My recent actions were inspired by a less-than-ideal note that my own son received from one of his teachers a few months ago. I won't re-post the letter, although it does make me wonder if the principal saw it or proofread it before the teacher sent it out. The overall tone of the communication was irritation, frustration, and anger. It seems like the class had fared quite poorly on a social studies test and the teacher went on at length about how thoroughly she had prepared them and the students had not done their part and that they better study for the re-test. Reading the note left a bad taste in my mouth, because it sounded more like a rant and a blame-fest than anything productive.
Fast-forward to July 2014. A couple of my students in my Grade 3 summer school class had blank pages where work was supposed to be, and I was stymied. Why wasn't their work done? What was going on? I had time to think about the situation a bit - one of the benefits of a half-day program - and I decided to write the students themselves a note. This is what it said:
July 10, 2014
I feel concerned. As you know, I check everyone’s work daily and I noticed that you did not do:
1. The journal entry from July 3-4, 20142. The journal entry from July 7-8, 20143. The house-building plans that were due July 9, 2014
I like you and I want you to be successful. These are the strategies I have used to help keep you organized and responsible for completing your work.
· “To Do” lists posted on the SMART Board and blackboard· A description of “what counts as finished” for design plans and journals· Extra time after recess once the required Minecraft time is done· Verbal reminders to stay on task (e.g. don’t go to the build zone until you are finished your other jobs)
Unfortunately, these strategies do not seem to be working. To change things for the better, I need your help. Please think of at least two new ideas that will help you complete your work on time. Write them below. Then, take this sheet to the office so that our summer school principal (Mr. YYY or Ms. ZZZ) will give their expert opinion on our revised plan.
The differences between this letter and the one my son received from his social studies teacher were intentional.
- My tone was meant to be curious instead of angry, positive instead of negative
- Both student and teacher can change and improve, not just the student
- Involving the principal was not a punitive gesture but one for growth and assistance
I am so glad that I wrote the notes and spoke to the individuals privately. It turned out that one of the students has a special education designation that I was not aware of, and the student was struggling with the volume of work that I was requiring. The obvious solution was for me to reduce the amount of assignments she had to complete and the amount needed in each assignment, as well as provide some peer and teacher support while she completed her tasks. Here's the remarkable part. After this encouraging three-way conversation that included the principal, this student went on to finish three separate, previously-incomplete jobs in a single day! It was a delight to send her back down to the office to effusively praise her dedication.
I read another education blog post about the hardest part of teaching being "not enough" time or resources, and even in summer school, it's still true. However, with shortened class time and less expectations for summer school, occasionally I can take the time to learn how to do things better, how to intervene a little quicker than usual, how to phrase things better so that positive changes can occur, how to make school pleasant and educational. I'm not where I want to be yet, but it's the irony that I may never reach there - just keep trying and taking time to learn.