You are THE Thing
When I interviewed for my current position, I had to present professional development on student engagement. I thought about the many articles and research I’ve interacted with. I thought about the hundreds of books that filled the shelves of our district professional library. I thought about the hours I’d spent in professional development sessions trying to learn the next best thing for kids. And then I thought about the thing that has the greatest impact on engagement and learning.
I took small boxes, placed the thing inside, and asked teachers to guess. They all guessed research-based strategies with evidence-based outcomes. But not one guessed what was really inside. At the end of the presentation, teachers unwrapped the packages to find a mirror. Because as educators, we ARE the thing.
When I first started teaching, kids liked me. I always thought it was because I was young and they saw me as relatable. I thought I would eventually lose that. However, as nature does happen, I grew older, and kids still liked me. And, as a result, they would work hard for me. However, because it was me and I was just me, I couldn’t really unpack the reasons I had the ability to connect with kids.
So I started some informal research.
I started watching the teachers that had the greatest impact on student learning versus those whose impact wasn’t as significant. Specifically, I watched how teachers’ instructional moves caused students to respond in ways that led to growth and learning. And sure enough, there were some consistencies. It wasn’t the young relatable teachers all the time. It wasn’t consistently those with a deep level of expertise in their content. Instead, it was those teachers that maintained a high level of academic press while cultivating a warm environment. Warm Demanders, as author Lisa Delpit calls them, "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment."
One consistency of teachers yielding the greatest impact with students is the lack of deficit language. This is not to say students don’t struggle, however, the conversations and words around struggle are productive, not punitive. There’s an acknowledgment that things will be hard, but a belief that all kids can do hard things. The management isn’t around wrong or right actions, but rather an acknowledgment that things do go wrong, but people have the ability to make it right. When learning is hard, they don’t take away the task, they teach strategies for achieving the task. Sure, kids have weaknesses, but coincidentally, they all have strengths. The focus on what students can do and not what they can’t do shifts the narrative of the child for the child.
Another consistency in the classrooms of those teachers yielding the greatest response from student learning is that they understand the importance of interdependence, and as a result, they establish learning communities where each child sees his or her role as important to the greater good. The rituals and routines the teacher uses to develop interdependence create a safe space for students to participate, collaborate, learn and grow. The learning spaces are often filled with student talk over teacher talk, well thought out tasks that focus on process over product, and active learning from all students.
A third consistency in teachers yielding success from all students is validation. In classrooms having the greatest impact on student learning, teachers validate students and their ideas. They convince students that their ideas and thinking are important to the space. They acknowledge contributions, even when they don’t see the connection initially. They help students build connections from old ideas to new ideas and from one person to another. They validate the importance of the individual child.
These were consistent moves of the teacher regardless of the content, regardless of the grade level, regardless of the make-up of the class.
I’ve been in dozens and dozens of classrooms. They are all filled with books written by experts- books claiming to be the thing, the thing that changes learning for students. And while I think there is great merit in deepening our depth of knowledge in content and pedagogy, I also think the greatest tool in our teaching toolkit is our reflection.
When we look in that mirror, we need to realize that the image staring back at us is the thing that matters most to the success of the student.
Teachers, you are the thing.