The 2016-17 school year had not been my best year of international teaching. After a difficult summer, I had returned to work stressed and this had an impact on how my year unfolded. So at 1:30 on June 10 there was a sense of relief that the school year was over but also doubt about the efficacy of my teaching and the impact that I had had on my students’ academic and socio-emotional development. In 8th grade Social Studies we had been considering the following yearlong essential question: What does it mean to be a global citizen? I had hoped that my students would have left their Social Studies class understanding what this meant for each of them and the role that they could play, no matter how small, in making a difference in their world. I wasn’t sure though. What I do know, is that last year, my students taught me much more than I think I taught them. The following are the four most meaningful lessons that I learned as a teacher last year.
1. Relationships are the foundation of all learning! No learning can take place unless there are meaningful connections with my students. Students respond better to learning when they feel valued and that they are being heard. However, because of a stressful summer, I had not returned to work replenished, in fact, I had come back more stressed than when I left and this played out during my school year – more so than I realized. So, in understanding the value of relationships in the classroom and the significance of my role in developing these relationships so that learning could be transformative, I learned that I had to build emotional reservoirs from which I could draw to grow those relationships. It wasn’t until later in the year that I found meditation as the source upon which I drew, to help me attend to the socio-emotional development of my students.
2. Students teach me some of my greatest lessons in life! It has always been difficult students that have caused me the most grief but from whom I have learned the most about who I am. Two students in particular stand out this year – ‘William’ and ‘Sarah’. ‘William’ challenged the rationale of many of my decisions and actions in the classroom and always in front of the class. That made me feel as if I was walking on glass during that class. ‘Sarah’ had learning issues, which affected her ability to complete work. In addition, certain of her behaviors and actions did not support healthy social and emotional development.
So, I took an empathetic approach and decided to give voice to these students’ feelings by having a heart-to-heart with them. Trying to view their respective situations through their eyes affirmed who they were as learners in my classroom and helped to build trust. In the end, both students taught me to be a better listener – to really listen to what they were saying and what they needed from me. Rather than dismissing them as difficult, I learned to be more empathetic to their needs so that I could support their growth as learners in the classroom. Just as important as learning to listen, both of these students taught me that they wanted me to value them for who they were – they wanted me to see them and not through them. In doing this, I validated who they were and who they could become.
3. Students are in the process of self-actualization and what I say and do in the classroom has an impact on their lives. I need to make a conscious effort to be mindful of what I say and do so I encourage students to become their better selves. I teach 8th grade students Social Studies in an international school and social Justice is at the heart of who I am and at the core of what I teach. I plant seeds to help children blossom in life but rarely see these “flowers in bloom.” When a former unsuspecting student emailed me to let me know that what he had learned in 8th grade Social Studies had transformed him into a teen activist in his new school in the United States, I was reminded of the impact of my words and actions in the classroom that can transcend a unit of study.
4. Personalizing student learning through authentic learning experiences that are connected to real world issues makes learning transformative! Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is futile but knowledge gained for the service of others empowers students to social activism that gives them an opportunity to create an inclusive society. During this year’s 8th grade Human Rights unit, the culminating assessment had students choose a human right from the Declaration of Human Rights; they were to research and construct meaning about the violation of this right in a part of the world and then write a principled and fair argument advocating for this right, which they would tailor into a letter for a specific audience. Watching students engaging in issues that they could connect with and advocate for helped see the power of personalized learning.
So as I begin to think ahead to the new school year, I’ll carry the lessons that I learned from the last school year with me. Going forward, even after twenty years of I teaching, I have come to realize each year gives me another opportunity to learn