Friday, July 28, 2017

The Heart of Teaching

This last year as a teacher has helped me learn so many things about what it means to be a teacher and I wanted to share my thoughts.

I teach adults partner social dancing (Kizomba, bachata sometimes salsa).
I coach high school girls on volleyball.
I teach 7th grade students Math.

At first, I focused on learning the skills and content because I loved it. I spent a lot of time learning to be good at dancing, volleyball and math. I then spent time learning how to teach in a school, coach a sport and teach evening recreational classes to adults.  I would go to a coaches clinic for volleyball coaches or take classes on how to be a better teacher, etc. My teaching methods were tied too closely to my content.

One thing to know about me is that my mind works to find common elements in everything I do. I love finding a pattern for disparate things: what did that have to do with setting a volleyball or dancing or solving equations? I decided that if I have a pattern that works for many things, that's a great thing! Perhaps its me being lazy or inherently efficient. I guess I just think the more things I can find that I already know and can apply, the less I have to remember.

I already do many common things across all the different disciplines and students groups that I teach: it only makes sense and it saves my energy and sanity for the differences I do have to deal with. Recently tho, one other thought has popped up in my head about being a teacher. Its crystalizing more and more as I just finished taking a week long course called "Designing Groupwork in Math".

The course title describes the course accurately but says nothing about what I learned and believe to be the HEART of the course.

A bit of context setting about the course: Groupwork comes from Complex Instruction (or CI). There's a lot about the research that went into CI by Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan. It stems from the need to make learning more accessible to everyone. By everyone that includes some very loaded things like learning styles, cultural bias, gender, race/ethnicity and many other social issues. What this body of learning and practice brought to light for me is to get student engagement, a teacher must address (among other things) the issue of social status in a classroom (or team).

There was lots of great stuff that I'm still marinating in and the one big idea that I'm really resonating with is this:

Learning is most powerful with collaboration. In order to get students to learn collaboratively, we as teachers need to help our students learn about who they are as learners and influence their beliefs  about what it means to learn. As teachers, we ourselves have to be familiar with our own beliefs about learning and be thoughtful about the words and actions we take with our students because we are usually working to shift a mindset which can only come from practicing and coaching the behaviors and actions that support a learning (or growth mindset). 

Have you noticed that nothing I've written since I mentioned the title of the course even mentions math (the content that is being taught)? Did you also notice that none of the language is about being right or wrong?

As a teacher, I am responsible for creating a classroom/community that supports everyone to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work collaboratively to learn more content. 

Another person expressed things this way: if you change the way your students think about what a classroom is and focus on that community of support through communication and collaboration, the learning takes care of itself.

I soon to realized that while I am actively thinking about what to do for my math classroom, why not also think about what I can do for my coaching or when I teach social partner dancing classes? I started to think about my own biases on how to learn and realized that they way I teach reflects a lot on the way I myself was taught and often those teachers who I love and respect, were not really teaching with the same focus on how students learn.

I also assume that adults as learners will already know who they are. The truth is, students are students no matter what the age group and its important to remember that as a teacher, I am modelling how to learn and how I view my students' learning status in the ways I speak and act with them and in my community.

Sure, I want to teach my content but before content can be taught, I have to recognize that learning happens best when those who learn have access to the material in a supported and collaborative environment. I realize more and more that the way I teach has come from following the practices of teachers that I learned from and respected a lot. Its no wonder that there are some things I don't do very well and its because I don't myself believe in them intrinsically.

I personally love learning. I think its a state of mind like no other: it allows you to be open to possibilities, to be creative, to put yourself in a space of pure discovery without judgement. I am energized when I'm learning because it teaches me about myself, the world around me and the people I interact with. Of course,  there is also that satisfaction of getting something done, of having accomplished something whether its being finally be able to do a triple turn on one foot without falling over OR solving those damn rate problems without second guessing.
What is the HEART of teaching? I believe its this ability to recognize who my students are as learners, support them by helping them recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and giving them access to information in all different ways to help them see the connections they can make in themselves and with their community.
Its a pretty big task and a powerful thing but I love it. I have some ideas how that will look like in my 7th grade classroom for next school year. I'm not quite sure what that will look like in my dance classes or in my coaching but I'm pretty excited to figure that out. I'll share it as I go in future posts but if you have something to share, please comment and reach out, I love to geek out about this sort of stuff.