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Champions Are Made In The Classroom [A Few Lessons From This School Year]

The saying goes that we as teachers learn as much from the students as they learn from us.

This year, I needed this when I went for a whirlwind of a trip this year, shifting roles and attitudes in ways that had me floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Perhaps even a little rope-a-dope as I sustained a few blows. As successful as I've been outside of school, the frustrations inside school built up.

The only sustainment I had all year was the knowledge that, yes, we as teachers needed to do a good job in the classroom and in the school.

With that, here are a few things I learned:

Reflection Takes More Than One

This year, I did my first real student evaluations. I let students anonymously write me suggestions and questions they had for the year. Most of them came back positive, but I still had a few things to work on, and perhaps I rated myself lower than I actually am. In the spirit of approaching my work humbly, I begged them to be honest with me in their evals, hoping that the feedback I got would improve my practice.

Some educators (the broader term for teachers, administrators, or other such staff members) have a hard time listening to others' perspectives on them, but withouth a little perspective, we can't grow. Teaching is generally an isolated thing, so why not ask the people to spend the most time with you in the classroom to talk back?

Speaking of which ...

Student Voice Matters

Some of the fruits of my labor came to the fore when a few students spoke out in different situations. While I can't reveal the details, it shocked me that my students had actually taken a stand against adults and spoke up on their own behalf. Such a performance only bolstered everything I believed about my students, and only made any of my travails seem minimal. When they can come to school with as many issues as they come with (and there are plenty) and still contribute to the school culture as they do, we ought to laud that and hold onto that voice as long as possible.

Teacher Expertise Is The Start

Having one class every year since I started doing math coaching gave me a respect with my colleagues that outside people, for example, can't always get offhand. I took on some of the most challenging classes in my career and made them part of me, and they all helped me grow as an educator. When I found out I would have this "special" class, I saw it as an opportunity to add another dimension to my pedagogy. I hadn't taught "gifted and talented" kids in a few years.

Regardless of whether I taught a higher-functioning or lower-functioning class, I knew one thing: expertise matters.

Developing curriculum in the summer reminded me that I already knew the sorts of deficiencies they'd come with. They couldn't do operations with fractions and decimals properly. They couldn't tell the difference between x² and 2x. They replaced names for procedures with the word "thing" a lot. Before giving them their first assessment, I knew what I would see in that diagnostic (and was proved right). Yet, when I brought up that I would start teaching (and teach the routines by teaching), I was met with serious pushback.

I shrugged most of it off as a misunderstanding, and that was fine. With a couple of weeks left before the end of the school year, I was able to cover 90+% of the standards in depth. Looking that far in advance and understanding the Common Core State Standards allowed me to do that. I had a little freedom to go back and re-cover topics that students didn't get. I slowed down where I needed to, and sped up where it was simple. I planned my lessons well, considering all the times we missed for all the activities we had this year.

Conclusion

Today, I wore my Muhammad Ali t-shirt to school, because, after this year, I felt like a champion. Champions aren't just made in the gym, but in the boxing ring, dancing on the canvas, and feeling the ropes around them. The fight isn't against one actual person, but through a host of situations that prevent someone from doing the best job possible. To that end, I did.

My last day is tomorrow, and I think the judges will vote in my favor ...

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