Of Elephants & Stink Bugs
I lost them.
It’s Thursday. I’m asking questions about the homework. My students are looking back at me with blank faces. No one is volunteering. I’m starting to feel some frustration. Why isn’t the class cooperating like usual?
Isn’t it awful when that happens?
A few thoughts cross my mind. Perhaps they are confused. Maybe they are unsure of the answer. Perhaps they are too embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. But I did such a good job explaining the concepts on Tuesday! The podcast and supplemental packet have worked well in prior semesters. I don’t want to consider the possibility that I wasn’t clear, or the materials I developed aren’t working for this group of students.
I press on. Thirty minutes into a 75-minute period, a brave young woman raises her hand and declares, “I’m not getting any of this.” A second student adds “I don’t see the connection between the material from last class and last night’s homework.”
I am now forced to accept that my “excellent” explanations, materials and examples have not resonated or lead to understanding for these students. Instead of dealing with their confusion up front, I am now backpedaling.
As I tried to find different ways to explain, to make it clearer, a stinkbug (you can’t make this stuff up) swirls around me, and lands on my back! I have to ask a student to swat it off me. I am grossed out, totally off my game and we still have 30 minutes in the period.
What did I learn?
Check for understanding first. I often ask students to write a 1-minute, muddiest-point reflection. Had I taken that approach I could have addressed the confusion more systematically, instead of on the fly.
Teacher pride inhibits learning. I suspected the class’s confusion. But I didn’t want to go there. It meant facing two inconvenient truths: I wasn’t clear in my explanations and my plans for the class would need to be adjusted. Ego focuses on the teacher’s needs, not students’. In many ways, teacher control and power are the flip side of the pride/ego coin. We’re the experts. If students don’t “get it” it’s convenient to blame them for lack of effort or ability. It’s much harder, scarier and humbling to consider what I could have done differently.
Without rapport, I might still be in denial. I thanked both students for having the guts to speak up. You could feel the atmosphere in the room change as we acknowledged the elephant in the room. If we hadn’t established an environment where students feel safe to share their confusion, I would not have discovered the problem until the exam.
Good teaching isn’t mistake free. Like my students, I don’t like to make mistakes, especially not publicly. But what a teachable moment this was! We learn more from our failures than our successes. That’s true for teachers and students. I was forced to rethink the concepts and materials. I realized this segment would benefit from adding more active learning strategies. I’m now developing new in-class activities. I’m also exploring ways to individualize the content, to increase personal connections with the concepts. Without the hiccup in understanding, it would be business as usual.
I keep telling my students “we’re here to learn.” But talk is cheap. Changing the schedule, going back to clarify understanding, rethinking activities, and developing new assignments suggests “learning centered” and “student centered” aren’t just talking points. By mucking it up a bit, I got to “walk the walk” by showing them teachers learn from mistakes too.
Photo source: http://life-happens.co.uk/feeling-lost-how-to-get-back-home/