As teachers we know the value of those rare, organic teachable moments we recognize and share with our students. But, what if those teachable moments happen the other way around?
A few months back, I had the privilege of helping my 7-year-old niece write a congratulatory speech to present at a banquet for her 1st grade teacher who had won Teacher of the Year in her school. My niece, Machaela, had never written a speech before, but she knew it was a big deal, and she wanted it to be perfect since she loved her teacher so much. We started by brainstorming details from the class, and as we talked, I began to realize a few things that make great teaching and learning happen no matter what grade you teach! I didn’t filter anything she said as she reflected on her 1st grade experience, and I’m so thankful I didn’t. Later as I reflected on what she listed, in this classic case of role reversal, it was evident she had taught me a few things about teaching.
Memories (and Learning) are Made Through Mistakes
A couple of times, my niece mentioned funny moments she distinctively remembered. One time that she thought of almost immediately was a Groundhog Day lesson that didn’t go exactly as planned. Her teacher was going to show the class the groundhog on the computer but accidentally brought up the wrong country’s groundhog! They all laughed together as the teacher found the right one. My niece didn’t remember that lesson being a disaster because it went wrong; she remembered it being fun and funny. Sometimes we teachers don’t allow ourselves to laugh when things go wrong because we have so much pressure on us to get it right every time. Machaela said, “Whenever we messed up, she told us to erase it and try again.” In the learning process, that is vital. Giving students the space to struggle productively or revise an essay or just try again is so powerful. Mistakes are often swept under the rug, but truthfully, they are a valuable stepping stone in teaching and learning.
When Machaela began to describe the family pictures her teacher had on her desk and the time she met her teacher’s son, I wrote it down, but thought to myself, “We’ll just edit this out later.” In the end, it stayed. I teach older students, and every now and then I’ll see them out and about outside of school. Sometimes they’ll later mention they saw me and how odd that was because they didn’t know I was married or went to the grocery store or actually had a life beyond my classroom! There are certain boundaries teachers don’t want to cross when it comes to their personal lives, but it spoke volumes to me that Machaela wanted to keep those details of her teacher in the speech. Our students see us day in and day out for hours at a time. We are their home away from home, and what is at home? Family. Relationships. It’s not a cliché. It’s a classroom culture.
Hands-on Makes It Stick (Literally)
In October, Machaela’s teacher brought a real pumpkin to class. Machaela was able to describe in detail to me everything she learned about pumpkins that year. Why? Because that lesson was as real as it gets. The kids touched the pumpkin — sticky guts and all! Money, time, and other barriers often stand in the way of a making a creative lesson. However, in this case, it wasn’t a fancy media presentation or the newest gadget that Machaela wanted to include in her speech. It was a simple, hands-on, interactive demonstration that made the lesson come to life for her.
Taking Time to Spend time With Students Makes Them Feel Connected
On some special days, Machaela’s class ate in the classroom with their teacher. Machaela looked forward to those days because her teacher would sit with them and talk to them while they ate lunch. Another time, her teacher was all dressed up like the Wizard of Oz on a homecoming float. Machaela was thrilled her teacher was participating, and she couldn’t wait to give her a hug and show us her teacher’s costume. As students get older, the more distance we often want to put between them and us. However, several times in which I’ve attended a sporting event or competition to see a student play or participate in an event, I’ve looked around and realized I was the only one there for him/her. At lunch (and I can’t do it every day but even just a few days a week), I’ll open my door and allow students to come in and eat. Sometimes they talk, and other times they just need a quiet place. If we were given all the time in the world to teach a lesson, the time that may matter the most might just be the time we aren’t “teaching” at all.
Confidence is the Foundation of All Learning
Several times Machaela said, “She made us feel comfortable with ourselves,” or “She told us to do our best and be ourselves.” We are our students’ cheerleaders through the good, bad, and ugly. You won’t see “Confidence Lesson” written on the daily lesson plans, but rather it should be the undercurrent woven into everything we say to our students. Words are powerful, and while students do need to hear the truth at times, too, it’s imperative for them to know that they’re doing well and that they’re going to be OK. Believe it or not, my teenage students worry. I see it on their faces when they think they haven’t done as well on an essay as maybe I’d hoped. I see it when they’re about to tackle a new skill. I don’t want worry to hold them back; I want confidence to kick in and take them further than ever before. What propels us to try again when we fail? What drives us to dive into a new experience? It’s that small voice inside that says, “You can do it.” Kids need to hear that, too.
What Machaela remembered encapsulated her experience as a 1st grader with an amazing teacher, but in reality, it was an honest, innocent, no-red-tape account of what a classroom should be: A safe place where teachers and students have developed a culture of respect and authenticity and where true learning thrives.
Julie Faulkner has taught English for 12 years and Journalism for going on nine years. She has experience at the middle school, high school, and college level. In rural and suburban environments. And in regular, honors, and inclusion classes. She also teaches PreK-K in Children’s Church and has taught K-2 in Awana organizations. She has worked as a CCSS ELA training specialist as well.
Julie holds an MA in English and an Ed.S in Instructional Leadership. She’s been a Common Core Coach for the state of Tennessee and has presented at numerous conferences, workshops, and trainings on various best teaching practices. Additionally, she has several articles published in national teaching journals.
Julie says, “To me, my job is about teaching students to see, make, and appreciate real-world connections. The world around them is full of opportunity, and I want them to notice that and seize it. My teaching style is engaging, student-centered, collaborative, hands-on, critical-thinking inducing, fun, innovative, and standards-driven.”