The 2022/2023 academic year will be my 20th as an international teacher. As I look back at my time as an educator, I can’t help but be amazed at how much I have changed over that time. The students from those early years would barely recognize me now – both physically and philosophically!
In my first year of teaching, my growth was fueled by fear. I was terrified of losing control of the students – being in a situation where students refused to work, ignored my instructions, and were openly hostile. My response to this anxiety was to develop a highly structured, teacher-led classroom. I was tight with tardies, transitions, and noise.
Students asked to go to the bathroom during class time? My response was “Well, if other teachers let you go to the bathroom, why didn’t you go during their class?”
Students wanted to ask a question? I would walk over to their desk, crouch down next to them closely, and insist we converse in whispers.
Students were tardy? I locked them out of the room until I was ready to invite them in.
Students turned in work late, or failed to turn it in? I would take points off as punishment.
Over the years, my fears subsided, but I still ran a pretty structured ship. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. When the outbreak began, I was working at a private overseas school in Myanmar. Like many schools, we shut our building and moved learning online. Just as the health situation was stabilizing in Myanmar, the country underwent a military coup. The political turmoil forced my school to remain online well beyond our initial expectations. Our students were virtually learning for two full years. And, by the time we moved from Zoom back to the classroom in February of 2022, these kids were in a fragile state. Students refused to speak in class, to me or even to each other. And for some, making eye contact was difficult.
I can’t explain how I knew I had to change my practice. I guess it comes with that teacher’s ability of being able to read a room. Somehow, I just knew that my tough-love act needed to change.
For guidance, I became highly active on Twitter, following leading edge practitioners and researchers, like Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Jennifer Gonzalez, Tyler Rablin, and more. In addition, I got a LOT of help from my spouse, Kristi Leitch (@mzleitch). My spouse is an experienced early years teacher and she provided me with new perspectives and ideas. With the help of my amazing PLN, I slowly improved my game. I built in check-in time – something I had never done before. I replaced my punitive scoring system for late/missing work with one-on-one conversations. I encouraged students to take brain breaks whenever they felt they needed them. I built in more student voice and choice. I began to respond to students, rather than reacting to their behaviors.
I added some new tools to my repertoire, unrelated to my original high-structured system. For instance, I use hand gestures to support student understanding. I speak slowly and deliberately. I am focused on clarity, rather than compliance.
In 2002, I transitioned into teaching after ten years in marketing and advertising. That means I am (too) quickly approaching my 60s, which will age me out of many international teaching opportunities. This really saddens me as I feel like I am still evolving as an educator. I wonder if I will be forced to leave the profession before I become the teacher I dream of being?
Anyhow, happy anniversary to me and to everyone else celebrating a career milestone. Take care and keep moving forward!