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Bombs & Breakthroughs

NEW POST: Veteran Teacher "Shadows" High School

CJ Westerberg, January 8, 2014 4:40 PM

boring professors.SethGodin.jpg

"I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something
that I should have done my first year of teaching:
shadow a student for a day.
It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students
I ever had right now and
change a minimum of ten things -
the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding."
-teacher Alexis Wiggins

What's with the Teacher Sarcasm?

DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

A 14-year veteran teacher, Alexis Wiggins, shadowed classes from a student perspective and was taken aback by what she discovered. Her viral post caught my eye and ire because it is not only a topic dear to my heart but one that I witnessed firsthand recently while carpooling high schoolers, always the best time to have big ears. The topic? The student experience in school.

More specifically, a related (and percolating) issue unbeknownst to me. . . teacher sarcasm.

The students in the car attended different high schools but one student started the conversation specifically talking about one teacher who "had attitude".  When details spilled out, it was apparent to me that they were talking about sarcasm or an overt lack of respect from the teacher, especially when a student asked questions or when confused. Yes, the students were venting but it was also obvious that they were trying to figure out how to handle such a situation.  They were flummoxed more than angry.

Where does this "attitude" come from? A generational thing? A tired teacher manifestation? A poor attempt at humor or to lighten the mood? Or, is this a reflection of a teacher trying to be "cool" or trying to relate in a culture that can be snarky?  (I have shadowed countless classes over the years and don't know if this is a new-ish behavioral phenomenon.) 

If we want students to truly "ask questions" and advocate for themselves and their learning, it's "not gonna happen" if the teacher is responding to questions with a sigh, eye-ball rolling and exasperation. What happened to role modeling? There is a difference between snark and good-natured humor. If a teacher doesn't know the difference, then maybe he or she should not attempt it.  Furthermore, if a teacher crosses that line, how do we expect a student to distinguish between respectful behavior and not?  The last thing a student needs is another snarky "peer".

"Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times,
but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests,
I was stressed.
I was anxious.
I had questions.

-teacher Alexis Wiggins

Educator Wiggins outlined three main take-aways from her shadowing experience. Excerpts below (bold and paragraph breaks added by editor) along with link:

Key Takeaway #1
Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

Key Takeaway #2
High School students are sitting passively and listening
during approximately 90% of their classes.

Key takeaway #3
You (as a student) feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

"I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It's normal to do so -  teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It's really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out.

Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day - that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, "OK, once again, let me explain . . ."

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.

  • I would make my personal goal of "no sarcasm" public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.

  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do - a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better "backwards design" from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes."

Read full post here:  A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days - a sobering lesson learned


Related:  Am I Preparing Students for my Age or Theirs?  By C.J. Westerberg 

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