The Moral Compass: A Teacher’s Reflection on the Journey of a Meaningful Education
Every experience, good and bad, is an adventure. An exploration of ourselves. I enjoy spending much of my “freetime” (I use quotation marks with freetime because it is a rare luxury that is usually a figment of my imagination) traveling the world. On these travels, I have found that no matter how prepared you are, you are never prepared enough. The true adventure cannot come from knowing your destination. It comes from the journey you set out on toward that destination. And as you continue forward on your journey, that destination is ever changing, just as you are with each step. In education, I have learned that those sentiments are much the same. You set your sights on this grand destination of a school year, and prepare yourself to embark. Along the way, you will learn that it is impossible to be completely prepared for what this journey has in store for you. Units and lessons will change, fail, or become a great success. Each time you stumble or succeed, you learn and grow. This has taught me to allow my students to do the same. Allow for them to set out on an eyeopening adventure, not on a concrete destination. Bring them on this journey of obstacles and triumphs and opportunities. Let them inherit the world through their own eyes. Be their guide, but let them explore and discover in their own way.
Failure is the best medicine. It only makes you wiser. Through studying and implementing a growth mindset in my own life, I was able to change the way I interacted with learners who seemed to trip and fall on this journey. I made growth mindset a part of our culture in my classroom, and that culture created a new lens for us to look through. Some of us would be able to see past the boulder that stood in our way. Some of us hit it face-first time and time again. However, every time someone thought about quitting or making excuses, growth mindset created opportunities for that learner to accept the stumble of mistakes. These humbling moments not only gave them the permission to get back up again, but also taught them that they were able to get back up again. This lesson could not be taught through a lecture or powerpoint. This journey was theirs to experience, and through these experiences have come wisdom.
When Dr. Randy Pausch talked about people versus things, that spoke to me as an educator. So what if a student makes a mistake? So what if my lesson wasn't good? What matters is that I am here for my kids, helping them become better human beings. The relationships and connections we make with our learners will be what remains when all is said and done. Things like grades and grammar lessons may never be thought of again. Things like a short story or novel may never find a reference in any anecdote they give years later. The true impact of a teacher is what they do with these things. The personal stories you tell when reading a short story may connect with a learner and make them feel not so alone. The life lessons that come out of a novel could change the views or life of another learner. How you reassure your learners by reminding them that they are not defined by a grade point average, but rather creating opportunities to better themselves by could give hope to the learner who lacks confidence or pride. You seeing these children as human beings could change your approach in a simple practice or lesson. Empathize and get to know these human beings who attend your class everyday. Make yourself vulnerable. You never know how much you may have in common.
When I began this journey of graduate school, I thought I was prepared and I thought I knew my destination. The very first day on my adventure though, showed me that I was dead wrong. The destination of a traditional graduate school program that asked for dry essays and textbook readings was completely changed as soon as I took my first step. I had no idea that the challenges I would face on this venture would not be crazed study sessions with loads of coffee. Rather, the challenges came deep within my being. I was shown a different side to what teaching and education was about. I was exposed to an underground movement of meaningful beliefs and philosophies that I never thought were possible. I was reassured that the teacher I wanted to become was not just a dream anymore. It was a reality.
This journey gave me permission to study, develop, and implement something that I always felt would be too controversial for the education world. Grit and character development had always intrigued me and caused me to wonder if there would be room for such things in a classroom. Up until I set out on this journey, I worried that education was a world full of only things. That my students were merely students, and grades were their paychecks. That teachers were here to control their paychecks and dock them a dollar an hour if they were not obedient. This adventure and my studies with grit have shown me that I am more than just a teacher. I am a guide. I am a mentor. I am a motivator. I am an inspirer. I am a caring human being who cares for other human beings. I am a person who can give hope to others. The classroom is not a place where learners should merely punch in and punch out. It should be a place where they are shown a reflection of their best selves. A place where possibilities are born and opportunities are given. Through risk taking and countless hours of developing what my learners needed in order to gain an idea of their existence and their own “grittiness”, I was able to create a culture of grit in my classroom. Though my journey with this study is still at the very beginning, the meaningfulness makes it worth it.
When feeling doubtful and overwhelmed, I hold onto the virtue of zeal. Without this, I cannot continue on my journey to inspiring my kids. Logistics, meetings, and standardized tests can bog you down and make you feel wrong and under pressure. Zeal is my buoy that keeps me holding on. It is the passion that motivates me. It is the courage that inspires me. It is the reminder of why I do what I do every single day. I doubt myself a lot. I have a belief in education that we are not just teaching students, but guiding human beings. It takes courage to continue practicing what you believe in when you are the minority. When others may look at you as if you are wrong. My zeal helps me remember why I am here when times get tough.
Life lessons are something that can help shape the young minds in your classroom and impact lives and futures. School is not just about the homework or the grades or lectures. It is truly about the journey and the skills you add to your toolbelt as you learn. I can’t just tell learners about what I went through “when I was your age” or tell them what I think will happen if they do this or that. Life lessons come with experiences and reflection. I want to continue to allow for my learners to learn about life in their own ways. The good, the bad, and the ugly sides of life. That takes courage, which is another leadership virtue I will need to cling to. I want to always do what is right for my learners and for the world. I think about the leaders of history who had to overcome many obstacles in order to make the world a better place. They all needed that courage and that zeal in order to help them continue on their journey. I may not be taking on the world, but the world will definitely take on us if we let it. I want to always remember to stand up for what I believe in.
Standing up loudly is not one of my strong suits. I am not a prideful person. I am an empath. "Good to a fault" is what people have always said about me. I grew up with a heavy heart that I wore on my sleeve, and a mother who always taught me that everyone deserves love. I grew up believing that there was good in everyone, no matter how little good there is. In times of errors and mistakes being made, I often think about myself being in a position where I was the one making those errors and mistakes. How alone and ashamed I would feel if I had to endure the burden by myself. From a very young age I always reflected on putting myself in other people’s shoes and imagine how I might feel in different situations, and what I would want people to do for me if I was struggling with something. More times than not, I see people judge rather than understand. I believe that once you know someone’s story, it’s hard to hate and turn your back. Through understanding, we can begin to empathize. When you see a person down, why be too prideful to help them up? I believe in this way of living in education as well. When you see a student fail or struggle, do not make them feel lesser by blaming them. Help them. Yes, we want to teach them to be responsible and respectful. But do not chastise and create a shameful human being. Pick them up with positivity, hope, and faith. How will you know when you should give them your hand? When their struggle causes more problems than progress. It is in those moments that life lessons come into play through your courage and zeal that you model for your students.
The Big IDEAs
I have never been an orthodox teacher, nor have I been orthodox in really anything in my life. Growing up, I was the student who couldn’t listen and comprehend at the same time. My teachers would give instructions, and when it was time to do what was told, I realized I was daydreaming the entire time. This accidental aloofness, mixed with a fear of asking questions, forced frustration upon me. But it also forced creativity and originality into my work. I did things my own way in how I understood them, with the information I learned. To this day, my vagabond mind stays with me, and has helped transform every technical in-the-box idea about education into something with passion and soul.
As educators, we all have this grand “idea” of what our perfect classroom looks like; mine will never be the same as yours, and yours will never be the same as anyone else’s. It is this subjective notion that has stemmed from what works for us, and what our priorities are in our classrooms. This “idea” is made up of instruction, discipline, our classroom environment, and assessments. Each area contains our ideals as educators. But along with our ideals comes the importance of our learners getting what they need. That is how a perfect classroom begins to form.
Instruction in my classroom has always been something I have focused hard on. It is not just about the factual knowledge of the content, or making sure that our learners meet their grade level on standardized tests. It is more importantly about how our learners can best discover the knowledge, and apply it.
Differentiation was a term I learned about while studying my undergrad. It made sense then, and continues to be more and more relevant in every area that we teach. The past few years of teaching and differentiating have continually seen success and excitement in my learners. I have learned to study my learners, and get an idea of how they would best succeed in gaining the knowledge and acquire an enduring understanding. From concepts like collaborating, blogging, and webquests that I have done in my classroom, I want to build more of an “explorer” mentality into my learners. This upcoming school year, all learners are receiving an iPad. This gives everyone the opportunity to explore, discover for themselves a deeper concept they are curious about, and find themselves more in control of their education. Reciprocal teaching is a great opportunity I want to capitalize on this year with technology. The world is at my learner’s fingertips, and I want them to realize that and create their world. I want them to become the person they are meant to be, with passion and curiosity for more knowledge.
Another area of instruction that can help my learners achieve our enduring understandings is reflection. Reflection will be a big instructional area to build this year. I want to get my learners to not just reflect by saying, “This assignment was fun!” or, “I learned a lot from this project.” I want to teach my learners how to look back on an activity or project we are creating and wonder what they are learning by doing this, and how it relates to their own experiences outside of the classroom. With reflection comes a need to remind learners that there is no mistake you can make. Your personal reflection may be different than one of your peer’s, and that is okay. I hope that in making reflection meaningful and intentional, my learners can explore and discover our enduring understandings in comparison with their own lives.
Community dialogue is the pride and joy of my classroom. With allowing my learners to be more in control of discovering their knowledge in relation to our enduring understandings, and focusing on the reflection piece intentionally and consistently, our small and whole group discussions will be very enriching. Socratic Seminars are something I want to implement into my instruction more often this year, to help my learners dive deeper into the concepts we are focusing on. Not only that, through this dialogue will come personal experiences of the concepts from learners themselves. Learners applying their personal reflections to the concepts being learned or the article information itself can teach the class in it’s own way. Not only will they be gaining knowledge on the unit or standard we are covering, but making connections with it through personal accounts and reflection.
Through our exploration in my classroom, I want my learners to know what standardized skills they are gaining. However, it is not just the skillset that I want for them to focus on. I want for them to gain these skills and pieces of knowledge while building up to answering our essential questions. I want to be able to open up a new unit with a basic idea for them to reflect on linked to our enduring understandings, and while exploring, they discover their “ah hah!” moment and answer our essential question. Through answering our essential question, my learners will be able to then apply their newly gained skills with a deeper understanding to connect it to. Along with this, I also want my learners to create their own ideas from the skills gained through answering our essential questions, and have that mirror the enduring understanding in their own life.
Some of my favorite classes were the ones where I would walk into a community of people, not a classroom of students. It was in this environment that I felt the safest, and where I learned the most. Community building is something I have always done with my different classes. Not every class is the same, so each building effort looked different. When building a community, there are expectations, ownership, and everyone has their roles. I want to put more of our classroom expectations on my learners, so the majority of everyone is in agreeance and can help one another achieve these expectations. Expectations could be anything, from “be to class on time”, to “have an open mind”, to “respect one another.” Having these come from the learners will be more meaningful, and I hope they will hold eachother accountable to these values of the community.
I enjoy doing community building activities every so often, so get the learners out of their comfort zone and get to know each other in different ways. One of my favorite building blocks is the “would you rather…?” activity, where I ask them a question (example: “Would you rather be given $1,000, or give a charity of your choice $10,000?”). Everyone will choose one or the other, and go to a side of the room that their answer pertains to. I then ask for them to discuss with someone briefly why they chose that side. Learners will learn more about themselves, their friends, and others they may not know very well in this activity. It will create a dialogue of likenesses, help friendships grow, and challenge them to think for themselves. I would like to do more with these community building activities to achieve a comfortable and familiar environment.
Safety is the number one reason I work hard to help my learners become a community. Feeling safe in an environment will help learners trust those around them, and trust themselves with their thoughts, opinions, and ideas. Being open and honest in anything can be scary because we are allowing others to see deeper into who we are. In a safe community, I want my learners to feel respected and accepted by everyone. One thing I need to keep in mind is that I cannot control what is said or done outside of my classroom. Bullying is a very real thing, and it can happen anytime, anywhere. I hope that by creating a community out of my learners, they can feel a sense of loyalty and unity to one another. I want for them to achieve an enduring understanding and apply it to our classroom and community.
With the layout of my classroom, there is limited ways for me to be creative when trying to move my room around. I have an old science lab, meaning that my fluorescent lights bounce brightly off the white tiled floor. The counter and cupboards along the back of my room limits how my desks are positioned. I have wanted to get rid of desks for a long time and have only chairs so there are no barriers between anyone in our community. However, resources are very limited at my school, and this is just not possible. In the past, I have had my classroom in the traditional way: desks in rows facing the front of the room. I have tried grouping desks into pods of 6. But my learner’s favorite room setup is my “cat-walk” setup: desks are divided on either side of the room evenly, facing one another while keeping a walking space down the middle. With this setup, my learners are able to see each other well enough to stay engaged in whole group dialogue, debates, games, etc. and are able to see me as I move about. It is unfortunately very cramped in my room with 36 desks, and I will not stop attempting to find the magic setup until I find it. I want my classroom to be a place where they can focus easily, have enough space to do so, and are able to feel comfortable physically.
I make it clear that my classroom is their learning environment. It is not up to me to make it just that for them. We begin the year talking about what helps them focus, what makes a good learning environment, and how they will feel most comfortable. I have found that learners love having their work hung up around the room. They always have the option of doing this. By year’s end, my walls are filled to the brim with creative and innovative ideas they came up with. These pieces of work give a snapshot to the hard work put in, memories of the fun they had while doing it, and the skills and understandings they gained because of it. They love this ownership piece of their environment, and it ends up giving outsiders an illustrated notion of exactly who our community is and what we do.
First and foremost, my learners learn from early on that mistakes are a part of learning. It is a part of life, and are inevitable. Mistakes are the building blocks of understanding, and I always let my learners know that it is okay to make mistakes. Some learners are perfectionists, afraid to take risks or do what they feel strongly about. Whoever they are is wonderful, but I will always challenge my learners. One big challenge is getting over making mistakes, persevering, and getting back up to try again. It is the concept of grit that I hope to see in my learners when they understand this kind of mentality.
Along with falling down and getting back up, is the concept of growth mindset. Through creativity and stepping outside of their box, I want my learners to see just how much they are capable of doing and learning. Through the use of essential questions and enduring understandings, my learners will see past grades and skills and classroom walls, and see life as a concept. In an English classroom, it is very easy for learners to not understand that there can be more than one right answer. It is such a subjective subject that exploration of all concepts is essential. And through this, they will begin to learn that the rabbit hole goes as far as you want it to. Continuing to grow this mindset will be an important task connected with learner’s reflections on seeing through it all and to keep on digging.
Differentiation, like I said before, is a huge part of my classroom. After my learners have had differentiated instruction given to them (and maybe even created by them), their assessment is even more than that. Getting to know my learners means that I am able to differentiate the assessments I give them. However, these are only my ideas of ways they can successfully apply their gained skills. A part of my learners owning their education, is by knowing how they can best prove to me their knowledge, skills, and enduring understandings. That ownership is the power of choice my learners get. Their ownership in the work they produce through differentiation ends up becoming vital to them in knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are. They have the freedom to understand what their capabilities are, and how to challenge themselves each time. Differentiation has forced learners to apply their knowledge and skills into something new, relevant, and tangible in their lives. They have the responsibility and opportunity to create an understanding of content for themselves, in ways of originality, creativity, and innovation.
Some of my differentiated assessments have been posters or powerpoints that show the learner’s newly gained skills and knowledge, as well as a personal reflection piece that mirrors our enduring understandings. Some have been my learner creating a video based on the unit and application to her/his life. Other learners have created a Facebook page that has information on their character for our characterization unit, to show their understanding of the elements of characterization, or a script of the book they read putting their character in a modern-day moment. Though I give my learners options to choose from, I also am open to them creating their own project. However, they must conference with me stating what their project idea is, how they will prove their skills and understanding to it, and why they feel that is the best way for them to show their knowledge and understanding. The creativity really comes out during our project time, and I really get to know my learners in this way.
Not only are learners responsible for their learning within these assessments, but as educators we are responsible for giving timely and meaningful feedback for learners to reflect on. It is so important for educators to know their learners and how they best learn. Reflection is hard for many to understand and do, as stated before. Meaningful feedback is hard for some educators to give. But both reflection and feedback are connected and vital to deepening understanding for the learner and educator. Reflection and feedback opens a dialogue of what both parties need from each other. Keep in mind however, that formative assessments are important for me to see where my learners are at in their understanding, what they need from me, and what more I need from them. Before getting to the summative assessments, I should have a good grasp on knowing my learners are ready for it. Giving learners exit slips to fill out, surveys, through small and whole group dialogue, or even a quick traffic light check can help me formatively see where we are at.
I have the privilege of teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Language Arts. With that, I am able to scaffold all of my lessons, activities, and assessments. My learners have the opportunity of going further than just their grade level. They are able to soar as high as they can through my guidance with scaffolding. With me knowing all three curriculums very well, I also am able to scaffold my essential questions and enduring understandings. Each year we build in a number of standardized skills areas: theme, characterization, poetry, drama, etc. Without going faster or loading on more work, I am able to get my learners thinking about concepts, skills, and ideas, even in the slightest, beyond their grade level.
One thing I am hesitant yet excited to try this year is student self-assessment. With middle schoolers, I am not sure how thoughtful they will be when evaluating their work and themselves. Self-reflection and growth mindset will both be the stepping stones toward creating an intuitive learner who can evaluate themselves meaningfully. Honesty is hard when you feel doubtful of yourself, or when you do not care about your education. And knowing if the learner is reflecting accurately is hard to know for the educator. I am excited to see how my learners will handle this concept, and see how they grow from it.
The End = The Beginning
Through constant reflection in my own life, experiences, and classroom, there is never going to be a “perfect” classroom. Our clientele changes every hour, day, and year. One should never stop reflecting on the impact they are making everyday with their learners. Nor should one ever stop trying new things and taking risks. As a lifelong vagabond of the mind, my aloofness has created some extraordinary work, ideas, and opportunities for me. It has also deepened my understanding of how different we all are. How different all of our learners are. Keeping that in mind, and taking a look at yourself at the beginning and end of everyday, is a good start. This next year, I want to remember all of these “ideas”, remember what I wanted as a learner, and remember to listen to my kids. I want to be the classroom that they feel safe and loved in. That they get excited for because they can be themselves amongst a community of people. I want them to find confidence and explore deeper meanings to content that inspires them. I want them to take my challenges head-on, and learn to challenge themselves. Most importantly, I want them to leave my room every single day thinking, “Anything is possible.”
That Which Endures
During my journey through this program, I have gained so much insight. I have learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. From the time that I took my first step on this journey until now, I have evolved into a better person. This program has taught me to take the time to understand my learners, because their stories matter. This program has taught me to change the culture in my classroom to one that nurtures a learner in discovering learning and life, and does not hinder a learner within the walls of standardized tests or the school itself. This program has made me take a step back and reflect on what is really important in life and education.
One thing that will never be the same is the language used in my classroom. There is no, “Good job!”, or, “You’re a natural!”, in my classroom thanks to Alfie Kohn. I now push my learners to reflect on the hard work and obstacles they overcame in order to succeed in everything they do. We are not a grade-driven community in my classroom. We have created a culture of grit, and to thrive off of growth mindsets. Though my studies with grit are still so new, I plan on continuing my implementation of the practices, mindset, and reflections we do surrounding grit and character development. It has created a healthy, hard working culture in my classroom, and it was this program that gave me the courage to try it at all.
My biggest fear after graduating from this program has always been to become stagnant. To stop growing and plateau. To forget about my zeal, lose my courage, forget about the meaningful life lessons, and to stop studying grit and character development in education. This program gives me purpose and courage. I have incredible support from my peers in our cohort who are all striving for the same beliefs in their classrooms, too. Without the support, I worry that I will feel alone in my mindset and in my beliefs. I will doubt myself again. I will feel wrong. And in turn, my fears of this happening will succumb to the fear itself. However, I know that I will never be the same teacher again. This program has molded me into something better than what I once was, and I never want to go back. With that said, I owe my learners and myself the privilege of continuing to practice everything I had learned and to continue researching studies that I hold to be true.
This journey has no end destination. It will only continue to make me stronger with every step forward. I am very blessed to have gotten the opportunities that I have from this program, I do not intend on taking any of it for granted. This is just the beginning, and I cannot wait to see what else is yet to come for me!