Doing Difficult Work

Yesterday I had one of those moments when I was being punished for being good at my job. I was being punished (or so I felt at the time) for caring about young people and their learning. I was being punished (or so it seemed) because I cultivate purposeful, meaningful experiences and I believe it is my responsibility to make sure that students’ time is well spent.

As I continue to learn, not everyone thinks about education the same way that I do. And that can be very, very isolating.

I don’t like being told that I care too much or work too hard or that we’ll wait and see. Sometimes waiting and seeing is fine, but it’s not fine when “wait and see” means being reactive instead of proactive. It’s not fine when our inability as adults to take responsibility for difficult work puts students in positions where they cannot be successful. It’s not fine when waiting and seeing means picking up the pieces once there are enough pieces.

It might be hard to say no to student and parent whims, wants, and desires. It might be hard to implement procedures and policies. But it’s also necessary. So that we don’t have to pick up pieces.

Because students are people, not pieces, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Which is why, when asked to take on a task yesterday that is far beyond my roles at school, I did. Because someone needed to do the right thing and someone needed to make sure that a child who was hurting learned from his actions.

This is what I mean when I talk about people-building. This is what I mean when I say I want to raise good people.

We form relationships. We do work that is challenging. We do right by students.

And I say “we” because people responded when I asked for help. Students deserve to learn. And we have chosen to raise them.

This Happened Here

Where I come from, we learned a lot about World War II in Europe. We learned very little about what happened anywhere else.

World War II happened everywhere. That’s why it’s a world war. Where I come from, we forget that sometimes.

I first learned about what happened here in Singapore when, several years ago, I visited the National Museum and was riveted by what I read and heard and saw.

I was struck by how much I didn’t know.

Today I visited Kranji War Memorial to see what I hadn’t seen and to give my time to those who had given their hopes, their dreams, their lives.

Sometimes we forget that war kills people.

And we forget that war affects all of us, no matter who we are. No matter how we are similar or different.

Who are we, as people? Who do we want to be?

This cannot continue to be the way things are.

A peaceful world means an end to war, but it also means so much more than that.

Talking won’t build it, but I believe that action will.

How I Work with Students

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a group of education students at the university where I did my Bachelor’s degree. The professor was one of my advisors when I did my Master’s elsewhere and we bonded immediately over having the same advisors once upon a time, her as a PhD student and me as an undergrad. She’d invited me to Skype with her class about teaching overseas.

As I talked, I realized that I knew a few things. I realized that I’ve come to both understand and actualize, to the best of my ability, how I view my role as an educator.

To summarize: Working with students is a social contract in which I am responsible for helping young people succeed.

To clarify: Success does not have a single meaning. Social contract may not even have a single meaning; rather, it means that I walk out the gate every day knowing that I have done, to the best of my ability, what is right for young people. I owe that to them. Not to their parents. Not to the institution. I owe that to the kids.

Nearly three years ago, when writing about education became important to me, I articulated my opinions on good teachers. But there are some important elements that I missed, things that have become clearer to me as I’ve gained life experience.

I think that my work with students can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Positive rapport
  2. Structure
  3. Tools

Positive Rapport

I care deeply about my students, both as classroom learners and as people. My students are people first (aren’t we all?) and we happen to spend time together in a classroom. This comes with constraints, rules, responsibilities, and expectations for all of us. But they know, and I know, that their experiences, their hopes and dreams, their insecurities and fears, are what drives the work that we do. That’s what drives the relationships we have.

I know who’s taking the SAT over the weekend and I know who went out to dinner because I ask and they tell me. When I mentioned that my arms were sore, they reminded me that I’d gone climbing several days earlier. They’d remembered.

When I talk excitedly about books, some students go out and buy them. When a student recommended a novel, I got a copy and read it. We laugh and we joke and after knowing each other for long enough, we tease a little bit. Because we really are all in this together.

Recently, a student asked me to look over a creative writing assignment. I’d never heard his writing like that before and was touched that he’d shared it with me. Another student sat with me last week to set up a study calendar. Three students in the last two weeks have come to talk about social dilemmas and others spend time in my classroom during break times because they know they can.

And I’m not always friendly, not at all. In fact, students usually characterize me, or so they tell me with smiles on their faces, as intimidating. But they know where my heart is and that makes a difference. Reputations are built. This matters.

The rapport I develop with young people, then, is possible because of attention to the next two categories: structure and tools.

Structure

I spent part of the weekend in a workshop about assessment and I was shocked at how new it seemed to so many people. It made me wonder what happens in their classes. It made me wonder about the learning experiences of their students.

Students report being comfortable in my class because they know exactly what is expected of them. I’m meticulously organized, which makes it easy for them to be so. I have a deep understanding of both content and what actually matters so I can guide my students through it. This matters.

At the end of the day, my job is to prepare students for the IB exam they will take at the end of grade 12, but my goal overall is for students to understand more about who they are and what exists in the world around them. My students know this because we talk about it all the time.

Class is organized and we operate in a very specific way. There’s predictability, consistency, and explicit attention to why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s a lot easier to put pieces together when you know where you’re supposed to end up. And it’s easy to trust someone who has handed you a map and makes sure you know how to follow it.

This is not to say that students don’t find themselves stressed and anxious. On the contrary, they very much do even though it doesn’t come directly from me. But we talk about good stress, bad stress, and stress management. We explore the myths and pressures that come from “somewhere out there” and talk about what is realistic and what is important. And if today is a bad day, we talk about what to do differently tomorrow.

The point of today is to learn from the successes, errors, and experiences of yesterday and that’s what we do. That’s what we do every single day.

Tools

Over the years I’ve learned where students struggle and with what. I’ve been working to understand why they run into problems and I’ve reorganized objectives, assessments, and lessons to address these problems. I’ve talked openly with my students about what I notice and ask for their input. I’ve tried some of what they suggest and solicited feedback about what we’ve done together. I know what the most successful students do and I willingly share what I know.

I also know, because I’ve asked, what each student’s goals are. We have a “how far should we push?” conversation every now and then, and sometimes the answer changes. My students are honest with me because I demand it of them, because I am honest about my concerns and what I understand about who they are and what they want.

My students have a toolbox and I have one, too. The trick is figuring out what they do that works and what I can supplement. And yes, there are standard tips and tricks. There are ways that I, the teacher, know will work better. Sometimes it’s fine to let students play around and figure it out. Other times, however, it’s my responsibility to tell them to do it this way for this reason. It depends on the stakes, the goal, and the reason behind the learning.

And when something goes wrong the conversation begins with, “What did you do to prepare this time?” and leads to, “What can you do differently next time?” while addressing concerns, areas help is needed, and what else is going on in students’ lives. This matters.


So this is what I know. This is what I do. These are the elements of good teaching that have become clearer to me over time. There is much to be said for what happens accidentally, organically, or unpredictably with young people, but it’s vital to consider what happens when we plan and act with intent. I owe that to my students and this is what I aim to give, every single day.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place