Driving to my school this morning to help out at an Open House event for prospective fifth grade families, I felt a sense of calm and peace wash over me like glaze on a doughnut. I was moved to philosophical thought, as I finally had a chance to meaningfully reflect on my teaching. After an amazing, yet rich and full fall trimester in the fifth grade, I haven’t had much me-time. I’ve been straight out, pedal-to-the-metal busy planning, teaching, grading, supporting and helping my students, and meeting with families, not to mention all of my responsibilities as a father and husband. So, this morning, as I made my way south to the wonderful Beech Hill School, I had the opportunity to think poetically about the last three months at my new school…
Like a smooth stone shaped by the current, rolling along a river’s bed,
I’ve been changed and transformed by my school and students over the past few months:
I’ve taken risks and tried new things I never thought possible,
like mindful yoga and a student-driven newscast;
I empowered my students to own their learning,
as if they were the teachers and I the student;
I embraced failure and made it a positive part of our classroom vernacular,
one must fail for learning to be manifested;
My students challenged me to push them forward in new directions,
like ships changing course to avoid icebergs;
I employed new strategies to promote social awareness in the classroom,
we are a family, and families take care of each other, I preached;
I tried new, innovative ways to engage my students in the process of learning,
like Forest Fridays, student choice, a class pet, and bonus points.
I thought about the struggles I faced as well,
the challenges that kept me busily searching for possible solutions,
like the Goonies searching for One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure.
Even after only a short time at my new school, I’ve grown in many ways,
like mountains being formed through tectonic plate movement.
My peaks eroded through the winds of change and new challenges
while my deep valleys began filling in with new information debris.
I am a semi-polished piece of granite, floating in the river
that is the Beech Hill School, learning and growing in a
never ending cycle of compassion and commitment.
I can only imagine what the next few months have in store for me.
As I pondered all of my moments of wonder, scenes of serenity, and snapshots of challenge, I started dwelling on what truly matters. Although, as educators, we are constantly bombarded by articles and blog entries on new pedagogical approaches to teaching and advances in technology, what I began to realize on my early morning trek was that all that fancy stuff, all those bows on the presents of teaching, are meaningless without the gift of relationships inside. High tech gadgets like interactive whiteboards and hands-on projects are ineffective and useless if we haven’t formed strong bonds and positive relationships with our students. If our students don’t feel supported, cared for, or safe at school, then their brains will be unable to learn in any sort of meaningful and genuine manner. Tiny problems that are easily solved because of the strong relationships we have with our students will quickly snowball into giant issues if we do not work to create strong and effective relationships with our students.
Just last week, a student in my class struggled to showcase his learning and reflect in a meaningful way in the ePortfolio he was working to prepare for his student-led conference. I provided him space to attempt to solve his problem on his own. While he didn’t openly admit that he was unable to solve his dilemma independently, he sent me a frustrated email that told me he needed help. Because I have come to understand this student over the past few months and have a great rapport with him, I read through the veneer of anger. The morning after I received his email, I had a great chat with him about his struggles. I then worked with him during free periods in our daily schedule to help him display how he has grown and changed since early September. I re-framed questions, worked with him to put his ideas and thoughts into complete sentences, and helped him transform his thinking onto his laptop. When all was said and done, he seemed happier and proud of what he had accomplished. He realized, that when he asks for help, he is able to accomplish the task at hand.
Because I have a strong relationship with this student, I knew that his angry email was a cry for help. Forming meaningful relationships with our students allows for all of the other puzzle pieces of teaching to fall into place. When our students feel cared for and understood, they are able to engage in project-based learning and get the most out of interactive learning tools. Genuine learning happens when our students are able to work from the new, modern portions of their brains responsible for problem-solving and emotion. My peaceful moments of reflection this morning allowed me to see that all of the awesomeness that happened in my fifth grade classroom this year was as a direct result of the relationships I formed with my students. Great teachers are great at connecting with their students in just the right ways.
It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to plan the best, most effective, hands-on units possible, when all that really matters is how we interact with our students. If we know, understand, and care about our students, everything we do plan will be exactly what our students need to help them grow and learn. Unit planning for me comes down to my students. What do they need to be successful? How can I best challenge my students? What type of project will motivate them to want to know more? When I start with my students first, I find that the path to growth and learning is always right around the corner. At the Beech Hill School, we always put our students first, which is why our students love coming to school each and every day. I even had four amazing students show up today to help out with the Fifth Grade Open House event. They value their learning and our class community so much that they are willing to give up their free time on a Sunday to help others see the power in being a Beech Hill School student. If that doesn’t speak to the power of relationships, then I don’t know what does.