best encourages students to think inside the box and at worst, fosters plagiarism.
Having recently been a student myself, I find I fall somewhere in the middle. As a student, I find access to examples at the very least a source of peace of mind. They help me understand my instructor’s expectations, and put me at ease. They also give me a basis of comparison. Is what I have completed so far up to par, or do I need to up the ante? They eliminate a lot of the stress associated with a weighty project or paper, and can make concrete what might otherwise feel like an abstract task. They do, indeed, provide a sort of template.
As a teacher, however, I understand the fear of boxing my students in, of limiting them to the standards set by the example–when perhaps they are capable of more. To help satisfy both teacher me and student me, I recommend providing several, different examples, all exemplifying different strengths and suggesting different ways a student could successfully complete the assignment. In this way, I hope the examples will inspire my students, acting as a jumping-off point instead of as a single route to successful completion.
This seems obvious, but really, having been simultaneously a student and a teacher for four years, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of clear directions. List them in bullet points; create numbered, step-by-step lists; draw one of those concept map things that visually explains the steps students need to take to complete the assignment. Make yourself clear to your students in any way they need.
That said, it’s impossible for us as teachers to anticipate what every single one of our students will need for clarity–so be approachable. Encourage students to ask questions if they don’t understand, and when they do ask questions, make sure to answer with patience and understanding. Teacher me knows that can be very challenging, especially when you feel like you’ve already answered the same questions five times in the last five minutes. Sometimes, though, teacher me has to remember that if I have had to answer the same questions five times, maybe my directions weren’t clear enough the first time. In teacher me’s defense, maybe the students didn’t read the directions carefully enough the first time (or at all!), or maybe they weren’t listening carefully enough the first time (or at all!)–but student me always feels warm and fuzzy when an instructor answers my question as if I am not, actually, an idiot.
This is perhaps the most important lesson I learn (again and again) when I take a class. I teach writing, so I am constantly picking apart students’ written work. My intent is always to help my students become stronger, more effective writers, but I must admit that after reading dozens of research papers, my comments grow a bit more terse and a bit less forgiving. It’s completely unintentional, but I’m sure that’s no consolation to the student who wrote the twentieth research paper I read.
But guess what? Student me had to write three papers for the most recent graduate course I completed. And they weren’t perfect. But my instructor’s feedback was gentle and helpful.
And freelance writer me just got a rejection notice from Crowd Content–so clearly, my work wasn’t up to their standards (their feedback, which was less than constructive, wasn’t up to mine).
And novelist me found out a few days ago that Goodbye For Now did not win the James River Writers Best Unpublished Novel Contest.
And blogger me knows this blog post, too, will have its flaws (especially since I’m writing it way past my bedtime). And I won’t particularly like it if someone points them out (though, depending on how it’s delivered, I may feel grateful for the advice after my ego recovers).
And what does teacher me take away from all of this? Teacher me is reminded to bear in mind that when students turn in their writing to me, be it a journal entry, a research paper, a short story, or an essay, they are turning in a little piece of themselves–and it’s personal, however academic it may be. And so, whether a paper is the first I’ve read tonight or the thirty-first, I must treat it with the utmost respect and tenderness. I am indeed responsible for helping to improve it–or rather, for helping its author improve it–but I am also in a position to either build up or tear down another writer. I am partly responsible for the way a student writer will feel when he gets his paper back from me. Will he feel empowered, or downtrodden? Part of that depends on how I deliver my suggestions for revisions, as well as how helpful and specific my feedback is.
One of the most helpful tools for student me when I am writing a paper, completing a project, or working on any academic task is a clear understanding of how the instructor will evaluate the final product. What criteria will be used? How much weight does each element of the assignment carry? Where should my priorities rest? Student me likes a good, straight-forward rubric. I use it as a checklist and a guide.
Really, though, what is the most important lesson I have taken away from all the classes I have completed? A reminder of what it feels like to wear the students’ shoes. I’ve been wearing primarily teacher shoes for the last eleven years. It’s good, every now and again, to step back into the classroom as a student. As a teacher, it can be so easy to get bogged down in the to-do list of the teaching day, which often extends long after school hours: take attendance, run copies, grade papers, input grades, print progress reports, set up the bell ringer, update the curriculum map, fix the typo you just found on next block’s quiz, update the bulletin board, turn in the lesson plans, change the seating chart (because clearly Sarah and Jimmy can’t handle sitting so close to each other), and, for heaven’s sake, please find a few seconds for a potty break somewhere in there. Taking a class helps me remember that my students need me more than my to-do list does. This year, when school starts again, I hope teacher me can remember what it feels like to be student me–and teach accordingly.