In twelve years of teaching, I hope I’ve taught my students what they need to know in our year together. But, as my students will attest, I am far from perfect. Much to their amusement, I don’t know how to spell all words, still can’t whistle, and once in a while can’t find something I had in my hands only moments before.
In twelve years of teaching, I have been privy to a multitude of lessons that my students have taught me, both implicitly and explicitly. Here, I share with you the A to Z list of lessons my students have taught me.
A Academics. They are not the only reason a child comes to school, nor are they the only way I measure a student’s growth and learning. On every report card, there are two sections - one for Academics and one for Learning Skills/Work Habits. My students need to learn certain academic skills and concepts, but they also need to know life skills such as “taking responsibility,” “cooperating with others,” “respecting authority.” A child who demonstrates a better attitude, increased effort, or more appropriate social interactions has made progress and learned.
B Bathroom visits. I teach my students that it is their responsibility to visit the restroom before school, recess, lunch, and after-school. Sometimes, though, exceptions must be made. Sometimes, you cannot control when your bladder or your bowels must be emptied. You just have to take care of it.
C Customize instruction. Now, when there are thirty students and one of me, it is virtually impossible to make each lesson exciting and/or interesting for all students. But I do my best. I have found it advantageous to learn about my students - their likes, their hobbies, their interests - and then use this information in my teaching. For instance, I may invent hypothetical math word problems that reference the popular movie many of my students have seen or score at the recent Laker game.
D Demonstrate your emotions. Something changes between infancy and adulthood. As babies, my students weren’t shy about letting their adults know how they felt. Children cry, loudly, when hungry. They squeal with delight and pleasure at a stuffed animal or a funny face. As adults, we’ve been trained to keep our emotions in, not always expressing our frustrations or hurt or excitement. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the little ones in our life - laugh loudly when happy, cry loudly when sad, make your feelings known. Our feelings need to be validated.
E Eat. Eating can’t only happen at designated breakfast, lunch, or dinner times. We all need snacks. In our classroom, I’ve dubbed it “brain food” - snacks to give us a little extra boost to help us focus during a test.
F Flexibility is important. Schedules and routines are vital, but a room full of children has taught me that a certain amount of flexibility is just as vital. World news sometimes dictate our classroom lessons. For example, the day the space shuttle Endeavor flew through the skies of Los Angeles, we had a conversation about the United States Space Program. My students are people, with lives and concerns and worries, and sometimes we need to put away the history book to talk about the earthquake in Haiti and reinforce how to stay safe if an earthquake should occur during the school day.
G Games. Games should be fun, should be recreational and entertaining; however, they are also a great learning tool. Through the years, my students and I have used Mad-Libs, played bingo (vocabulary, multiplication, states/capitals), done charades, and used an inflatable beach ball to play multiplication volleyball - all in an effort to convey different skills or concepts in a slightly unconventional way.
H Hugs have no age limit. I have taught kindergarten, fourth-grade, and fifth-grade. And it has been my experience that all children benefit from a hug. Hugs to calm us when upset, soothe us when hurt, welcome us back from a vacation, wish us well when leaving. And hugs are just as effective, just as necessary for adults - for the very same reasons.
I Ice cream. It’s a tasty incentive, a way to encourage perfect attendance. Ice cream is a special reward - a build-your-own-sundae-party after a week of state testing. Ice cream is messy and delicious, and brings a smile to a child’s face (mine too!)
J Jack-o-lantern. Many of my students eagerly anticipate Halloween. They speak enthusiastically about their costumes, our class festivities, the trick-or-treating they plan for later that night. But for some of my students, Halloween is not a day to be celebrated. Their families don’t observe Halloween, and they are not permitted to participate in our school festivities. My job, then, requires me to plan “fall-themed activities” so that my students can interpret them the way they wish - making pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns. And, I do my best to create a safe classroom environment so all my students feel comfortable even though they all have different beliefs.
K Ka-ching. In my twelve year teaching career, I have found that the majority of my students have a very different concept about money than I did when I was in elementary school. Many of my students get weekly allowances in the double-digits. Many have cell phones, and many have stamps in their passports to places I can’t afford to travel to.
L Looks can be deceiving. For the most part, young children are sweet and innocent-looking. And some are, but not all. In twelve years of teaching, I have had children lie, steal, and cheat in my classroom.
M Multiple perspectives. My students have taught me that there are usually two sides (at least) to each story. What looks like talking from my perspective may be two students exchanging information about how to solve a math question. Likewise, young friends are often guilty of misunderstandings, which escalates into questions of friendships and loyalty. It’s always best to gather all the information to find out what really happened.
N No homework. Two magic words. The answer my students get on the first day of school (their parents get the homework, filling out the requisite forms). It’s the sought-after reward a table earns for filling up their marble jar.
O Outside. Children enjoy being outside, and honestly, many of my students aren’t given the opportunity to pursue outside activities in the neighborhoods in which they live. I try to provide my students with opportunities to learn, and play, outside. We have had a picnic in the school garden to celebrate Arbor Day, gone for a shadow walk and shape hunt around campus, and conducted a social studies lesson on the front lawn as if we were college students.
P Praise what you can do. Acknowledge your strength, whatever it may be. Not all students will be master mathematicians, read 200 words a minute, or always be able to thoroughly explain a story’s plot. Yet, all my students have strengths that should be acknowledged. Strengths may be remembering to write a name on each assignment, or volunteer to read aloud each day. One student may grasp the concept of fractions with ease, another may draw skillfully, another may always pick up the errant piece of litter, and another never hesitates to share, whether it be a pencil or a snack.
Q Quickly - that is how children grow. My very first class I ever taught is on the verge of graduating high school. Children I once taught how to paint turkeys in kindergarten are now writing five-paragraph essays with me in my fourth-grade class. Childhood is fleeting, so it’s important to savor all the moments while we can.
R Rest. The longer I teach, the more our school days are designed to “go, go, go.” We’ve got lessons to get through, tests to prepare for, skills to master. Problem is, we can’t just keep going. Kids need to rest. (Their teachers do too). And, sometimes, after a rest (whether it’s a longer story time, a shorter math lesson, an extended play period outside), the kids are recharged, rejuvenated, and ready to return to the tasks at hand.
S Sing. In kindergarten, the first part of our morning was spent singing - a “good morning song,” a “days of the week” song, a “months of the year” song. The older my students get, the less we sing. However, I have found that most children love to sing. We sing about the three main types of rocks, a song about Cesar Chavez, and the national anthem each day.
T Truth. They say “honesty is the best policy,” but I disagree to an extent. When a child’s feelings are at stake, a “bending of the truth” or an “omission of the truth” is called for. No one really wants to hear “No” to the question, “Do you like my new (fill in the blank)?”
U Understand. My students need me to never forget that first and foremost they are young people with problems. Many of them have life challenges I have never known. Parents in jail. Homelessness. Parents they have never met. Difficulties associated with learning a new culture and a new language. Potentially dangerous food allergies. Life-threatening illnesses.
V Versatility. As an elementary school teacher, I’m responsible for teaching it all. But beyond the curriculum, it helps if I know a bit about sports, popular movies, popular songs - basically, what my kids are interested in (at the moment). Then, of course, there are the questions - random, off-the-subject questions that curious children will wonder about. I do my best to be knowledgable, but when I don’t know the answer, I admit it, and send a student to the computer to look it up and share the answer with us all. And let’s not forget the other skills I must possess - things like fixing a stuck zipper, a knotted shoelace, and a broken necklace.
W Whistle. Hum. Or tap (your foot or your pencil). Silence isn’t always golden. During my credential program, I learned that students learn differently; some are auditory learners, some are visual learners, others are kinesthetic learners. It is my experience, that students also work differently, and some need to make these sounds, the same way some adults sing in the shower or sing while cleaning the house.
X Xylophones are fun to play. As are drum sticks (even without the drums), tambourines, shakers, and bells. Instruments (regardless of their complexity) are almost irresistible to children who will not wait for further directions before picking up their instrument and making some noise, or music (based on your interpretation).
Y Yarn. And paint, glitter, colored pencils, markers, and stencils. Stickers, tissue paper, buttons, and cotton balls. My fifth-grade students are just as excited when the art supplies come out as were my kindergarten students. Never-underestimate the power of an arts and crafts project. Children tend to be calmed by these hands-on projects, are more willing to offer assistance to each other, and a sense of tranquility permeates the classroom.
Z Zoo. Or the Natural History Museum. The San Fernando Mission, Dockweiler Beach, or the Hollywood Bowl. Field trips are generally a high-point for every student.