Lessons Learned in the Classroom & The Value of Teachers

I have spent the past two months teaching workshops in schools throughout the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. This opportunity came about through Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio (YANEO). YANEO enriches the lives of children and promotes creative learning by uniting arts and education. I am one of many teaching artists on their roster who is called upon to enhance student learning through the arts.

For this particular project, I offered a Poetry Through Theater workshop, introducing students to the tools of the actor and giving them the chance to use those tools in the dramatization of a poem. In the span of two months, I visited fifteen different schools in the district where I presented over forty-five workshops, up to four per day. The workshop was primarily designed for 3rd grade students, however, I also visited 1st, 2nd and 4th grade classrooms.

This opportunity gave me the chance to really hone my classroom management skills. One of the things I learned right away was the importance of setting up clear expectations and giving very clear directions if I wanted the students to be successful in the tasks I was assigning them. The workshop itself also developed over time as I saw that what I had initially planned for the students to accomplish left us all feeling rushed. Thus, I scaled back and focused on giving the students a positive experience in the art form that they could later replicate on their own rather than having a polished performance to present by the end of our fifty minutes together.

Students in a second grade classroom expressing emotion with their bodies and faces.

Throughout my experience, I visited all types of classrooms. I wish I could say that every experience was pleasant, but that was not the case. There were classes where behavior was a huge issue, and as I struggled to get control of the classroom and present my material, I found myself thinking, “Why am I doing this?” It was in these moments that I had to remind myself that while I wanted to be able to reach every student, in some cases this would not be possible (especially in only fifty minutes!), and if I could reach even one student that would be a victory.

In these difficult situations, I noticed my tendency to focus on the bad behavior and allow it to drain my energy, rather than feeding on the enthusiasm of the students who were eager to learn and drawing strength from that. I couldn’t help but think what a natural human tendency this is. We can hear twenty positive comments and three bad ones, and the bad comments will always be the ones that stick in our heads. Teachers must struggle with this each day, searching for ways to reach the students with behavior problems without neglecting their other student’s needs. This is no simple task.

Over the last two months, I have gained an enormous amount of respect for teachers and the many hats they must wear. Some of the stuff that they have to put up with is ridiculous! (I saw my fair share of temper-tantrums, insubordination and the like.) It’s not just teaching. They also have to be behavior specialists dealing with a number of different problems, many of which may stem from things at home that aren’t being addressed. Kids are also very emotional. If you don’t call on them for one question, they can instantly “check out” because you didn’t give them attention, even though you called on them for the previous question. (This happened to me on more than a couple of occasions as I tried to get as many people involved as possible!)

Dealing with thirty children with so many ever-changing emotions is not easy. Of course then you’ve got children coming to school hungry and going through more at home than some of us can even imagine. At times, teachers may be the only ones that show a child the kindness and love that he or she so desperately needs. In that regard they are almost playing the role of a parent.

On top of all that of course is the actual teaching, the lesson planning, the grading, ensuring that the Common Core Standards are met and that students are prepared for the state-mandated assessment tests. As if all that weren’t enough, teachers are expected to communicate with the parents of their students and keep them apprised of each student’s progress. It is a huge job, and one that is greatly important because no one spends more time with our children than their teachers.

Teachers are truly are shaping the future. And when you are in the classroom of an extremely competent teacher who is able to juggle all of the above, you can really feel the difference. I know I did.

I am grateful for what I learned in those classrooms in the company of such skilled professionals. These teachers exhibited an excellence that commanded the respect of their students while communicating the compassion and care they felt for each one. In my book, a great teacher is worth more than gold.

Another lesson I learned?  Thank you notes, hand-drawn art and Scooby Doo stickers are great motivation, even for adults.

Gifts from some of my students, including a post-it note thank you, a Scooby Doo sticker and a mermaid drawing. Priceless!

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