I have this recurring dream that I am teaching a class, composed of adults and adolescents, which is spread out over three rooms. Try as I might to build community through ice breaking activities, it is physically impossible to reach all the students at one time.
I am reminded of how it feels to teach grade 12 English at Summer School – twenty-two days in which to cover a semester’s worth of curriculum in a classroom populated by adult learners, or kids who have failed their regular class, or students wanting to get ahead – a nightmare worthy of repetitive dream processing.
The dream is actually a good analogy for the challenges facing teachers today. While courses are divided into academic, applied, and essential (in some instances) we are expected to gear each lesson to different learning styles. Recently, there has been talk of de-streaming again: lumping all students together regardless of aptitude.
My first teaching assignment was a grade 7/8 split class. While it was permissible to combine some lessons, math definitely needed to be taught separately. So my job was to figure out how to keep the 8’s occupied while I was teaching the 7’s and vice versa. At the same time, I had to be able to switch at the sign of a hand from one grade level to another in order to answer questions. That may sound easy enough, except that I am a language and literature major – math having been abandoned after high school.
Are you beginning to sense the dilemma here?
How does a teacher respond to the many different needs of her students, breaking down the walls of differences, so that everyone is included and thriving? I don’t think I can honestly ever say that it worked to my satisfaction. Bent on reaching each student, and ensuring success for all, I always felt like I was falling short. Obviously, I was effective enough to be continually employed, but that is not my point. I really feel, as I do in the dream, that I am not getting through to everyone.
So, what are the three rooms as depicted in my dream? In the dream, I am teaching English, and the exercise I am attempting to do, is one which allows the students to experience for themselves how easily we change the meaning of a sentence by altering a word. It doesn’t work, naturally, because of the walls separating the individual rooms: a) not everyone can hear what is going on; b) not everyone can see the board from where they are; and c) I cannot monitor student reaction. (All normal classrooms concern, by the way, even when we are in the same room.)
Most of my teaching career has centered around working with students with learning disabilities, which ironically enough, I now struggle with myself, as this illness affects my cognitive functioning. How that manifests itself for me, is that I am not able to multi-task effectively. For example, I cannot possibly conger the concentration needed to write this blog if there are distractions around me – no matter how innocent they might be. I need to be in a separate room, where it is quiet. (One room defined.) This is true for many students, especially those with ADHD.
I am also not able to process information in a timely fashion, which means that if someone throws me an idea or question for which I have no immediate context, then I need time to think it through. I might get stuck on their tone of voice, or something I was thinking about (unrelated) before they presented their information, or even a word that my brain feels compelled to play with. Time to process, could be a separate room.
Thirdly, I have difficulty accessing stored information and articulating responses: it comes out haltingly, or as unfinished words or sentences, like a car sputtering or backfiring. Well-meaning others often jump in with suggestions to help me along, but that only frustrates me further. Patience is needed to enable me to express myself. I am not stupid as my speech might sometimes suggest, I just have to work harder than others to express myself. I need space to think through what I want to say and then formulate what and how I want to respond.
None of these rooms actually exist in a normal class, thus the need for them becomes walls. A typical classroom is noisy, fast-paced, and demanding.
Imagine how that must feel as a child with a learning disability, not to mention what it does to their self-esteem when others laugh at their inability to stay on task, or grasp new concepts immediately, or fail to respond to questions coherently.
I am not currently not working in an instructive role, but I think about my students often, and obviously still cannot shake how deeply I believe we are failing many of them.
I don’t have answers at the moment, but as Dr. Phil says, we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. I am willing to acknowledge the inefficiencies, and start to ask the right questions.
Is it just me, or is anyone feeling the same way?