Exit 18. Every second counts.

I’m not one of those people who goes on and on about how everything I learned in school was B.S. that didn’t prepare me for the real world.  But there is one distinct thing that I learned that is relevant to my life right now that does, to some extent, fit this description.  Normally, when I see people making statements like that, like the meme going around with all the practical life skills that one wishes they had learned in school and complaining about an incorrectly worded concept from geometry that they learned instead, with the implication that geometry is useless, I want to point out that I did in fact learn most of those practical life skills in school.  Most students just don’t pay attention because those things are often not taught until late in high school, when no one cares about learning anything anyway.  And I also want to point out that geometry isn’t useless at all, because it teaches critical thinking and logical argument skills.  But then I decide that this isn’t usually the kind of argument worth wasting my time on.

But there is one topic on which I agree with the people saying that school doesn’t prepare you for real life.  Before I continue this story, I should acknowledge something about my job.  I normally don’t talk about work at all on here, because I don’t want to get in trouble at work for something that I wrote on a public blog.  So here’s the big announcement: I’m a teacher.  I teach kids old enough that they only have my class for an hour for one subject.  That shouldn’t really be a surprise, though, since I did mention previously, when the girl recognized me at the concert, that I was a teacher 11 years ago, and a lot of people keep the same careers for 11 years or more.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, back to the point of the story: On Mondays, I ask my students how their weekends went.  I sometimes tell stories about what I did over the weekend.  I have conversations with students about things they are interested in.  And all of that goes against much of what I was taught about classroom management.  I learned things about how every second counts in the classroom, so I shouldn’t waste any time on non-instructional matters.  I learned not to be friends with the students, because I have to be an authority figure.  And I learned not to let the kids see me smile before Christmas, although that was more of an exaggeration to make a point about being an authority figure more so than an actual practice intended to be followed to the letter.

Here’s why I do that.  For one thing, it makes the job a little more fun.  But there’s a more important reason.  Some time ago, I think it was the year after the girl from the concert was in my class, I had a student who got Ds and Fs for the entire first half of the year.  She was a capable student, she just didn’t try very hard.  Early in the second half of the year, her other teachers and I had a conference with her dad.  He agreed to be much more proactive in making sure she was doing her homework.  He arranged for us to sign her planner every day to make sure she was writing down correctly what homework she had to do each night.  And he communicated with us much more actively to make sure he knew how she was doing.  And her grades instantly improved.  She had a B on her third quarter report card.  She did A and B work for the rest of the year.  And the year after that, she had a free period in her schedule, so she was my TA, helping me with routine classroom tasks.

I really think, though, that there was more to her turnaround than the conference with her dad.  Right around the same time as the conference, she had come to my room after school to ask me something, or maybe to write down the homework that she had forgotten to write down earlier.  I’m usually in my room working on stuff after school, and I’m usually playing music during that time.  My taste in music ranges from just about everything to just about everything else.  On that day, I was playing this song, a huge hit at the time.  Or possibly something else from the same album; I don’t remember the exact song, but I do remember the artist, and this is the only album of theirs that I have.

The student walked in and heard the song before she could ask me her question.  Her eyes lit up, she got all excited, and she said, “Oh my gosh!  I LOVE Evanescence!”  And ever since that moment, she always seemed to be a more active participant in class.  She answered questions.  She talked to me.  And I honestly believe that making that connection of listening to some of her favorite music really motivated her to do better in my class after the conference with her dad.

So while I agree in principle that every second counts in the classroom, I don’t interpret that to mean that I shouldn’t ask students about their lives outside of school.  Doing that is a perfectly valid use of instructional time, because it builds relationships with the students that makes them more motivated to participate in class.  In a class for which the subject matter was less interesting to me, I always enjoyed class more when I liked the teacher.  If I don’t take the time now to bond with the students, I’ll be wasting more instructional time throughout the year trying to keep their attention and get them back on track.  It’s a worthy tradeoff.

Of course, as with all things in life, there has to be a balance.  I can’t spend too much time bonding with students and not teaching them what they’re supposed to be learning.  I’ve had classes a couple years ago that I felt got off task too often when I tried bonding with them.  And this year, one of my classes always wants to talk about superheroes instead of doing their work.  But that doesn’t mean I have to go to the other extreme and not bond with students at all.  After over a decade in this career, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to that balance of how best to use my time.

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