I’ll bet you could state the rules and expectations for the building you work in. You know what the written rules are and what unspoken guidelines exist. Whatever building you work in, high school, middle/junior high school, intermediate, or elementary, you and your students know the system and are able to successfully navigate it. But … and it’s a big but … many times we teachers become isolated and forget about the other schools in our districts.
Many times when our students don’t perform as we think they should or enter our classrooms without the basic skills we think they should have learned, teachers play the blame game.
“Those elementary teachers just aren’t teaching the right things.” Or what about, “All the kids do in the younger grades is play and mess around. No wonder we can’t teach the students anything. We’re too busy playing catch up.”
I’m sure in my teaching career I’ve voiced these barbs or worse to my colleagues. I’m not pleading the fifth. Instead I’m pleading guilty to not understanding what happens in the other buildings.
For the past two months I’ve had the privilege and honor of working in our two elementary buildings and our middle school as well as our high school and alternative school. It may seem cliché, but I’ll never express a critical word unless I’ve walked a mile in another teacher’s shoes.
As I consider the various experiences and “aha! moments” I’ve had, I want to share my insights, so perhaps you can empathize with other teachers as we all strive to provide the best education for our students we can.
These teachers deserve combat pay!
Bright and shiny as a penny, these young minds bounce into the room with enthusiasm, passion, and a very short attention span. I estimate 2 minutes — tops! Expectations are high for these young learners. They are supposed to be able to write, read, and count numbers in a variety of ways. They are supposed to learn to work with others, keep their hands, feet, and anything else to themselves without bugging another student.
Kindergartners also have to learn to share — which must seem to be a total contradiction in their world. Not only do these beginning students come in all sizes, shapes, maturity, and experience, but their background knowledge varies from none to a vast spectrum of information.
Now imagine teaching in this environment. The teacher is constantly changing focus, teaching new concepts, organizing this “wild bunch” to sit on the carpet, raise their hands and wait to be called on, work independently in centers or by themselves, ask to go to the bathroom in a timely manner, and cooperate with the other students in the class.
It is a nearly impossible task that our Kindergarten teachers do with aplomb and grace.
These heroes deserve our compassion and our support — not our criticism that they aren’t teaching the right things to the younger kids. It’s the Kindergarten teachers who deserve our understanding and support. They are the first stage and key to a positive and successful educational experience.
Consider the Volunteers and Intervention Specialists
Often criticized and forgotten contributors to the successful classroom, these individuals cope with multiple responsibilities, shifting requests, and a kaleidoscope of students and expectations.
The volunteers enter the schools to help. Yet they are often given the menial tasks that the educational professionals don’t have time to do or want to. They make copies, staple packets, walk students to and from various locations, and manage that one student who disrupts everyone else and can’t seem to focus. Add to this the volunteers’ willingness to work with individual students by reading with or to them, tutoring math skills, and celebrating accomplishments with our students as they achieve.
Without these valuable helpers, our schools would be less vibrant, less organized, and less warm and welcoming. Rather than mumbling when they aren’t able to be at school, a smile and a heartfelt thank-you when they are present goes a long way in recognizing their invaluable contribution.
And then there are the intervention specialists. They race around the buildings working in classrooms to support students and teachers with individual and small-group instruction. They work with groups of students who meet with them to diagnose and remediate learning challenges and skills. Not once did I hear a complaint, a mumble, or a sigh when they were asked to follow a nearly impossible schedule throughout the day. Instead, the specialist and the students he/she worked with exuded a joy in learning and working together. Because not all classroom teachers know or see what these educators do, it’s easy to lay blame on them for the students not progressing.
Stop It! The victories may be small, but they are mighty when working with special students and an incredible schedule.
Consider the Middle School/Junior High Teachers
And you thought kindergarten was wild! This is where the hormones and the pressure to learn crash into each other. These teachers not only provide solid lessons with key content, but they guide and cope with the daily drama. Only a middle schooler can take a simple look and turn it into a major meltdown. Love is found and lost in a day. One minute a student hates another and the next minute they are best friends. Fads come and go in the blink of an eye. Bedlam lurks beneath the surface ready to burst out at any time.
And these teachers meet all these challenges with empathy and understanding while guiding their students to learn. It’s so easy to say, “Oh, that’s a middle school or junior high school student for you. They’re just like that, so no wonder they don’t learn anything. If I was there, I’d whip them into shape.”
Even an hour with these students will help you recognize their potential, kindness, and chameleon-like existence. These teachers deserve a medal for their service and dedication to educating the challenging.
Consider the High School/Alternative School Teachers
This is where the pressure is on. Everything counts in high school, and outsiders often say, “If you aren’t successful, then you don’t graduate without a diploma, and you won’t achieve your lifetime dreams.”
These teachers face constant scrutiny from parents, other stakeholders, and community members who believe they have the answers because after all they were once in school, too. Add the expectations surrounding testing, college and vocational applications, recommendation letters, extra-curricular activities, and developing meaningful lessons that tap into a student’s interests and goals, and you begin to understand how teaching in this environment is like teaching in a pressure cooker.
Often accused of caring more about the subject than the student, these teachers find a delicate balance that not everyone can maintain or provide. Everyone involved works hard to support student success and should be commended not criticized.
Alternative School teachers are also often maligned. When stating that you teach in an Alternative School setting many people roll their eyes and say, “Oh, you’re working with those students!” The implication being that these are the “throwaways” who aren’t going to make it in life anyway — so why waste your time? Right?”
Spend a moment in an Alternative School setting, and you’ll begin to realize that often these students simply need an environment that takes into consideration their different needs. Many are homeless or couch-surfing, hungry, or simply need a different more individualized learning environment to be successful.
Now imagine meeting all these survival challenges while providing a supportive learning environment. That’s what an Alternative School teacher does. These teachers deserve your respect and compassion, not someone looking down their nose at their efforts nor discarding their work as many of the students have been discarded in the traditional learning environment.
Sometimes we forget. As teachers we focus on our classroom, our students, our lessons, and our classes’ successes and challenges. Working within our building builds a sense of the comfort, security, and yes, ignorance about what happens in other buildings. The impulse to criticize others’ efforts seems always ready to pounce and spew out of our mouths in unexpected moments.
When you are experiencing one of these moments, take a deep breath, and spend a little time walking in your colleague’s shoes. You’ll soon discover that every teacher faces distinct challenges with their students. The choice is ours to support and celebrate each other or to tear down and contribute to the attack on education.
I hope we choose to walk in our colleagues’ shoes. On the higher road.
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