Five things I know for sure about teaching
(This article was written by Marilyn Pryle, 2019 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. Pryle is an English teacher in the Abington Heights School District, Lackawanna County.)
After over 20 years of teaching, I’ve realized a few truths not only about the craft, but about students themselves. Although many aspects of our world are rapidly changing, certain realities persist. Here are five things I know for sure about teaching:
1. Students are human beings
This is not a joke. The pressure of test scores and rankings can limit our perception of students to mere numbers. Of course, this is never true. Students enter our classrooms with talents, dreams, challenges, fears, and burdens. It is impossible to ignore, and their humanness cannot be separated from the act of learning. In fact, it is precisely because we are human that we seek growth. We are naturally curious and creative; we are hardwired to want to learn. Whether students show it or not, self-improvement is our preferred default.
2. Students want to create and have choices
As curious and creative beings, students have their own thoughts, interests, and opinions. They want to explore these, and they are most engaged when they have choices about what they learn. I teach world literature, and I am passionately attached to the content since I view it as vital in our global society. At the same time, I build in lots of room for complete choice with other reading, writing, and projects. The choice-based activities fuel a constant sense of authenticity, ownership, voice, and agency in my classroom.
3. Students want to connect
As humans, we have a basic need to connect with each other and our world. We want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Despite their youth, students want these things, too. In our classrooms, we must make space for them to meaningfully interact with each other and their communities. When students read, write, and create for real audiences, powerful work happens. Service and activism happen. And skills? They are learned in the most memorable and authentic ways.
4. Students want a safe place to take risks
Learning cannot happen without risk and failure. For children, and especially adolescents, this can be terrifying. As educators, we must try to make our classrooms places where students can explore, wonder, try, and fail without losing face – or their grade averages. High-stakes tests and all-or-nothing assignments quash initiative, creativity, and the joy of the process. We must find ways to reward students’ trial runs and failed attempts at least as often as we reward their successes.
5. Students want their teachers to love their work
Students want us to love teaching and our content with a passion that borders on dorky obsession. And of course, we do – it’s why we signed up in the first place! But over time, it becomes easy to relax into the same lessons year after year. It becomes easy to stay safe, but if we expect students to take risks, then we must too. This could involve not only new lessons and activities but new classroom structures. It could mean giving students more choice – at times total choice – in their learning (the terror of which I can personally testify to). Loving teaching means that we continue to grow, wonder, create, risk, and fail right along with our students.
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I remind myself of these truths almost daily as I plan classroom time and interact with students. As educators, we must focus on what will help students in our changing, global world. If students leave our classrooms with confidence in their own initiative and creativity, with an understanding of the importance of self-reflection, connection, empathy, and courage, we will have succeeded.