“Teaching is more than imparting knowledge; it is inspiring change. Learning is more than observing facts; it is acquiring understanding.” ~ William Arthur Ward. As their penultimate assignment, my sophomores were instructed to write an inspirational quote reflective essay, to take stock of their time in my English classroom. Since this reflective essay was designed to be a fair, objective look at the good and the bad experiences over the course of the school year, I deemed it fitting to write my own, describing my journey as a mature first-year teacher. My teaching philosophy is as follows: in a safe and secure learning environment and student-centered classroom, I want to inspire students to do their best, achieve their goals, learn new skills, and be true to themselves, while learning problem-solving and critical thinking skills, through brain-based instructional methods and strategies. So, how successful was I in staying true to my philosophy and inspiring students?
As I look back to the first day of school, I remember feeling extremely excited, tremendously nervous, and completely ready to begin teaching. Though new to teaching, I was not new to education, having worked in the high school office for over a decade. As a result, I realize that teaching in today’s world is not just about importing facts, information, and skills because students, now more than ever, need to be seen, heard, and validated on an ongoing basis. Two of my professors in my Master’s program believed in the strength of my life experience and how I weaved my wisdom into my writing assignments, and I hoped that their faith in me was not unfounded.
Early on, I discovered that most of my sophomores were lacking essential writing skills, due in part to the “Covid Gap” and the decisions of my predecessor. Because they could not write a five-paragraph essay independently or write in complete sentences (let alone provide evidence to support their claims or cite resources), it was as though they were several years behind in their learning. I considered their greatest needs, consulted with my mentor and the principal, and created a year-long plan to help them become self-sufficient writers. This deficit concerned me greatly because in order to help them reach the level required to start their junior year, I would have to push them extraordinarily hard. Despite explaining everything to my students, their resistance to thinking and working was almost comparable to an organized rebellion, where I was the evil overlord.
Clearly, I was not inspiring academic achievement; the only thing I was inspiring was disdain and dread for English class. While my mentor and principal continued to encourage me not to reduce the rigor of my lesson plans, I needed to find a way to help them understand why excellent writing skills are essential to a successful future. I had to make writing RELEVANT, and quickly, before they completely disengaged and I lost them forever. My brainstorming idea was to ask several community members, from all types of jobs and professions, to form a panel to discuss how writing was used in their workplace. As the panelists spoke about the importance of quality writing skills, the students wrote notes in their journals and made connections to themselves and their futures, on such a deep level, that I was relieved to have finally reached them. Afterward, while they never quite became excited at the prospect of writing, they seemed to understand why they had to write so much and so often, using specific methods.
By the time we started the second semester, my students had mastered sentence structure and syntax and were making interesting word choices by habit, so they were absolutely ready for the critical thinking required to examine the allegory and themes of Animal Farm. My goal, which I shared with them, was to teach them how to think, not what to think. As we inspected Super Bowl commercials for propaganda, my students wrote an analysis of what they had discovered. As part of the final presentation for this unit, the students worked on one project from a choice board and the following is an excerpt from a student who had initially been resistant to my teaching methods:
“The reason I chose purple as the primary color for my flag project was because it symbolizes wisdom and creativity. While blue represents education, I decided to use purple as the primary color because although Ms. Webster educates effectively, she also inspires and encourages creativity and critical thinking. The handshake represents cooperation and working together and the olive branches portray fellowship and prosperity. All of the symbolism used in my flag is a reflection of Ms. Webster’s classroom and the goals she has for us.”
When he read this project out loud to his fellow students, I became extremely verklempt as I thought perhaps, my students were beginning to understand that I wanted to bring out the best in each and every one of them (not torture them with assignments!).
This belief was confirmed overwhelmingly at the end of the school year, as I read essay after essay explaining how my students had grown, what their biggest takeaways were, and how they would use what they learned in the future. With a few exceptions, every student was able to write the essay independently, with minimal errors, impeccable grammar, and amazing vocabulary. Though I am proud of all of my students, the student mentioned above holds a special place in my teacher’s heart, because at the beginning of the school year, he doubted his ability to write well, but also my capacity to teach; yet, at the end of the school year, he wrote the following in his essay:
“In the beginning of the year, I did not really care for Ms. Webster because I made a great deal of assumptions about her. I quickly learned that she was not as bad as I previously thought. She also made me realize that I can enjoy English if given the right circumstances. Overall, I feel like Miss Webster has really helped me improve my writing immensely and unlock a skill that I did not even know I had. Do not judge someone or something before you give them a chance, because they could end up being the thing you need to improve every aspect of your life.”
Therefore, with every fiber of my teacher’s soul, I believe that “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” ~ Henry B. Adams. Although I never dreamed that I would help a student unlock potential (it was not included in my teaching philosophy) I feel that this is truly the highest honor to which a teacher can aspire, and I am eternally grateful that my students gave me a chance to inspire a change and influence the future.
By Loral W
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