Chapter 9 – Stand Strong

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In ten words or less, state your teaching philosophy. Many teachers can’t even finish the introduction in ten words. This is not surprising as your philosophy develops with experience. Or maybe philosophy is too big of a word. How about your motto or mission? When a parent, principal, or colleague asks, what is your reply? If you hare off on a monologue about loving the students and having an inviting classroom and doing meaningful work and meeting government expectations and having lots of fun and making sure the children grow, it’s clear that you don’t have a clue. Worse, you don’t know who you are or what ground to stand on.

Many years ago, when I worked in industry and was promoted to my first supervisory position, I had a similar problem. What kind of manager did I want to be? My boss suggested a book that is still available, The One-Minute Manager. It’s about spending a mere minute praising, rewarding or reprimanding, but always communicating clearly and consistently with an employee. I read it, but I struggled to implement it. I finally gave up. It is possible for me to communicate in one minute, but not to listen. And for me, listening was critical to being a successful manager.

As a teacher, I still listen, even though so many more are talking. I also try to hear where they are as students. I need to know this because my philosophy has developed into, “Meet them where they are and push them hard.” It is not the most politically correct, trendy, or even interesting, phrase, but it aligns exactly with my gut. I feel how right this is in my bones. I can stand here, teach from here, and let the wind blow around me.

Be careful of adopting something trendy that doesn’t feel quite right to you. When I worked in industry, having an open-door policy was the hot buzz. It meant that anyone in the company could walk into office, including the CEO’s, and discuss their concerns. It’s a great idea if the executives believe in it, but at my intensely fast-paced company, the CEO mostly found it a waste of his time. Anyone who spoke to him endangered their careers as the VP of Human Resources was sent to that person’s manager to find out “what was wrong with” them. Usually nothing beyond the fact that they believed the illusion of a real open-door policy. Had the CEO simply said, “Send your complaints up the chain of command,” or even “Skip over your manager if you need to,” which is what he really believed, everything would have been fine. Make sure that your philosophy feels right in your bones because if you can’t live it, you will create distrust among your students, parents, colleagues, and administration.

Knowing my philosophy simplifies my life in some ways and complicates it in others. “Meet them where they are…” I learned from my own master teacher. When I was student teaching, she told me that I could waste a lot of energy wishing my students were at grade level or I could meet them where they were. Since then I have also realized it refers to advanced students as well. I have to not only meet them academically, but emotionally and behaviorally as well. Spending a lot of time wishing for more mature and better behaved students doesn’t get me anywhere. Meeting them where they are, as demanding as that can be, does.

“…and push them hard,” means I expect everyone to make huge progress, including the advanced students. I remember a hallway conversation where a colleague told the principal, “Maybe we should have some way of explaining to parents that kids that come in so far ahead just aren’t going to make much progress this year.” In a way, I could see his point. It’s a weakness of standards-based education. If you teach to the standards, and a student starts the year having already mastered them, there isn’t much more for them to learn. But as a parent, I had a heart attack. No parent wants to send their child to school for an entire year so that they can make a couple of months progress. In my class, we skip chapters, group up, offer options, teach at a higher grade level, whatever we need to do to make sure every is pushing hard. (For the details of how we do this, see Chapter 18 – Differentiation)

In Chapter 1, I asked you what was important to teach. Now, in ten words or less, how will you teach it? How will you evaluate everything in your classroom? Does it feel right to you? Once you know, you will be able to hold your ground. You suddenly see that Words Their Way is worthwhile because it contains both an assessment tool (Meet them where they are…) and a way to deeply differentiate (…and push them hard). On the other hand, the science experiments have merit (…and push them hard), but textbook is frustrating because it contains pretty pictures, but seriously incomplete text. You can use this lens to evaluate all of your materials and decide which are worth the students’ precious learning time.

Philosophy also gives you a defense against lesson suggestions. One of the coolest things about being a new teacher is that you have no pre-existing curriculum plan. When someone suggests that you try a new set of lessons, you don’t have to estimate their value against what you already teach and decide what you want to throw away. This is the resistance you feel in a faculty meeting when a new idea comes up. All of the veterans instantly start weighing the new idea against what they already do. On the other hand a new teacher’s year is wide open.

My first year, I read a suggestion in an education magazine for teaching writing in that sounded terrific. My 6th graders did quickwrites then took turns reading them aloud to the class. It met a long list of both writing and oral presentation state standards. After a couple of weeks, I realized that they weren’t learning anything. There was no feedback built into these lessons.  Neither their writing nor their presentations improved. I threw the article out. If my philosophy had been clearer at the time, I would have realized that it didn’t push them hard and was therefore pointless.

Standing your philosophical ground also means you don’t feel guilty when some students don’t attend non-curricular assemblies. Each year, drama groups, BMX riders, jump ropers, or heavyweight wrestlers will come to your school. They put on a fun, inspiring show that most of your students can attend. But there are some that shouldn’t because they haven’t been living up to your philosophy, in my case, pushing hard. I make arrangements for another teacher to take some of my class to the assembly, then open my classroom for any child who needs extra help. Anyone in my class, grade, or school who is behind on homework or classwork or whose behavior does not meet our standard for field trips can stay in my room. Students had warning that this was coming so the days before turn into a mad dash to catch up. The time itself usually turns into a great study hall. We catch up on work, discuss the choices that led to this consequence, and get the individual help that I struggle to have time for in class. As long as the number stays under a dozen, I have been consistently surprised at what a warm and productive environment we can create.

Finally, knowing your philosophy gives you heft with parents and colleagues, especially if you are new, and quite possibly, young. Holding something you know to be right keeps you from bending with the breeze. You hear forced agreement statements like “The whole purpose of spelling is to teach kids to spell words they work with every day, right?” and not feel obligated to agree. A parent asks why you don’t go through every chapter of the textbook like you are “supposed to” and you can explain. At a time when everything seems to be spinning around you, knowing your philosophy gives you some control over the context within which you work and helps you stay centered.


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