Before this school year began, I questioned the never-ending litany of “education reforms” thrust upon schools, and I offered my own “three-step recipe for education reform in the high school English class.”
In sum, successful learning takes place in schools that: 1) encourage teachers and administrators to collaborate; 2) offer kids time to read books of their own choosing; and 3) employ teachers who make connections with and create a supportive environment for their students.
Not exactly rocket science, but that’s the point: Education is not the exact science that many of the top-down education reformers make it out to be. It requires more than formulaic strategies and standardized testing. Hence, my three-step recipe.
So how did I do? That’s a question I ask at the end of every school year because, unlike many other vocations, teaching is cyclical — it offers the opportunity to start fresh, work toward a definitive end, and reflect. Every year.
If I were to grade myself this year, I’d give me a “B.” Or a “meets standard.” Or simply, “Not bad but you still have work to do.”
Here are the details:
1. I indeed spent productive time this year collaborating with my colleagues in the English Department.
I am fortunate that my school offers teachers of the same discipline time to meet almost every school day. During that time, teachers with similar classes discuss objectives, write common assessments, and generally plan for the year.
The strength of this collaborative process is that it achieves a balance that most top-down education reforms do not. That is, while my fellow English teachers and I offer feedback and suggestions, we still understand that the individual styles and passions we each bring to the classroom should be embellished — not inhibited — by collaboration. Thankfully, I work in a school district that still encourages this philosophy.
2. My students, almost to a person, expressed appreciation for the time they were given to read in my class.
“I don’t read on my own,” wrote one 10th grader on a year-end survey. “But I will read in school, and it has made me a better reader. I can understand [what I read] and I read faster.”
“I like it,” wrote another student. “Without it, I would not have the care to pick up a single book.”
On average, each student read five books of their own choosing this year, thanks to the class time allotted to independent reading.
But what about lost instructional time? Trust me; it took this old codger some getting used to, but I’m a believer. Kids who read are better learners in the long run. I’ll take my chances with that positive result.
3. I might be a codger, but I still connect with my students.
I’ve always said two qualities are required for successful high school teachers: a passion for your subject and a penchant for working with teenagers. Hopefully, the op-eds that appear in this space are an indication of my passion for literature, writing, and all things media.
As for my “connection” to teenagers, I still enjoy coming to work every day and conversing with kids, bantering, and yes, acting juvenile myself at times. It’s an intuitive thing — the high level of comfort or “fit” I feel while working in a high school has never waned.
In addition, my individual interactions with students — whether in the classroom, on the football field, or with students needing extra help or attention — are still overwhelmingly positive.
It all comes down to that gut feeling: There’s nothing I’d rather do than teach high school English.
All in all, a good school year. But not without its challenges.
I’m still trying to find the time to meet the ever-growing requirements, including gathering and analyzing student data mandated by Connecticut’s cumbersome teacher evaluation process. Also, despite my success with independent reading, motivating students to read long-form text in the digital age remains an uphill battle.
Nevertheless, it was a good year. My students learned most of what they should have learned, and I continue to learn what I need to learn to be an effective teacher — all accomplished within the confines of a taxpayer-supported, non-charter, traditional public high school.
I think I’ll come back to teach again next year.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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