In an article that I saw on Facebook a former teacher turned administrator spoke of spending a day shadowing a student and taking part in all of the activities including doing labs, taking tests, and completing the homework. She found that this little exercise was a defining moment for her. Suddenly, by walking in the students’ shoes, she had a fairly good idea of what their school days were really like. Sadly her analysis was not particularly favorable toward the routine of classrooms.
The educator learned that during much of the day students spend inordinate amounts of time sitting and being urged to stay quiet. She found herself wanting to get up and stretch and the instinct to yawn was quite difficult to overcome. By the end of her experiment she was more exhausted than she ever imagined she might be but there was no rest for her weary mind because she still had hours of homework to do. All in all she developed a whole new attitude about the life of a student and wondered if we all too often expect behaviors from our young that we ourselves would not want to endure.
I’ve been in the same shoes. As the Dean of Faculty at my last school I was tasked with observing in classrooms. I’m happy to report that in most cases I had fun because our teachers understood the anatomy of a teenage brain and structured their lessons to provide great variety and opportunities for interactions. On those occasions when I was inside a class that was all lecture with students sitting passively by I strained not to fall asleep and thereby insult the teacher. Sometimes the hour of just sitting and listening became almost unbearable. I literally wondered how the students managed to be as polite as they were and I felt for the ones whose heads were nodding. I totally understood their pain.
A good lesson has many moving parts. There are in fact times when a teacher must do direct instruction. Few students would ever learn how to factor polynomials by experimenting on their own. Students need certain foundational skills and instructions but that can’t be all that there is. I tutor a number of students from many different schools and grade levels. They often tell me about their teachers. The ones that they enjoy the most provide them with multiple modalities of learning as well as lots of time to practice, ask questions, and interact with one another. They love the teachers who are flexible enough to switch gears when needed and to understand when the students are growing bored or weary. They want to know why they should know about certain things and how the information applies to the real world. They long for opportunities to fix mistakes. The best teachers do all of those things but not necessarily in the same lesson. They don’t follow a recipe, instead their teaching looks just a bit different depending on which group of kids are in the class. They fully understand the uniqueness of every individual and they take student needs into account. They do these things so subtly and smoothly that they are like Fred Astairs of the classroom, gliding easily from one moment to the next with their students observing them in awe. It is a skill that may be learned with practice and a willingness to be student centered.
One of the other things that I have learned from my tutoring of students from the sixth through the twelfth grade is that homework doesn’t need to be pages long. Students need a minimum of practice work each evening. Any assignment that takes more than forty five minutes to an hour is quite simply too much. Either the fault is with the amount of work or lies in the fact that the student did not really learn the concepts. The best teachers check with students regularly to find out how things went at home. Most of them actually do the work themselves to determine how much time it may take. When they note that they have given too much or that the students were not yet ready for independent practice, they are honest and adjust accordingly. They also become aware of other responsibilities that the students have. When a big paper is due in another class they require a bit less in their own. They are totally with it when it comes to keeping their ears to the ground and communicating with other teachers, parents, and the students themselves.
I am fully aware that teachers today have tremendous pressure to meet the curricular deadlines and to ensure that their students do well on the many tests that have become an integral part of the calls for rigor in education. Still we sometimes forget that there is and should be more to a youngster’s life than just going to school. I honestly don’t remember feeling the least bit overwhelmed by school until I entered high school. I generally had enough time each day to play outside and even watch a bit of television while still managing to complete all of my assignments. My assignments grew more demanding in high school with papers to write, projects to complete and books to read but that experience prepared me well for college and usually didn’t overburden me.
All too often today I encounter students with three full pages of math homework which takes as much as two hours to complete, not to mention the assignments from other classes. Even theology classes in today’s private schools are far more complex and laden with requirements than anything that I remember. Somehow teachers need to communicate more with one another and attempt to keep homework down to a minimum, particularly in the lower grades. When even the parents become stressed because their little ones are up so late attempting to get things done, there is a problem.
Most of the schools where I worked in my later years formed cross curricular teams of teachers who met at least once a week to keep one another aware of what students would be expected to learn and to do during the coming days. They agreed to stagger test schedules and to tailor assignments so that students might complete each of them in a reasonable amount of time in the evenings. When long term projects were due in a particular class everyone else lightened up just a bit. The teams shared teaching ideas and worked together to help students who were struggling. They even spent time observing one another and offering constructive critiques. Of course those who were especially confident and motivated by desires to really help the students often engaged in self reflection. For example, if a large number of students did poorly on an assessment the teacher would consider all of the possible reasons for the low scores, including the admission that the teaching may not have been as effective as it needed to be.
If I were to suggest one more experiment that might be fun for schools to try it would be to select a student now and again to walk in the shadow of the teacher. It would most certainly be an eye opening experience. I think that most kids would have a new appreciation for the men and women who do their best to educate them if they had to opportunity to see just how hard it is to keep all of the teaching plates spinning through the air. It never hurts to look at any situation from multiple points of view. In fact, doing so is a well known teaching technique. If educators really do want to spice up their classrooms, they will regularly engage in finding out what it is really like to be a student a parent, or even a teacher of another subject. Better yet, why not really take this idea to another level and invite the lawmakers who think that they know so much about what happens in classrooms to come spend a day working as a teacher or struggling as a student? It would be eye opening.