Taking a risk to try

I introduced a new lesson the other day to my 3rd grade art class: how to make Native American coil pottery. Being an elementary art teacher for the past six years, this is one of my favorite projects, and it focuses on clay, my own artistic favorite. As a teacher in Colorado, I enjoy teaching about the native people of the land. As part of the introduction, I showed them the finished product as a way to motivate the students and peak their interest in the project. One of my students, Jake, seemed wide-eyed and wary the entire time I was addressing the class. As we moved into individual work, he quietly approached me and tugged at my sleeve.

“Ummm…Ms. Micek?” he whispered, “I don’t have any idea how to do what you are asking. I am afraid that the other kids will make fun of me, so I am not going to try.” My heart went out to Jake at that instant because it made me realize that I forgot to mention the crucial part of the assignment: “Jake, it is okay that you don’t know how to create this type of art. My job as your teacher is to explain it to you and give you the skills that you need in order to be successful. All I need from you is the willingness to take a risk and give it a shot.” Jake’s relieved smile accompanied a quick nod of willingness. He did in fact take the risk of creating something new, and struggled a bit through it, but with help from his peers and me, he was able to have a finished product of which he was proud.

The scenario described above is nothing new for teachers. Students are often afraid to take a risk to try something new because they are afraid they will fail or be made fun of in the process. Even worse, they do not want to admit that they don’t have the skills to do what is asked. Jake was a brave student because he asked for help…I wonder how many others are out there that quietly dwell in their own fear and self doubt? I realize how imperative it is for me as a teacher to reassure my students that we are all in the learning process together.

In a lot of ways, today’s teachers are just like Jake. I believe Jake’s feelings in this scenario parallel the anxiety felt among teachers towards new policy agendas and the people who create them. We are entering a culture shift in education that requires more accountability for teachers than ever before. As new legislation and reform rolls out, teachers are perceived as resistant to these ideas. I cannot speak for all teachers, but I know that reform needs to continually happen as the needs of our students evolve and change. Without it, we continue to teach material, but students fail to learn the concepts. So the teacher is misperceived as the wary and wide eyed student- afraid to try these new ideas because of the fear of failing, and admitting the need for help and support.

So why this fear? Why can’t teachers be as brave as Jake the 3rd grader, and admit they are unsure how to approach these uncharted waters? Because it admits weakness. Teaching is not becoming “high stakes,” it is becoming downright cut throat. With the talk (and action) of attributing a teacher’s salary and job security to student achievement, no wonder no one wants to admit they may need help.

I think teachers should be held accountable for what they are responsible to teach. But the accountability does not stop there. Everyone involved in education needs to be held accountable for the responsibility of student learning: the students, teachers, parents, administrators, and especially key stakeholders/policy makers.

So what’s the solution?

  • Partnership.
  • Respect.
  • Collaboration.

Not surprisingly, these three elements are key to the success within my classroom. For example, I used partnership, respect, and collaboration in order to convince Jake to take a risk and try. I was Jake’s partner is his journey to learn, just as I hope stakeholders will be willing partners with teachers. I had respect for Jake, even when he struggled- both with his fears and with the new skills I was asking him to demonstrate.

I hope that this solution trio will parallel the relationship between teachers and stakeholders. In order for this to happen, all involved in education need to remain focused on student learning outcomes, and keep egos and agendas at bay. No longer are we at a time where each position involved in the education system has a specific, compartmentalized role. This archaic system has proved ineffective. Instead, innovative thinking and a blending of roles and responsibilities has to happen in order to stay effective as an education system.

The stakeholders/policy makers need to make sure that teachers have the tools and are trained with the skills to effectively try the myriad of new policy proposals. Rather than having an ever-widening disconnect between the stakeholders/policymakers and teachers, authentic dialogue must continue to happen (as it already has occurred in some areas of the country) among these two groups. With this type of action, accountability and success of the student will be shared and celebrated.

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