I recently began working on a project that looks at how teachers form their beliefs and conceptions of teaching. Like so much of learning, it seems teachers’ beliefs develop incidentally through experience and observation. Perhaps we model our beloved high school science teacher or we imagine ourselves rousing students from boredom a la Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.
When I got reflecting on my own conceptions of teaching, it struck me that so much of how I conduct myself as a teacher comes from being a failing, disengaged student in high school. When I stepped into my first teaching role in Adult Basic Education, my main objective was to avoid creating the kind of educational environment I so loathed as a teenager.
Two anecdotes illustrate my loss of faith in schooling that led, along with a slew of other factors, to my eventual dropping out of high school. Looking back on them now, they also make good case studies of what NOT to do as an instructor (especially the first):
- It was sophomore year, and I was just starting to check out of school, but finally, we were reading a book that captivated me: Great Expectations by Dickens. I hadn’t done many of the assignments all year, but I applied myself to an essay assigned on the book with rare enthusiasm and concentration. I was proud of my work and eager for feedback. When I got my paper back, I had failed with a note saying that it was “very, very, well-written” and that I must’ve plagiarized. And like that, I checked back out beyond return.
- It was senior year. By this time I was merely a seat warmer in school on the rare occasion that I showed up. Again, there was a glimmer of hope in my high school English class as the teacher held up two books–Go Ask Alice, a (in my opinion) poorly written piece of anti-drug propaganda and The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece and (sadly for me since it features a depressed teenager) one of the books I most identified with. The teacher asked the class which one we should read. I think I was the only one who voted for The Bell Jar. This confirmed that I did indeed have nothing in common with my classmates and that I would be better off staying home and reading.
Adolescent angst and arrogance aside, these two stories illustrate some teaching approaches I was determined not to replicate:
First, I would trust my students and give them the benefit of the doubt. I would not make accusations; I would listen and approach them with compassion. Even if someone does cheat, why are they cheating? What is going on with them that cheating is a viable option and how can I make authentic learning more attractive to them?
While the teacher in the second story did at least try to have a democratic classroom and allow student choice, I think one could go a step further by allowing even more autonomy and choice in assignments. If some people were drawn to one book and others to another, why not have book groups?
The larger point I took away from both of these stories was to always look for those signs of student interest and curiosity and try to kindle, not extinguish them.
This is easier said than done. It was much easier to be the failing student with my head down in class who muttered insults about the class under my breath than to become a teacher and have one of the most important responsibilities in society.
I spent a long time hiding the fact that I dropped out of high school. Now that I am in PhD program, I think I have finally overcome the stigma and can instead turn my early experiences failing in school into a strength.
Perhaps one difficulty for many instructors is that they were model students, and so it’s hard to conceive of the mindset of those students who appear lazy, disengaged, and unmotivated.
I was that person. But I had curiosity and a love of learning. I just didn’t find a home for it in school. My goal as a teacher is to try and create those conditions where that natural-born, inherent curiosity can thrive. If hadn’t been for my own experiences failing out of school, I may not have appreciated just how much potential and dormant academic interest can be concealed under the guise of an apathetic student.