What I’m REALLY Learning at Grad School

I am currently working on my masters in education. Yes, I am learning lots about the latest and greatest in the areas of brain research, collaboration, classroom management, and coaching.

But, there are other lessons I am learning in the role of student – a hidden curriculum – that may have a more profound impact on my teaching practice than what is being taught and assessed. 

Workload Management

Juggling my online courses and my teaching responsibilities (along with my family and social obligations) has been my biggest challenge. I remember complaining to my students about the struggles of managing two classes at once – two different professors, two different sets of expectations, two different kinds of assessment. One of my students laughed, remarking “Mr. D, quit complaining – we juggle eight classes at a time!”

The comment provoked an enlightening discussion about workload in our middle school. I listened, with horror, as the students rhymed off all the responsibilities they shouldered in a given week. I never really paid attention to such talk in the past, assuming it was typical teen whining. This upcoming school year, as a result of my own experiences, I plan to talk to my colleagues to see if we can do things differently. Common planning sessions would be a start. Then, while planning units, we could quickly check with our colleagues to see how each day will look for students. Another solution – created by a student – involved dividing up the academic calendar cycles such that Math can only have homework on day 1, Science on day 2, etc. The schedule could also be divided such that large assessments or activities were also limited to particular days in the cycle.

The bottom line is that as teachers, we need to stop thinking that our class is the only one students have.

Clarity of Instruction

Another unintended lesson I am learning through my grad school experience is how important clarity of instruction is. With a small amount of free time to work with, I need to be able to find clear instructional and assessment information quickly and easily. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. The project outline is over here. A template can be found via this link. The due date is over here. Discussion responses are posted over there. Assignments are submitted through a link here. Emails to the professor don’t always get a reply.

This experience, as personally frustrating as it is, prompted some honest reflection about how I provide information to my students. For instance, I have the date, the day of the cycle, and our objective posted on the front board. But, do all students know that? Do I refer to it regularly? Do I update it as needed? As for assignments, am I clear about expectations? Is the due date posted somewhere obvious? Do I have a student-friendly rubric available somewhere intuitive? Do I go over that rubric with my students? Am I modelling behaviors to clarify expectations? Another concern is the number of communication tools we use to share information with students: verbally, whiteboard, paper handouts, Google Docs, Moodle, and even presentations. We need to ensure all our sources are consistent and that key information (such as due dates) is available across multiple sources so that students don’t have to search across various platforms for it.

Clarity of Purpose

One element of the hidden curriculum I am experiencing through my masters program concerns the purpose of instruction. Why are we doing this? I enrolled in a masters program because I want to be a better educator. I did not sign up to master citing sources in APA style. I also enrolled in the program to develop a professional learning community with which I can share best practices, now and in the future. However, the mandatory weekly discussion-posting process employed by my institution has so many built in restrictions that authentic interaction is stifled. In other words, my objectives (like those of our students) lie beyond what it happening in my virtual post-grad classroom. We want to be successful at life, not just successful at school.

I plan to include more student voice in my classroom this upcoming year. But, through my masters program experience, I will try to balance rigorous expectations for these discussions with opportunities for students to simply share ideas with each other.

Empathy

This summer we had a death in the family. To say the least, my summer plans changed significantly. I contacted my professors to let them know that, as a result of the tragedy (grieving, travel and other logistical fallout) I might require some flexibility in terms of deadlines. I managed to complete all my discussion posts and assignments. Unfortunately, one assignment for one of my classes was submitted two days late. That professor’s response? I received an F for the course.

This experience caused me to reflect upon how I respond to late/missing work from my students.

To be completely accurate, I didn’t reflect right away. First I spent a LOT of time fuming, writing furious emails, and submitting petitions. Then I took the time to reflect.

In the grand scheme of things, the F is a tiny blip inflicted on me by a petty and indifferent professor. But, the anger and frustration I felt was real. I hated the situation I found myself in. I started to think about the students in my class who, because of circumstances that I failed to consider, also had to deal with harsh academic consequences. Many of my students have a full day of classes, followed by hours of homework, capped off with hours of extracurricular activities, such as soccer, golf, tennis, or community service work. One particular student of mine, for instance, has golf practice four days a week. Two girls in my Advisory group founded a charitable group to look after the stray cats that live in our school grounds. This year I plan to be a lot more flexible when it comes to submitting work. Google Docs will be helpful here as the document history function will allow me to ensure work is taking place, even when deadlines are renegotiated. 

The bottom line is our students are, first and foremost, human beings. They have lots of other things going on in their lives beyond school and some of those things are far more important than our lectures and quizzes.

My grad school experience hasn’t been a total bust. I am discovering new classroom management strategies and exploring current brain research findings. I am re-examining the work of Grant Wiggins and Robert Marzano, and being introduced to Charlotte Danielson, Dr. Patricia Wolfe, and Carol Ann Tomlinson.

But, beneath the surface and between the lines, there are lots of other things I am learning about learning. And some of those lessons will stick with me for a while!

Ed X!

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