I know a science teacher who loves working with kids so much that he becomes depressed every June knowing that his current group of 8th graders are going to be leaving the middle school. This Science teacher has more high school kids come back to visit him than the rest of the staff combined.
Whats so special about this science teacher? He treats the kids like people. He talks with them like they are equals. He sits with them at lunch. He removes the authority boundaries in his classroom. He gives them freedom, as much as the system allows, during class.
This Science teacher stays after school with anywhere from 10 to 30 students four days a week so that the students can work on science projects for various regional and state science competitions. "If you really want to do science you have to stay after school," the teacher often says to me with a grin.
When you walk by this science teachers class it is messy. Kids are in the hall throwing balsa wood airplanes, testing mousetrap cars, or working on the computer to learn the mandated "content." Inside the room kids are everywhere. They are in the corners measuring levers, gluing, cutting, revising and testing. It is loud. It is chaotic and many traditional teachers in the building hate it and suggest that the "inmates are running the asylum" (real quote).
I visit often. I talk with him often. I try to relieve his angst often.
What does he have angst about? Two things usually.
The lesser of the two is the few judgmental adults. The adults that make comments. The adults that judge him passively and not so passively. The adults that remind him that their job is a bit harder because they have "rules" that need to be enforced in their rooms and its difficult "when they come from your room."
Forget the fact that we have more regional science winners than ever before. Forget the fact that our kids are truly believing again (like they believed when they were much younger) that they like science.
None of that matters. What matters to these few angst causing adults is that the kids are harder to control due to the Science teacher giving the kids some control.
The main area where this teacher has angst is in figuring out how to engage the students. How to create an environment where all of them are in a totally absorbed state of mind without even realizing it. How does he get the kids looking and acting like a group of kids enthralled in a video game....while at the same time meeting the expectations of the institution?
How does he convince the kids to learn for the sake of learning while at the same time saying "clear your desks for the test?" How can he best keep the flow of the learning going while also making sure they know the vocab words that are on the common assessments and state tests?
I walk in this classroom nearly everyday, but when I walked in towards the end of one of his classes this past Wednesday the teacher was sitting down with the students and asking them, imploring them to help him figure out how he can engage ALL of them.
"When you think about learning, when you think back to the times that you were really motivated, what types of things were you doing?" He asked them.
A student answered, "friendly competitions." Many other students perked up at this answer and chimed in "Yeah, like jeopardy type games, where we collaborate for the answer and stuff."
"Or like when we made those Rube Goldberg machines and we were trying to beat the other groups."
The bell rang and I stayed to debrief with the teacher about the conversation he just elicited.
He told me, "before you came in I was telling the students I really needed them to stop worrying about grades, and they told me "we have been taught since kindergarten that the most important thing is to get an A."
"Yep," I said. "getting the right answer and the importance of an A is pounded into them at school and at home."
I continued, "what I realized, as the students were talking with you, was that they didn't even comprehend what you were asking them. They can't separate learning from a test. So when you ask them how can they be engaged they simply think about ways they are motivated to learn for the test.
Kids want the answer to "why are we doing this." For some the motivator is simply for the grade. For others the motivator is, "to win the game," or, "so I don't get in trouble," There are some that jump right in just for the sake of learning something new....but I don't think there are a lot of those kids."
Of course, saying this to the Science teacher caused him more angst. "I don't know what I'm doing." He responds. "I don't know how much longer I can do this. School keeps getting in my way."
"That means you're doing it right," I replied. "Its the people that have it all figured out that I worry about. The kids love you, and they respect you because they know you respect them. Plus, they love science again."
"Yeah, but next year when they visit they are going to tell me how they are getting their teeth kicked in because Science is so hard. Am I doing them a disservice by not preparing them for that?"
"We don't need to prepare kids to deal with things that suck. They had many classes that required them to sit, study, and regurgitate before they ever had your class. You are showing them what Science in school can be...and we never know which of your students may grow to be teachers themselves. Perhaps they will model your class."
"Thanks bud." He said, "But, I don't know what I'm doing."