Improving as a teacher requires conscientious reflection, risk taking, re-examination, and revision of all your practices.
Family Living was a rite of passage for 5th graders in my district. Family Living was the euphemism used for sex ed. As a first-year teacher and the only male 5th-grade teacher, all of the 5th-grade boys were in my room for the last hour of the day to watch the Family Living video, receive deodorant, and ask questions. I really wanted to limit questions and emphasize personal hygiene via Old Spice deodorant. If you’ve ever spent time in a warm, 5th-grade classroom and smelled the musky humanity, you will understand this need. Deodorant is your friend.
After previewing the video, I really started dreading the day. The video was a dated piece featuring an older brother talking to a younger brother about the changes that would come with puberty. The primary focus of the video was nocturnal emissions.
Included in the video were animated diagrams of what occurs during these nocturnal events complete with arrows indicating the direction of the emission. I was 21, and I really did not want to talk to a large group of 11 -year-old boys about nocturnal emissions. I was extremely hopeful that the video would answer all of their questions. Unfortunately, the video raised more questions than it answered. I told the boys to raise their hands if they had questions.
At this point, anyone who has led one of these exercises knows we were about to go off the rails. One boy looked particularly troubled. Fearfully, I called on him. He stammered nervously, “Does it really come out in arrows?”
I had to keep a straight face and answer this earnest question from a student who, based on his expression and concern, feared injuring himself in the night. About half the boys were snickering, and the other half sat uncomfortably wondering if this was a new horror of puberty that they should also fear.
In subsequent years, I asked students to write down all of their questions on notecards and hand them to me. This gave me time to compose myself and determine which questions I would answer. Things went much more smoothly. As all teachers know, this is how we get better. We reflect, risk, re-examine, and revise. Over a day, week, year, or career, we repeat this process thousands of times. If we make the most of this cycle and our mistakes, we improve. While never my favorite day, I was better at facilitating Family Living in my eighth year of teaching than in my first.
Depending on the size of the risk you’re planning to take, spend a commensurate amount of time considering the implications. Sometimes we take small risks in the middle of a lesson that is going badly, like switching to a different activity when we’ve lost 80% of our students to boredom. Sometimes we take huge risks, like changing our classroom management philosophy. If you’re making huge changes, spend significant time consulting your personal learning network of resources and trusted colleagues.
After determining the best course of action, take a risk. If you spend all of your time reflecting on the risks you might take, you’ll never move forward. Take a leap!
Once you take that risk, collect evidence about its effect. This is the only way you’ll know if the risk paid off. Maybe it will be a clunker, like having 11-year-old boys ask questions off the top of their heads after watching a Family Living video. Scratch those ideas! The only way to know if it is worthy of revision is to collect the evidence.
Once you have your evidence, talk to other teachers. Teach with others if you have the chance. I’m a college professor now, but I was just teaching the concept of inertia to a group of three dozen 3rd graders, the majority of whom were English learners, in the classroom of one of my former students. I do this on a regular basis so that I continue to grow as a teacher. What did I learn? That I definitely have room for growth. One student described the effect of inertia on a ball this way: “The ball did not move because Isaac Newton was angry.”
As soon as the lesson was over, and I had a chance to talk to my former student, I immediately asked her for feedback. While I have been teaching for 20 years, she is the expert in her classroom. The next time I teach, I will be better because of her feedback.
Citation: Eckert, J. (2018). Backtalk: How sex ed made me a better teacher. Phi Delta Kappan 98 (3), 80.