Let’s start by looking back!
I’m super excited to welcome the kids back to school tomorrow! I thought I would take some time to reflect on the work of teachers and look back at some of the best moments I had when I was in the classroom.
When I conducted my M.Ed., I undertook a side project on student perceptions of education. I followed 5 Australian boys around in their Grade 11 year and interviewed each several times on the purpose of education, and what makes students successful in school. What I was most surprised by was even at the age of 17, the boys mostly attributed their success to the degree to which they perceived their teachers “liked” them. We looked at the data and there was a correlation – they did do better in those classes. What we also discovered, was that the kids put in more work for teachers they believed “liked” them. They also appeared to respect teachers more who pushed them than who let them coast. This project was the foundation of educational purpose which is: to help students identify, and achieve, their personal best in education and in life. That’s still what gets me out of bed every day.
When I returned to the classroom, the results of this qualitative study came with me. I used it to change my practices. First of all, I made sure I knew “what”, and more importantly “how” every student thought. What are their opinions, what are their biases? I had every student write a full page on whatever they wanted every week for the first month of school. I read each one thoroughly, giving them feedback on their writing and their ideas. I did this for a few years as a Middle School Humanities teacher and got great engagement from my kids. This became the foundation of my teaching practices, and I didn’t spend nearly as much on the content areas as some would have expected me to. Instead, I focused on the students and on how they thought. I tried to use as little as I could of the textbooks. I tried to get them to think conceptually about “what, how and why” and expected them to learn “who, where and when” on their own.
Eventually, I was asked to teach an IB History course. When I started, I did what I knew instead of what many colleagues and students thought I “should” have been doing – learning my IB curriculum that I had never taught before. In class, I would facilitate class “fights” but choosing controversial subjects and having kids stand on either side of the room as though in government. Kids could cross the floor whenever they wanted and someone wasn’t participating I would wait until I heard something I knew they would be passionate about and call them to challenge. “nice point, Jeff, but I think Amanda would disagree with you”. Amanda then had to defend her opinion.
Knowing that I didn’t know much about the curriculum, I had to rely on my other strengths. Having completed an M.Ed. in assessment and curriculum, I knew how to write academically and how to break down assessments. I taught my kids MLA referencing and in-text citations for the first two weeks of school. I taught them how to structure long quotations and when it’s best to paraphrase. I made them learn how to identify flaws in a works-cited page without using the then-emerging technology of cites like “Bib-me”. When I assigned homework, it was to critique the academic writing of the texts; to find fault in the writing of our books. The chapters assigned were related to what we were meant to be studying, but the content was simply used because I knew eventually they would have to know it, but the content was not the focus. The writing was. I started feeding them past exam questions and getting the kids to do the “where do I stand” activity with content. I spent weeks going through the technical command terms and teaching them how to identify things like distractors in multiple choice assessments.
As I got more comfortable with the material, we got more into content. We were clearly behind in terms of content but it was easier than I thought to catch up. When “real” work started coming in, I already knew how the kids wrote and how they thought. Most of the time, I’d give comprehensive feedback and kids submitted great work. If work came in that wasn’t up to a student’s standard, I simply wouldn’t accept it. I would get half way through reading their work and if it wasn’t well written or didn’t reflect their voice I would simply stop. There is a “rule” in major IB assessments of only being allowed to give written feedback once, so, I would simply not finish the draft, give it back to the student and tell them I couldn’t accept it. I’d give a few oral examples of what was wrong and have a conversation. Were they confused? Was something else going on? I’d ask them when they can give me a better, more consistent draft and agree on a new date. Sometimes I had to repeat this and sometimes I had to accept that the kid was getting more lost and just needed feedback. Sometimes done was better than perfect, but the students and I both knew we had tried our best.
There is no substitute for experience and eventually (mostly from the kids) I learned the curriculum. Many of my students would come to me having read some obscure history and ask me what I thought of it. I would go home, read it, and tell them what I thought. Often I would use those sources in my lessons, acknowledging the student who brought it to me. Despite not knowing that much about history, in my last class as a teacher, three of my students went on to attend Ox-Bridge and Ivy League universities in that subject. I have kept in touch with them all and they have all been so complimentary. I am honoured to have served them.
Not all students benefitted from my style, or even appreciated it. Some saw me as a fraud who knew nothing about history as I expected them to learn it and to teach it to me. Some said I wasn’t “fair”. Some said I was “too hard a marker”. Some hated that I wouldn’t accept their work if it wasn’t their best. Some felt my lessons lacked organization and structure. Some complained to my principal. They all had a point. I owned that I didn’t know all the answers, and I tried to make sure their points were heard. Whether it be my IBDP courses or my MYP courses, I tried to stay true to my teaching style. Even with students who didn’t like my methods, I tried to make sure they knew I respected them and I always tried to push them. I was determined to ensure they attributed their grades as a reflection of their work, and not because they thought I liked or disliked them.
Like most teachers, I have stayed in touch with many of my former students. Last November, through Linked In, I received this unsolicited message from a former student who was once very much in the camp of students who didn’t care for my methods:
Hello Mr. Sealey,
“I’m not sure if you remember me but I was in one of your classes… about 6 years ago. The other day I was thinking about how the education system could be improved to promote relevant learning and skills that would be valuable in the future. I feel as though there are a lot of faults in the system that could be improved. In my head, I was going through all the teachers I have had in my life and how effective their teaching was. You came to mind as being one of the best teachers in terms of challenging the ideas. I specifically remember a project you had us do about the (2010 Vancouver) Olympics and the problems with (it’s) governance – though I didn’t recognize the significance of the subject at the time. You truly went beyond the regular curriculum to make the course connect with real life problems. I wish teachers in school would do this more as in hindsight, this is helpful in furthering our knowledge and learning how to not accept the norm – although I understand this is difficult when you are given an outline to follow.”
Indeed, I remembered her well. I remember her because at the beginning of that year, she was very critical of my teaching at student-led conferences. I remember being impressed with her courage as she insisted I wasn’t teaching her “anything”. You see, I was one of two teachers of that course and my colleague had a powerpoint every lesson and was meticulous through the curriculum. I remember that meeting because afterward, I tried to be a little more organized, plan my lessons a little more thoroughly, and engage in some more didactic lessons. I regret not making it a point to tell her that her critique helped and that her points were valid. Had I built a better relationship, I could have had a bigger impact on her learning and maybe it wouldn’t have been 6 years since I’d last heard how she is doing. This student reminded me that I had a responsibility to teach the curriculum and because of her I did that, but I always looked for a current event to use and when an opportunity to ditch the textbook came up, I jumped at it.
To get a letter like that, out of the blue, from a student you hadn’t spoken to in almost 7 years was amazing. From her message, it seems she forgot that as a 14-year-old, she didn’t initially like my methods. At the time, I didn’t always think about my lesson objectives and I wasn’t always organized. She made me better in those ways, and I am grateful. You can’t have a connection with every student, but you can respect each and every one. Giving respect to another person is like giving it to a mirror, it will come right back at you.
I want to thank every teacher for reaching out to young people and helping them achieve the best possible version of themselves. Sometimes the things you try to do take years before they have an impact. But the work you do matters! It matters so much that years from now, some young person will take time out of their day to thank you for doing what you do best.
For the past two weeks, UAS teachers have been building curriculum, writing their syllabi, collaborating, standardizing assessments, marking exam re-takes, organizing their classrooms, planning the new advisory programmes, organizing resources and building trust. We are doing that for our students. They are the people we serve and tomorrow all that hard work gets a context.
As we begin the year here at UAS. Let’s really work to get to know how our students think. Let’s focus on helping them learn. Let’s listen to our students and help them set goals. Let’s not accept work that is any less than their best effort. If we do that, they will never forget us.
Let’s have a great year!