The week before semester exams I gave my students a choice of a high five, hand shake, or a hug as they left the room. This was meant as a tribute to a friend of mine, an elementary school teacher, who unexpectedly died the week before. She was one of the most positive people that I knew and she did this for her students every day. And I thought my students would benefit from a little bit of happiness as they went through the week. As it turned out they really liked it, and the activity ended what was a quarter of personal transformation for me as a teacher – not in what I taught, but in how I taught, one that made my classroom a much better place to be for all involved.
What sparked the change was an incident that happened during the first nine weeks. I always like to kid around with kids, operating under the belief that teaching them to laugh at themselves was a valuable skill and that a classroom filled with humor was the best place too learn. However, one day I made a comment about a particular student that she found particularly hurtful, and even though I apologized profusely I knew that I had ruined her day. I’m not sure if it was taken in the way I intended it or not, but either way I knew it was a comment that I know I shouldn’t have said. And I remembered several other times that I felt I had danced around what was humorous and hurtful in the past, and at that moment decided that if that type of humor wasn’t appropriate for that student, it probably wasn’t appropriate for any student.
Fortunately I had a fresh start at the beginning of the year with three new classes that I acquired when a colleague wasn’t able to come back when he thought he would, and while I may have permanently tainted the environment in the two classes I kept, I could start over with the new classes and create a positive learning environment with that bunch.
Although I did intend it, I followed a bit of Sufi wisdom I had read a year ago about how to choose your words:
1. Is it true?
2. Is it kind?
3. Is it necessary?
As a result, these three new classes became very warm environments for learning and, as you might expect, it carried over to the “old” classes as well. No more sarcasm or humor at the expense of others, no matter whether they could handle it or not. Not true, not kind, and not necessary.
The second change that I made was part of a larger desire for change in my life: I wanted to live life more quietly. I was once again teaching under a false assumption that a high octane classroom would be a better learning environment that kept kids engaged (or at least awake). As a result, I taught that way – amped up, energetic, pretending to be the extroverted person that I am not. As a result my class operated at warp speed – I tended to cut students off when they responded, if I even gave them time to do that. I decided that this was not only wearing me out, but possibly giving the kids more stimulation than they actually needed.
So I decided to lower my voice. Talk and respond quietly. Give students time to respond and be thoughtful in my responses. Kind of create a Zen environment in my classroom. In a world of hustle and bustle, I didn’t feel the need to add more energy.
And you know what? I find the classroom a lot more relaxed and a more effective learning environment. Kids actually seem more engaged, especially the more introverted kids (and I do have a fair number of those.)
So I enter 2013 ready to carry through these changes, and continue to be more deliberate about how I teach and what’s best for kids. My next endeavor this year is to learn to grade compassionately, especially essays, and that will be me first idea to explore this year.