Sep 27, 2011

Back In School: Teacher Reflects On Helping Students Achieve [Or, Let Me Discount Poverty And Blame Myself For Its Existence]

Amanda Williams teaches first grade in the Arizona public school system. She has a degree in Early Childhood Education from Arizona State University.

Of course it would make my job as a teacher easier if all students had the same life experiences, same socioeconomic status, same behaviors, and learning styles. But, of course, every teacher knows this isn't reality. Since it's the start of the school year, I thought I'd write this blog to offer a realistic snapshot of what many teachers actually face. I'm speaking from my experience, and we all know experiences vary across our country. But this is how things look from my vantage point.

All the preparation has been done, supplies are stocked, the classroom is perfect, and a whole new group of children are sitting and staring at you. The beginning of each school year is exhausting, exciting, and overwhelming. I have to give students a sense of my expectations, ignite a love for learning in them, and build a safe community. But that's not all. The biggest challenge I face, is learning where my students are academically and deciding what I can do to help them achieve at least a year's growth in learning when they are with me. It’s a huge responsibility.

In the community where I teach, families come and go often – a problem we call "the revolving door." The challenge is that our classroom population is made up of students that may or may not have ever attended school or are from a different state with different (sometimes lower) standards. They have never received consistent, quality instruction, and that has led to achievement gaps. It's up to me to address and help close those gaps. The way teachers begin to tackle this is to collect data by assessing their students in many different ways. Data has to drive our instructional decisions.

When it comes to the hard work of teaching, I need to be aware of these different ability levels but also kids' varying learning styles. While one child may learn best through visual cues, another may a physical, or kinesthetic learner.

Students today need to be actively engaged. Gone are the days where students sit still and teachers pour knowledge into their brains and expect them to succeed. Many students need special interventions that are separate from the core curriculum. With good intervention, these students will learn and achieve. Will they meet grade-level expectations in one school year? Maybe not. It may take quite a few years of quality intervention to fully close achievement gaps. But that's okay as long as they're moving at a good clip in the right direction.

So that's the reality as I see it. Kids come from different backgrounds and learn in different ways. But there are things I can do as a teacher to help them make the grade. Of course, it's not just up individual classroom teachers.

Systematically, we need more great educators teaching in all geographic and subject areas and we need to pay them what they are worth. We need administrators who will hold teachers accountable, and we need districts that will hold administrators accountable. We need fair and multi-faceted teacher (and administrator) evaluation systems, and we need nationwide standards to keep standards consistent from state to state (which we are moving toward). In my opinion, if we work together for these things, we will see the children of our country succeed. That's the reality I hope for.

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