Modeling My Values

About three years ago, I discarded the mind-numbing, unproductive practice of taking roll. And on the first class of every quarter, I do something exciting instead. As students enter the room or work on a task that I’ve assigned, I MEET them. I look them in the eye and smile and shake their hand and tell them that my name is Jennifer. If they don’t tell me their name, I ask them for it. I welcome them and I make a note on my roll sheet that I met them. I hear their name, I see how it’s spelled, and I write down a phonetic spelling or a preferred name if they share one. It takes a long time and it is worth every minute. I always give them a task to complete so they’re not bored. I pause at times and try to recall the names and faces of several students who I’ve met so far. I start the process of learning their names. And because it is challenging, it is fun and exciting. And I share that with them. And I let them witness my struggle, my effort, my failures. And I use it as a metaphor for the learning that they will engage in all quarter long and beyond.

Except for a few of you, I did not know your names before I met you today. But look, I think that I can remember a few that I’ve learned this morning. [And I smile at a few people and confirm their names.] I will continue to work hard to learn your names, and within a week or two I will know them all. And you will have to put your mind to learning many things this quarter. But because you focus on it and make a point to learn it, you will, just as I will learn your names because I make a point to.

Over the next several days I take several opportunities to practice their names, usually by collecting and returning papers, and almost never by calling out 35 names in quick succession. They appreciate my efforts and I let them know that I appreciate their efforts too. They see that I forgive myself when I make mistakes and that I keep trying. After a few days, I know everyone’s names and I show off by going through the room and calling out each person’s name and they are delighted. I tell them that learning is tenuous; although I know all of their names right at that moment, I will surely forget some over the weekend. I tell them that they have surely forgotten some of the math they will need for this class. That’s natural…there’s nothing to be done about it except learn it again when they need it. I promise to point out along the way things that they’ll need to recall or relearn.

And on Friday of Week 1, I leave class, content that I am communicating that I very much value sustained effort, forgiveness, and resilience in the face of set-backs.

It makes me very happy.

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With Fire In My Belly

By the eighth week of the quarter, I’m tired. Very tired. Hard working students are on track with their learning while some previously detached students become industrious. Their opportunity to get “paid” for their effort, via a passing grade, has almost passed. They sense this and approach their work with vigor. I hope the best for them, but I shudder at the thought of what they still must do. It makes me even more tired and I turn my mind away from the thought. I go to an extra yoga class and try to let go.

Then, in my mind, I look around and start to take stock. Which students are thriving? Which students are at risk of failing? Which ones are performing below their abilities? Then I think about what I’ve done and what value it had. My conclusion is almost always the same. I’m convinced that my choices benefited (were perhaps even ideal) for some students. But I’m also convinced that my choices were not what all the students hoped for. Then, in my mind, I look to the future. Should I do more lecturing and less group work next time? Or am I happy with that balance? Should I be stricter or more flexible next time? What could I do to help them better understand improper integrals or sequences and series? How can I help them to see that most things are the way they are not because of a weird, made-up rule, but rather because they really couldn’t be any other way. One of my mentors taught me that. “You have to try to get them to see that it couldn’t be any other way.”

And as I think these thoughts, ideas always come to me, perhaps one last activity I can give them on a hard topic. Then I shift my sights to what is coming up. As I prepare my final exams, my mind becomes distracted, always wanting to look forward to what I will do differently next time, next quarter. My mind clears and my belly seems to fill with fire. And right then I know that I can do anything. Right then, I know the creativity, passion, and insight that lives within me but wanes under the day to day demands called work load. Right then I feel the power that I have and recognize that the window of opportunity is short and precious. And as I grade the finals and observe what students understand and don’t understand, I scribble down my ideas to improve my teaching. I turn in my grades; and knowing that I will not have time to get to the bottom of my list, I get started. And that time between quarters, away from daily work commitments is amazingly liberating and precious. With fire in my belly, and love in my heart, I think, “this is who I am.”