Monday, June 30, 2014

Pedagogy vs. Compassion

This year has been the most tumultuous of my life which is why my posts this year have been so infrequent but this summer, my first summer off in my 5 years of full time teaching, I hope to spend some time reflecting on my teaching career so far.  I also want to record my experiences in the school I most recently taught at in San Diego California before they grow cobwebs.  I have a lot of lesson plans I want to share but first I want to think about how teaching at a disadvantaged, high poverty, high IEP percentage school was different from teaching at my relatively privileged charter school in Oregon and VERY privileged private school in New York.  It wasn't that different.

I did have to change how I taught.  I used inquiry based approaches at the other two schools in which I've worked.  The students had good study skills, were well organized and cared about their education so getting them engaged in self-discovery lessons wasn't that difficult.  They knew how to accept challenges and persevere even if they didn't know how to do something.  Boy did this bomb in my school in San Diego.  In geometry class, if I gave the students rulers they were immediately put to use as either projectiles or weapons.  If I asked them to spend 10 minutes completing an activity on their own, all the cell phones came out or hands went up asking for help.  No one had the initiative to even attempt an activity on their own.  Games descended into chaos.  I quickly learned that these students needed a very firm hand and they would only behave under direct instruction.  Maybe I should have persevered with inquiry based approaches and over time they would have gotten better but the standards hanging over my head made me too nervous to spend too much time on this classroom chaos.

Their study skills were so weak that most didn't take notes, bring paper or pencils to class, and many didn't know their multiplication tables.  I spent a lot of my time teaching them how to listen in class, how to take notes, how to use their notes effectively, how to show work and how to care.  I did use a lot of questioning in my direct instruction lessons- I never actually completed a problem myself on the board, always asking for student input- but it was still direct instruction.  At the end of the year though, as I was grading their final project and their final tests, I was astonished to realize that they'd mastered as much content as the students in my relatively privileged Oregon school and also exhibited the same enthusiasm for math that my Oregon students exhibited.  Here's an excerpt from an e-mail a student sent me at the end of this school year- it's almost identical to letters I received from my Oregon students:

I'm not sure why, but it just recently dawned upon me that you will be leaving after this year and I'll probably never see you again, so I decided to write you a farewell letter. I've never really been compelled to write one to a teacher before so you'll have to bear with me here. I wanted to start off by thanking you for everything you've done, I can honestly say you're the best teacher I've ever had in my entire life. That being said, the support you've given me and the mentality of perseverance you have instilled in the classroom has really inspired me to work even harder and I wanted you to know you have made a big impact on my life. I want you to know that you'll always have a special place in my heart, even years from now, I'm sure I'll look back and be able to confidently say you helped me achieve my goals.

Without inquiry based learning, you-tube videos, gimmicks, games or technology my students in San Diego reached a similar mastery of content and a similar changing of attitudes about math that my students in Oregon attained.

My pedagogy didn't matter.  Or rather, I used the methods that I thought would work for my students.  Method mattered much less than I would have thought.

I don't want this post to sound boastful- I had the same number of failures and frustrations as other teachers but I did feel successful at the end of the year.  I am left questioning the amount of time I've poured into thinking about my method- feeling guilty over not using more inquiry based approaches or not doing enough projects or relying too much on direct instruction or not letting learners of different styles shine since direct instruction caters to auditory and visual learners.  Certainly method was important but it wasn't a question of "is direct instruction or inquiry instruction the correct way to teach," it was a question of "is direct instruction or inquiry instruction the correct way to teach for my students."  Would my Oregon students have learned as well as they did had I used direct instruction on them?  I don't know.  Or was the method of instruction really not that important at all?

I got numerous notes from students at the end of this school year and all of them cited my ability to listen to their difficulties, to work with them after school, and my stubborn refusal to let them give up that helped them succeed.  (There were a few students that I failed though, don't get me wrong.  And I felt like giving up on a lot of them sometimes.)  None of them mentioned my lectures as being boring and a lot of them thanked me for teaching them how to listen and take notes because it helped them in their other classes.  Where does this leave me in the pedagogy wars? I don't know... but maybe it's time I directed my guilt away from my methods of instruction and try to hone what does make me feel successful- treating each student with compassion and trying to be flexible in finding what works for them, regardless of what methods are fashionable in the larger ed-community.