Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Monday, January 31, 2011

Confessions of a Childhood Cheater: How we can learn from and model our mistakes for our students

When I was in fourth grade, I cheated. I didn't cheat on my school work -- that, particularly my multiplication tables, I flunked honestly. What I didn't do honestly was talk to my parents about several such unsuccessful math assignments. Instead, I made the informed decision to forge my mother's signature  -- not once but twice.

The first time, I parked myself on the plaid couch of our living room and studied the roundness of her letters: the regal "E" in her "Elizabeth," the wide "z," and the perfectly shaped "h." I easily spent an hour practicing writing her name over and over before finally putting my pen down.

Two days later, my teacher and mother spoke with me about "honesty," "integrity," and "responsibility." After apologizing profusely, I was relegated to the hallway, where I envisioned what consequence would be doled to me and what jail I might end up in for my criminal behavior.

The second time, I thought I had really smartened up. Instead of writing her name myself, I decided to carefully cut out her actual signature from another paper and used a bottle of runny Elmer's glue to stick it to my work above the "Parent's Signature" line. There, I thought. I've really done it now. Ha!

"What exactly were you thinking, Kay?" my exasperated mother asked. "What on earth would propel you to do this AGAIN?!"

"I dunno," I shrugged, and I really did not know.

Were both of my parents placing subtle pressure on me to be perfect and succeed? Not likely. They both had tons of siblings, aging parents, cuddly pets, active friends, health concerns, and full-time jobs to occupy their time and thoughts.

For whatever reason, I was placing this pressure on myself, and had been for a LONG time, ever since I can remember. I am a perfectionist by nature, one who is extremely hard on myself. The story of my cheating returns to me periodically when I look at the 120 beautiful faces of the eighth graders I teach. I see kids who are eager to please, willing to shoulder their ridiculously heavy backpacks brimming with books and hours of homework. While many of my students are hard-working and honest, I cannot help but worry that they, like me, will create their own self-pressure cookers over time.

Last year, I polled my students about their number one fear. Believe it or not, it was not death or even public speaking. It was failure. With the rigorous demands of the Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum, annual local and state assessments, increased numbers of high school courses available, and cut-throat competition to gain admission into select colleges (beginning seemingly at birth!!), kids today experience even more pressure than we endured, even ten to fifteen years ago.

It's no surprise, then, that some students sneak peaks at one another's quizzes, plagiarize portions of their essays from peers' essays and the Internet, and outwardly lie to their parents about how they're doing in their classes. And it's also no surprise that many parents struggle with the distinction between helping their kids understand the work and outwardly doing it for them.

I look at my stressed, high-achieving students and want to tell them, "Relax. It's all going to be OK." But I have found one fool-proof way that adults can help kids relax: by letting them see your mistakes. When I was in fourth grade, my parents seemed perfect to me. I had never seen them fail at anything, and to let them see me fail at anything was unspeakable, especially as their only child.

Luckily, these days, I make a lot of mistakes -- big and small -- and am the first to admit to them. At school, I sometimes have a typo on a handout, hand out the wrong vocabulary or reading quiz, call a student by a wrong name, or decide to switch around my lesson at the last second without the adequate materials to do so. At home, I can become too independent, bossy, and "loose" with my wallet, especially online (ahem ahem Amazon ahem ahem).

"Ooops," I say. "I'm having one of those days, guys. I'm sorry!" And when my students are having tough days, I remind them of my own. If we want honest kids, we need to be honest adults and real role models for them. We have to let them see us both succeed and fail regularly.

It may help to remember our own relationship with our parents. As young children, we loved our parents, whom we thought of as perfect. Now, as adults, most of us love our parents even more, not because they are perfect but because they are imperfect, unpredictable, real, and human, just like us.

Let's all breathe a sigh of relief and pledge to make at least one mistake in front of our kids tomorrow. I know I will!

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