Beyond the Lesson Plan

By Gregory Keer

Ten years ago, I became a full-time high school teacher. With visions of Stand and Deliver dancing in my head, I wanted to put my real-world experience into lessons and my bad jokes into dull moments. Plus I relished learning what made teenagers tick to prepare me for my road ahead as a father.

Over the past decade, I’ve held onto the joy of teaching though it frequently makes my brain hurt and my ego crack. It ain’t easy to find the balance between the enthusiastic learners and the ones who would rather blog about toenail clipping. So, through trial and tribulation, I’ve developed methods to keep students’ attention, push them past their boundaries, and encourage them to explore their interests.

I don’t pretend to be one of the world’s greatest teachers. I’ve had those in my life, as instructors of my own and as colleagues. In 10th grade, there was Dr. Kleinz, who was nerdy, overly educated, and sweated profusely through his dress shirts. But he was funny, hip, and a good listener. Even the students with the biggest attitudes and smallest self-expectations labored hard for Dr. Kleinz. As for me, I struggled for a decent grade in his Western Civ class — and loved every minute of it.

Among my three kids, and their combined 13 years of public school, the vast majority of their teachers have been creative, effective, and inspiring. Then, there are the two who have somehow missed their calling as medieval prison guards.

A few years ago, Jacob’s instructor was intolerant of students who were not quiet drones. She gave the kids worksheets, without instruction on how to do them, for most of their day. She readily showed frustration for fidgety children and put absolutely no comments – not so much as a Happy Face sticker – on the students’ papers. And this was in first grade.

My son is energetic to say the least, but he has always been eager to please. So, when he asked for help, he was crushed by the teacher’s response to stop asking so many questions.

We tried emailing and conversing with her, but got little response. So like a number of other parents in the class who had similar worries about the instructor, we met with the principal. Sympathetic to our concerns, he went in to observe the way the teacher taught, helped her post her bare classroom walls with the work of students (to pump up their pride),  and guided her on lesson plans and techniques to channel kid energy into productivity.

As a result, the academic environment did improve. Although the teacher’s personal coldness didn’t thaw much, the partnership with the school administration made a difference.

This past year, my eldest boy endured a sub-par seventh-grade English class in which he seldom had homework, read only two books, and rarely received feedback on his work. While she did deliver some stretches of beneficial instruction, she missed weeks for meetings and field trips she went on with other classes while subs did little more than babysitting.

It’s not that Benjamin ever fretted. He got good grades for little effort and seemed well liked by the instructor. At the slightest hint that we might voice to the school our unhappiness with the rigor of his class, Benjamin feared backlash should the teacher think he was ratting her out.

Understanding this, we focused our efforts on gentle emails about assignments to the teacher and behind-the-scenes inquiries with the administration. We were stonewalled everywhere we turned despite the fact that, as we gathered from speaking to past years’ parents, this teacher had a history of doing her job on autopilot.

This time, we backed off, partly because our son still read a fair amount on his own and partly because we wanted to teach him a different kind of lesson. No matter what Wendy and I privately worked on to improve the classroom situation, we publicly told our son to work hard and figure out the best way to meet the teacher’s expectations. We never wanted Benjamin — or Jacob in the earlier case — to feel entitled to blame these or any teachers for their own shortcomings. In the future, it’s likely our kids will have other difficult instructors (and bosses, eventually), so our boys need to know how to navigate those murky waters.

Thankfully, my children’s other teachers have been stellar. Our hope is that the new school term will also be led by involved, caring educators who like kids and enjoy what they teach. Most of the time, despite the continuing budget assault on education, we are blessed by instructors who go above and beyond basic lessons to make learning a joyful experience.

So, here’s to all the teachers, even the ones who remind us of how hard it is to be good.

Columns by Family Man, Education, TeensPermalink

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