Freedom in the Classroom Part Two: The Happy Results of Freeing the Teachers

Academic Freedom Pt 2

Last week I promised that I would tell you about what happened in year four that took me from sure I needed to get out of teaching to sure that teaching was the right place for me.  (If you want to read last week’s posting, click here.)  

So, let me tell you about being drop-kicked into a new job and how that school changed my whole outlook on teaching…

The summer before my fourth year teaching, my husband and I moved cross-country.  Kyle had just finished grad school and took a job a small college in the Midwest.  When we had moved south for his grad school, I had five job offers.  Three weeks before moving back to the Midwest I had sent out over 40 applications and had a grand total of none.  We took a long weekend to visit our new town and to find housing.  While there, we were talking to Kyle’s new boss.  Brian happened to know the principal at one of the local schools and offered to give her a call.  Twenty-four hours later I had a job interview (it was so unexpected that I had to go buy interview clothes on the way to the interview), and forty-eight hours later I had a second interview scheduled for the day after we moved–which was really just a formality to offer me the job.

My new job was a significant change from my previous job.  Not only was it at a K-8 school instead of a high school, private instead of public, but since it was small, I was the Language Arts teacher for all the sixth through eighth graders in the building.  For all intents and purposes, I was the middle school Language Arts Department.  When I asked about what I was to teach, I was handed a general curriculum guide (i.e. persuasive writing is covered in seventh grade and students should be exposed to multiple genres of literature throughout the year including poetry and prose as well as fiction and nonfiction, etc.), three textbooks for each grade (grammar, vocabulary, and literature), and was told which assessments I was responsible for and where to find them.  I was told to pick the literature selections I wanted to use and the novels I wanted to teach (I had to get the novels okayed by my principal, but the school would order any novels they didn’t already own).  As long as I covered the curriculum requirements, gave the assessments that were required for each grade, continued to assign a summer reading project (of my own design), and held my students to a high academic standard, I could go about designing my class and lessons any way I chose–order, topics, speed, reading and writing selections, all of it was up to me.  What a change from the pacing guides and threats of academic malpractice at my previous school!

After a little bit of shock at the freedom of it all, I blossomed as a teacher.  How wonderful it was to have an administration that trusted in my professional training and experience!

Over the course of the next several years, I found a home with this school and community and developed a wonderful and personalized curriculum.  We studied a wide range of authors and topics.  We wrote everything from journals to interview-based research papers and from children’s stories to personal narratives.  We learned traditional grammar and lots of new vocabulary.  My seventh and eighth graders even read and performed Shakespeare (that is a story for another time).  Best of all, when something came up or a particular reading selection didn’t fit a class’s interests or abilities, or even if I was so sick of a novel that teaching it would have been seriously stale curriculum, I was able to tailor my classes to the situation, my students, and myself.

After six years in this school I have taken some time off to raise my own little ones, but I have come away with several very important lessons and observations.  Here are three of the most important.

When teachers are inspired and challenged, they are much better able to inspire and challenge their students.  Think about where your passions lie.  Think about what excites you.  Think about the natural energy you have when you share those interests with someone else.  Now think about something you find terribly boring or tedious or just uninteresting.  Think about how dull that would be to have to do all day most days.  By allowing teachers to bring their natural passions to the classroom teachers are encouraged to want to put extra energy and time into their teaching and prep, not just to want to forget about the whole thing when they leave the building every day.  I am not saying that there will never be topics that teachers have to teach that they are less interested in, but by also giving teachers some freedom within a curriculum, you allow teachers to find ways to bring their own passions to those less interesting topics.  Bored teachers make at best bored and uninspired classes and at worst terrible, robotic talking heads.  Excited and impassioned teachers bring that passion and energy to their students.  It is really difficult to stay uninterested and aloof if you are being lead daily by that kind of energy.

It is important to recognize that students and classes will vary from year to year and even class to class.  Mr. Rogers (a personal hero of mine) hit the nail square on the head when he said, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”  Recognizing this is so important to teaching, and if we recognize that each person is unique, then a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum is ridiculous.  If we like our students just the way they are, then we need to honor that by meeting them where they are and not where some “curriculum guru” insists they ought to be.  This doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t teach classics or grammar or book research–I have used To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet with great success, identify as a traditional grammarian, and always insist that any research have a portion that comes from a source other than something off the computer–but we need to make sure that we keep our specific students in mind when we design our lessons and our curriculums and be open to the idea that something that worked great in one class or one year might not be the best choice for a different set of students.

Teachers have a wealth of training, expertise, and boots-on-the-ground experience.  When schools recognize and respect this, teachers not only feel valued but are also able to put their abilities to the best use.  I have met a lot of teachers in my life, and I cannot think of a single one who got into education because he or she wanted to feel like a robot spitting out facts (and only those facts) that someone else compiled and in the manner and time frame that someone else demanded.  Teachers become teachers because they want to make a difference in students’ live, push them to become their best selves, and help shape the future.  In order to become a teacher, men and women go to school for four years at the very least and continue taking classes and furthering their own education each and every year.  They study areas that they have a passion for in order to become experts in their fields so that they can pass this on to their students.  And every day, as they teach, interact, and learn from their students, teachers become more and more knowledgable on what works in their own classroom, how to best reach their own students, and maybe most importantly,  on their students themselves.  When schools allow teachers academic freedom within their classrooms, these men and women are able to put this knowledge to use.  It is an incredible waste of time, education, knowledge, passion, and experience if schools ignore these things!

Teach On!

Rebecca

Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Homeschooler, Staff, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com

This Week’s Featured Product

Big Ideas!  Daily Quotes for Journaling and Discussion
Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 4.49.48 PM

A great way to encourage your students (or yourself) to think about big ideas, this product includes 201 quotes from a wide range of people plus suggested uses, grading suggestions, and extensions.  Great for bell ringers, debate topics, discussion starters, and daily journal prompts.   For more details or to purchase this product, click here!

This Week’s Journal Questions

For the teacher:  What makes you feel valued in the classroom?  Are you valued where you teach?  How do you know?

For the student:  What makes you feel valued?  Where do you feel the most valued?

A Recipe from My Kitchen:

Basil Pesto (a.k.a. the Best Food Ever!)

pesto 1
Basil Pesto is my all-time favorite food!
This isn’t the best picture–it will be much greener in real life.

Ingredients:

  • 4 tightly packed cups young basil leaves (washed and dried–a salad spinner works great here)
  • 3 or more cloves fresh garlic
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts or toasted almonds (or a combination of the two)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 pound pasta noodles–any kind will work, but I like to choose a curly variety or bow ties as the sauce sticks the a little better to them
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese (I use about 1 1/2 cups)
  • Special Equipment:  food processor

Directions:

  1. Place basil, garlic, nuts, oil, salt, and pepper in the food processor and buzz to a fine paste (about one minute).  Scrape down the sides as needed.
  2. Cook pasta until it reaches your desired firmness.
  3. Drain pasta and return it to pot or serving dish.
  4. Toss hot pasta with cheese first and then basil sauce.
  5. Serve immediately.
  6. Optional:  Serve with additional cheese for garnish.  This is also great with some chicken pieces or cherry tomatoes tossed in or use the sauce alone as a sandwich spread.

Additional thought…this recipe can be kind of expensive to make because you need a lot of fresh basil and almost impossible to make in the winter.  I grow basil in my garden in long rows.  A couple times each summer I harvest large amounts of it and make many batches all at once to freeze for over the winter.  To do this, make the basil sauce as directed above in step one and place each batch in a separate freezer carton.  When you want a quick and delicious dinner, thaw your basil paste and start at step two.  The paste will not be quite as bright green as it is fresh, but it is just as tasty!

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