I’ve been a teacher for two months now and my biggest challenge has not been the short attention spans of middle schoolers – or how much they crave lessons with computers and cell phones.
Eight weeks into my new life, I am shocked by the handful of kids who still want an old-fashioned teacher.
Yes, the kind of teacher who wants everyone in their seat facing forward, who writes everything out on the board and peppers lectures with the phrase “know this for the test.”
The kind of teacher my education course instructors and textbooks tell me NOT to be.
Not a ‘sage on the stage’
When I decided to leave my journalism career and teach Spanish to kids, I did not picture myself standing at a lectern and reciting verb conjugations until kids nod off. I did not want to be what modern educators disparagingly call “the sage on the stage.”
I arrived at the classroom with ideas for games, a stack of music CDs and links to educational videos that kids can dance to. Sure I planned to do short lectures but I expected to spend most of the time overseeing group work, encouraging kids to converse in Spanish and having fun with music, drawing and other activities that reinforce what we are learning.
With most students, this system works. At the end of last week, I gave out a boatload of As to kids who have worked hard, played hard and say they are enjoying my class.
But then there are the students who surprise me.
Some kids want an old-fashioned teacher
“You have only taught us ONCE this year,” one student complained a few weeks after the start of the school year.
It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to a time when I conjugated a verb on the white board because I could not find a creative image of the conjugation online and the verb was not in our textbook. As I wrote, I explained the rules for the conjugation. And I felt like a bit of a failure because the instuctions were not more fun.
But a couple other students chimed in after their classmate’s comment. They praised teachers who write out everything students need to know on overhead transparencies. And teachers who give long, and apparently comforting, lectures.
Nevermind that one of my textbooks calls the document camera and overhead projector the worst enemies of teachers. It is impossible to sit behind a desk and walk around to monitor student’s independent work at the same time.
So how did these kids get so traditional? And what about the majority of students who do so well in classes where teachers mix things up for a variety of learning styles, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence?
An experiment with tradition
After some long, soul-searching conversations with my principal, who tells me he is trying to get teachers out from behind the desk and at students’ sides, I decided to experiment with more traditional lessons.
We started out with an activity that always put me right to sleep when I was a public school student: Reading directly from the textbook.
But the previously unhappy students cooperated happily. As they read, you could feel the anxiety level in the room drop. I did not call on kids randomly but went in alphabetical order so they knew exactly what to expect. We went through the vocabulary words one by one until we had covered an entire page.
I was amazed. Students were focused. No one whispered or crumbled paper for spit balls. This was their way of learning. My college instructors would call them “auditory learners.” Most got As on the next quiz.
I am still a little baffled by this situation. Is my confusion because I learn best by reading about something, then writing or doing a practical activity related to what I have read? Perhaps. So, as I plan lessons for the second quarter, I am including more time for old-fashioned lectures and reading aloud for the kids who want it so much.
My worry – will they survive in AP classes?
Part of me is sad for the kids who learn in such an old-fashioned way. How will they make it in the more free-form high school honors classes that I know they are capable of taking?
I picture them in college waiting to take notes until a college professor opens the textbook and read it to them. Or in a high-tech work group waiting in vain for a team leader to write out instructions for that day’s work.
I worry about them.
Let it go, my teacher friends tell me. They will find their way.
And so I do. After all, I am finding mine.