Walking my talk: Reflections after returning to high-school teaching

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A few weeks ago, I headed back into the classroom to teach 10th graders, after years of conducting research and teaching graduate students. Teaching at a high school is my “rubber meets the road” moment; it is time to “walk my talk.” All my graduate students, co-workers, and trainees, at some point, have heard me state emphatically that education and interventions must be student-centered.

In 2011, I wrote that my purpose, as a researcher, was to promote educational reform– so traditionally underserved students receive an education that honors them as individuals; promotes creativity and critical thinking; assists them in reaching their potential, and does not produce indoctrinated masses. With this as my long-standing mission, how could I resist an opportunity to teach at a small bilingual high-school utilizing discussion-based learning and pronouncing the school is student-centered? Our class sizes are capped at 14! Had my dreams come true?

As I prepared to re-enter the classroom, I paused to reflect on the goals I set as my research and teaching career began. I hoped that my research would directly benefit youth who are often classified as “at-risk” and/or “marginalized” — including but not limited to students with disabilities, students from minority populations, and students living in poverty. I felt it was important not to lose sight of the topics of importance to the communities I wished to serve. I believed then, and still do, that if, I do not stay connected to those I intend to serve, I will become another disconnected academic within the ivory tower. And that with disconnection, there is the potential to cause unintended harm.

The subjective experience of our students is as valid as the knowledge pushed upon them by “experts” and curriculum designers. Knowledge in itself is a loosely construed term and is relative. Unfortunately, many hold tightly to the paradigm of absolute truth. Even what we consider facts in the fields of physics or medicine, have (and may again) be proved entirely invalid.

We cannot absolutely “know.” To enforce our perceptions of truth and mandate which“facts” must be memorized and regurgitated onto a standardized test to determine academic success is indoctrination, not education.

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Over the last few weeks, in Harkness style discussions, I observed as my students wrestled with controversial topics, which had no right or wrong answer. I watched students become so excited they can barely remain in their seats. They begged for whole group discussions and created an entire classroom project to review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are only in week 3.

One of the biggest classroom challenges is me! I have to de-school myself. I wrestle with removing myself from the role of “sage on the stage,” and handing over control to the students. It’s not easy. It’s also scary. I am still aware of the expectation that they meet “academic standards.” I have to continually remind myself that we already know that when students lead and have opportunities to study what is culturally and personally meaningful to them — they will succeed.

I am also learning to be ok with not knowing what will happen in the classroom every day (do we ever really know?). I instead utilize my decades of research and experience to inform my decisions, as situations arise. My background as an improvisational sound artist helps tremendously with this. I know how to ride the waves and go with the flow. In moments of anxiety where thoughts of “what if” pop into my head, I remind myself of this. I also have a great support system of other like-minded teachers and researchers, who I lean on when doubts surface.

I remind myself daily that how each student experiences their education and how they show in the classroom is their journey, not mine. I can only serve as a guide and offer assistance when I think they might be struggling. The student will accept or reject what I offer, depending on what it means for their lives. As a class, we read the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. As a teacher, “Don’t Make Assumptions” seems particularly relevant.

I remain aware that I do not know why students aren’t turning in their assignments, wiggling (or falling asleep) in class, having sidebar conversations, or being otherwise disruptive. With don’t make assumptions as a mantra, I remember to ask my student to help me understand what is going on with them. Frequently, I am surprised at the insightfulness of their responses. After hearing from them, I follow up with, “how can I help?”

This approach helps build relationships with students and helps me remember to meet each student where they are. Positive relationships are critical in a time when youth are experiencing record levels of depression and anxiety. Since students spend such a considerable portion of their lives in school, we (educators) can make a difference in how they experience that portion of their lives.

Additionally, when we meet them where they are and let them lead, opportunities for differentiated instruction and accommodations or modifications needed for disabilities or mental health challenges organically reveal themselves. The best part is that we also learn our students’ strengths and can build on them.

This is where dare I say it… teaching becomes an artform. I’ve heard many disparaging remarks about teachers and arguments that it should be a science, not an art. In my experience, it takes both. Some of the best teachers I know have their way of doing things, and their students excel. I also observed teachers who follow evidence-based teaching plans precisely, but they lack passion for teaching and don’t foster relationships with their students. In this scenario, the students are as disengaged as the teacher.

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The desire by many governments, administrators, and researchers is to prescribe and script schooling and to quantify educational success by what will neatly fit cells on a spreadsheet. I fear this rigidity diminishes the creativity of teachers, administrators, and most importantly, the students. Additionally, we are taught to analyze student data as a conglomerate and not to worry about the “outliers.” I contend that the outliers are frequently the innovators, and exactly what we need most today. We are doing a disservice to everyone by ignoring them and catering schooling to those who fit nicely in the middle of the bell curve.

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Whether or not as researchers or educators, we want to be political, our work is inherently profoundly political. Often what we do, and how and what we teach or study has enormous implications. It can drive policy, create or further assumptions about specific populations (such as low-quality research about minorities and intelligence). As teachers, we impact the lives of future leaders. Therefore, ethics are a critical consideration in teaching, research, data analysis, and dissemination.

Our world today is increasingly complex, we are in uncharted territory, and humanity is facing unprecedented social, political, and environmental challenges. We cannot afford to squash creativity, because it is desperately needed to create solutions to problems never before experienced by humanity (e.g., oceans filled with plastic, climate change, overpopulation).

I do not believe that we can expect significant shifts in the way youth are educated by publishing solely in academic journals and presenting at conferences. I tried that for years. As always, real change in the system will require grassroots movements and active parental and student involvement. A great example of this is when parents demanded education for students with disabilities. Through their efforts; all children with disabilities, in the US, are now guaranteed access to education.

Early in my doctoral program I wrote, “social change does not result from being passive, content, and unwilling to go against the status quo, if my research & teaching do not push people to think in a new way, to consider others perspectives, and to move into action — then I will have failed.”

This article is my call to educators, parents, and students to demand immediate change. We have known for a long time how to educate students best. We know the difference between education and indoctrination. In the US, I was often told that a student-centered education was too expensive and therefore impossible.

As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we can educate every child. We choose not to. Use your voice and to say this is no longer acceptable. Demand change.

One of my favorite school counselors always said, “Let’s not talk about how we have always done things; let’s not talk about what we think we cannot do; let’s talk about what we can do differently to help our student.” I invite you to use this phrase when facing people who are determined to keep things the same, even when it is evident that what they are doing isn’t working!

I know we can do better for our students, and a big part of that requires us to listen to them, and to get out of their way and let them lead!

Written by

Author, Educator, Researcher, Survivor, and Youth & Family Advocate. robinharwick.com

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