Thursday, July 18, 2013

Real Talk for Real Teachers

I am not embarrassed to share that I read a book in a little over 24 hours. Now, the book was not a 1,000 pages, but for someone like me who is an extremely slow reader, this was quite an accomplishment. I discovered this book while searching Amazon for a new title. To my astonishment, there was a title that slapped me in the face: Real Talk for Real Teachers. After that got my attention, I noticed the author: Rafe Esquith. Rafe Esquith! I have read his three previous books about teaching, and loved each one. Talk about Christmas in July!

For those who may not know Rafe, he is a teacher from Los Angeles California. Rafe has been at his craft for thirty years. He has been recognized by Oprah Winfrey for his excellence in education. He tours the country sharing what happens in his small classroom (Room 56). His books should be required reading for every educator.

Briefly, the book is broken into three sections: The first part is for New Teachers. This section is full of accurate and real information that was probably not shared during any college/university education class. The second part is for teachers with more than five years on the job. His main message: You could probably now begin to coast, but provides several reasons why you should not. Lastly, the third part is for the veteran teacher (which just this year I quickly realized I now fit that category at my school!). He commends the veteran teacher for their years of sacrifice. It is truly inspirational.

The part of the book that struck home for me was his discussion on No Child Left Behind. To put it bluntly, Rafe believes that some children should be left behind. FOR NOW! I have to admit, I agree. Now, I do not believe anyone should be denied the chance to succeed. Policies should not be created that refuses a group of children the opportunity at a quality education. What I am afraid is starting to happen is teachers are expected to not only leave the door open for the child, but CARRY HIM OR HER AS WELL. This is where, as educators, we need to realize the difference. The sad part about what we do is no matter how many opportunities we create for our students, some will still choose to not walk through that door. That does not make us bad teachers, because our job is to create an environment where the door is left open, but the student walks through himself.

For example, I created a Lunchtime Club for my math classes where students can come up to my room during lunch to do corrections or retake a quiz or test. When I first created this club several years ago, I made it a requirement that anyone with a low grade had to attend. There was no discussion about it. I would go down to the cafeteria escort the group back to my room. Of course there were several students that I had to "force" to show up. What I did not realize at the time was how many problems this created in my room during my lunch hour.

The students that were forced to attend were not productive. I wasted a lot of energy trying to get them to work, while missing several opportunities to connect with the students that voluntarily attended the session. In addition, I ended the lunch hour very frustrated. Normally, it took the rest of the afternoon to get rid of the headache I received from this lunch hour work session.

After some thought, and reading one of Rafe's first books, I realized the session should be strictly voluntary. I still went down to the cafeteria to escort the group to my room, but I only brought back the students that wanted to attend. What a difference this made! The sessions were productive, quiet and fun. I was able to connect with the students by giving them time to work through math problems they found challenging. Not surprisingly, my headaches went away as well. I never proclaimed to be a "quick learner"...

The unforeseen bonus was that some of those students that initially were disgruntled about being there, volunteered to show up soon after. When they attended, their work was of higher quality, and they were easier to work with. All I did was keep the door open, but I allowed them to walk through themselves.

Believe it or not, this was a tougher sell for the parents. I have to repeatedly remind parents that their son or daughter is more than welcome to attend, but I will not make them. I have actually had parents go to my principal to complain that I do not work with their child during my lunch hour! Again, I calmly remind them I will be there tomorrow to pick up the group. Your child is more than welcome to attend, but it must remain voluntary.

That is a tough balance for teachers. We want to naturally "save" all of our struggling students. We feel their pain and struggles as our own. The "Real Talk" is sometimes we can not. We need to be patient, keep the door open, and hope the student passes through themselves. When that happens now, I am the first one to greet them with a handshake on the other side of the door. It is at that time the real learning begins. And it was simply because I did not force them to walk through before they were ready.

Thanks, Rafe, for another extremely inspirational book. THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS!!

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