One of the most famous lines in the movie Juno is when actress Ellen Page (Juno) says to actor Michael Cera (Paulie), “’Cause you're, like, the coolest person I've ever met, and you don't even have to try.” Michael Cera replies, “I try really hard, actually.”
This line really struck me because it reminded me of teaching when a fellow coworker or other outsider walks into your room and sees everything running smoothly, the kids are engaged, and thinks that you either have a really good class or that your job isn’t that hard.
Keeping 30+ students of such a wide array of abilities, maturity levels, and countless other factors on-task can only happen when you have established a culture of learning, discipline, accountability, and sense of safety.
Keeping 30+ students learning can only occur when you have established relationships with the students, and they feel you really care about them individually and academically. They need to trust you and feel that you trust them. If students are doing what they are supposed to regardless of your relationship, it is because they are being compliant, not necessarily engaged.
It’s what most people don’t see that makes a teacher great.
Knowing what students know takes hours and hours of analyzing formal and informal assessments and interacting with the students. Teaching students at their level makes class run great, but no one sees the hours you invested to be that informed.
It doesn’t matter how great your lesson is if you can’t execute it. The culture has to be a positive one conducive to great things and great learning happening. Keeping 30+ students learning occurs best when the lessons are engaging, students see the point in what they are doing, and students are given some choices in what they do.
If the lesson goes great in my class, it is because I have spent hours and hours developing it. I am always thinking about all of the things that can go wrong, putting in higher order thinking tasks, gathering the best resources available, modifying it, wording it exactly right, etc. Even with all of those hours spent, things still do not go as planned the first time I do a new lesson. A lesson is probably in a good place after the 3rd time I have done it…in other words, it takes years. I have lessons I have done for years that are still continually revisited, modified, or even scrapped for something better.
I have never taught a perfect lesson and probably never will. If you can have a growth mindset in your teaching, not expect perfection, and continually strive to get better, you will be just fine. If you have a fixed mindset where you are set in your ways, not open to new ideas, and don’t adapt, you will become outdated and possibly obsolete. Don’t get me wrong, some people still enjoy classics, such as original Nintendo games/classic teaching methods, but they fail to meet the needs of the modern gamer/learner. You can still get something out of playing Nintendo games, but there is a reason why the graphics keep getting better, the gameplay more advanced, and the interactivity with others keeps increasing.
I find that my lessons go much better when I have adapted them to the current needs of learners. When I try to do more classic lessons, such as do a PowerPoint as they take notes, give them a worksheet on the material afterwards, repeat…they do not do behave that well, are not engaged, and problems occur. The most frustrating part is that the retention of material is extremely low. I know we have all taught lessons where students didn’t remember hardly anything the very next day and you wonder why you bothered teaching that day. When students are the ones asking the questions, seeing how the lesson relates to them, working with others to find solutions, and displaying their knowledge in various ways, they are all of a sudden more engaged in the work.
The point is…you may have a quiet class doing a worksheet, study guide, etc., but I guarantee they aren’t engaged…they are compliant. Doing what they are told is important, but when the students are going through the motions of whatever they are assigned, they do not care about the material, are not connecting with the material, and are only learning the material because it is on a test, not because it is important in any other way.
If you see someone’s class all behaving and on-task…they are good at discipline and order, but the kids might not be engaged or learning.
If you see someone’s class where the kids are working together and actively engaged in what they are doing, it might not be neat and quiet, but the kids are probably excited about learning. There still needs to be some order where the kids are respectful, treat each other right, and are on-task in what they do, but they do not need to be sitting quietly in rows for learning to occur. Organized chaos is a great learning environment, but maintaining it is truly an art for a teacher. It surely isn’t easy, even on the best of days, but it is what is best for kids.
If you see someone’s class where the kids are chaotic and also off-task, a lot of work needs to be done. These tend to be teachers who work hard, yet are frustrated often with their class and with the results. I have been here many times in the past…sometimes I still am here, even though I have taught for a while.
In closing, no matter how strong your teaching game is, how great your class is, how great of a relationship you have established with students, teachings is never easy. It never will be. You will find that the more you frontload your research into best practices, make lessons engaging, build relationships, and hold students accountable, the better your class will run. If your class looks like things are running smoothly, it is because of the countless hours you have spent and continue to spend on what you do. Running smoothly does not mean kids are silent and in rows…it means that kids are learning, growing, and care about what they are doing.