My Classroom Non-Negotiables

In my last blog entry, I considered ways that my beliefs have changed since I started teaching back in 2004. There are a lot. And of course, that’s a good thing. If there ever comes a point in my career when I stop learning, growing, and changing, I need to leave the classroom.

One of the things that seems particularly striking to me now is how much my beliefs have changed regarding lesson plans. During my student teaching, the second grade team that I worked with used a gridded planning system. Each teacher focused on a different subject and wrote out plans for that subject. They pasted all of the subjects into the larger grid, and the teachers’ workload was dramatically lightened, as each teacher only had to plan for one subject now, rather than five.

At the time, this seemed revolutionary to me. What a time saver! What a great example of teamwork! And it was both of those things, definitely. But as I moved on, got my own classroom (in the same school, with a group of teachers who used the same planning method), and met my own students, I began to realize that it didn’t work for me. I was being a team player – writing out those plans for the one subject I was assigned, and sharing them with the other teachers. But more often than not, I was also writing my own lesson plans for every subject, catered to my own unique class of students.

Now, with ten years of teaching and a few more years of thinking about teaching under my belt, I can’t begin to fathom teaching with someone else’s lesson plans. My own class practically requires three or four different lessons to teach the same skill, based on the students’ learning methods and academic levels. How in the world would we expect all 100 or so grade level students to learn using the exact same lesson plan?

So again, I’m glad that I have changed and learned from those experiences, because ultimately, it is the students I serve who benefit from my growth as an educator. However, there are some beliefs that I hold dear, and that will never, ever change regarding my students, my classroom, and my philosophy of teaching.

1. Every single student in my classroom will know that he or she matters and is a vital and necessary member of our classroom community. Before times tables, before timelines, before plot and characterization, there has to be belonging. Students have to know their worth as individuals, and they have to believe that in our classroom, they matter.

2. Every student will have his or her basic needs met. Thanks to a grant that our public school received, every student in our school received free breakfast each morning. I always saved the leftover graham crackers in case a student had a stomachache or was just extra hungry that day. I’ve offered my lunch to students who’ve forgotten theirs. There have been times when I’ve sent a fifth-grader to take a nap on our bean bag chair, because he simply can’t stay awake. These things are all more important than whatever I’m assigning at the moment. Physiological needs come first.

3. Every student will feel safe taking risks. A student who doesn’t take academic risks will never meet his or her potential, and a student who doesn’t feel safe in the classroom won’t take those risks. A former coworker of mine wouldn’t allow students to solve math problems in their own ways, despite the fact that these methods led to the correct answers. Those students learned not to take risks, not to think creatively. Since then, I’ve learned to embrace all the various ways my students solve problems, and I encourage them to teach the rest of us their methods. I allow myself to make mistakes in front of my students, and I model appropriate reactions to those mistakes.

4. Our classroom environment will always be a positive, supportive place. It’s not always enough to recognize the good in children; sometimes, you have to really look for it. Not every child will come to you with those basic needs met. Sometimes a kid will show up in your doorway with a chip on his shoulder so big, you’ll wonder how he made it down the hallway. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I’ll still show those kids just how happy I am to see them every single morning. And honestly, it’ll be true.

5. I will always value each student’s individuality. Over the years, I’ve taught students with schizophrenia, kids with autism, and some who were dyslexic. I’ve taught a student who had a leg amputated during our year together. And every single one of them was more than just their medical condition. Every one of those students brought something completely new to our classroom. Some may have taken longer to learn, or required different methods. Still, every one of them had their own unique strengths and skills, and focusing on those specific abilities makes our classroom a much stronger, more complete community.

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