Teachers need to take the time to see school - and themselves - through the eyes of their students. A while back, an important piece appeared in the Washington Post written from the perspective of a teacher who spent two days living the life of a high school student - attending all the required classes and following the imposed rules. She was shocked by what she learned.
Often teachers are inundated with daily pressures - new Ministry initiatives, expansive curriculum, demanding parents, a vast array of students with all sorts of needs - the list goes on. And frequently, in the face of these stressors, teachers forget that first and foremost are the needs of the students. Here are a few things to keep in mind, when seeing school through the eyes of those school was created for in the first place.
Kids need to move! They need to play and tumble and spin. There is a reason kids need to be upside down from time to time. The younger the student, the more movement needed. The Ontario Ministry of Education has tried to address the research supporting this by implementing “Daily Physical Activity” - twenty minutes of movement based activity during the school day, required on days when a student does not have physical education class. This is a start, but it's not enough. Kids need to move often throughout the day and need to change their activity frequently. Teachers, think of how gross and exhausted you feel if you sit still for hours on end - please don’t require this of your students.
Each student is unique and what has worked with one may not work for another. Some students are quiet and struggle to speak up in a group setting. Some students are dealing with struggles at home and cannot focus on learning. Some kids seem the most confident and well-spoken, but are hiding something they feel ashamed of. Some students are bullies. Some kids are hungry. Some kids are shy. Many students are bullied. Some kids love reading and some kids hate it. Some kids can concentrate better if they are allowed to doodle or play with a stress ball while they listen. There is room for every child in our classes and every kid deserves your best attempt at engaging them on their level.
Very few people learn best just by sitting and listening - which remains the most popular teaching method. Yes, of course there is a place for this kind of teaching and we can guide our older students in effective ways to attend to a lecture and get information from it, but seriously - how many times do you zone out during that staff meeting - and you have had years of practicing this skill. Kids need to write and draw and think and play in order to learn. They need to engage all their senses and experience all kinds of activities that will help them grow. We need to expect less listening and more doing from our students.
There is a place for some homework and studying to teach students about deadlines and responsibility - but homework just for the sake of homework doesn’t show any improvement in learning and skill development. Long and tedious homework assignments often leave both students and parents frustrated and lead to kids developing a dislike for school. And really, isn’t it the goal of school to try and keep the love of learning alive in our students. Homework needs to be useful and appropriate. Before grade seven, homework should focus on short, engaging literacy and numeracy activities that help families be a part of student learning and that respect all the other things families need to accomplish in an evening.
As a teacher, this one is tough for me to remember. Teachers are ALWAYS directing the kids - sit still, line up, be quiet, watch me, try this, and so on and so on. I’m sure many parents are guilty of this too (myself included). But sometimes, we all just need to back off and let kids find their way. Every once in awhile, I try to tally the number of directions I give students in a day and I always lose count before lunch. I’m not saying that adults should not guide, coach and direct kids, but seriously, how will they ever figure things out for themselves if we don’t silence ourselves occasionally and give them room to think. Oh, and teachers, this also means when you ask a student a question, give them lots of time to answer - even if you have to sit with that uncomfortable silence for a minute or two. I think we are quick to jump in and “rescue” a kids who really just need a minute to put their thoughts together.
For teachers, parents and any adults that deal with kids, really the key is remembering that kids are people too - so try seeing the world from their energetic, playful perspective once in a while. Students of all ages need to feel valued, respected and need some enjoyment in their learning experiences. I know we have a lot of curriculum to get through and I know sometimes we just need the rowdy mob to sit still and listen. I also know that so many teachers are doing their best day in and day out. I’m not critiquing your efforts. Just asking you to consider the life of a student while you do your job. I think kids are born with an innate curiosity and a desire to learn. Let’s make sure school continues to fan those flames, rather than snuff the candle out.
Many school boards have a policy against homework over the holidays or on any days of significance, yet, despite this, many teachers do indeed assign traditional, tiresome assignments that kids must scramble to complete the day before school reunites. And every year, I have several parents who request work for the break, perhaps envisioning endless bored-kid hours to fill. This year has been more stressful than most and your kids (and you!) deserve a break.
Here’s my advice for the perfect holiday homework:
Throw out any actual homework assigned for the school that seems the least bit tedious or stress-producing. Cite the school board’s policy or send a note for the first day back, explaining that you were all taking a break and homework will be looked at again in the New Year. The holidays are a time for students to rest and recharge. Let that happen without twenty math problems and an incomplete social studies report hanging over their head.
Bake something together! Given the chance, most kids love to help in the kitchen (although maybe not so much with the clean up). Let your child research an inspiring recipe or introduce them to a family favourite. Have the kids write an ingredient list and help you shop. Children will love spending time with you and will be proud of what they create in the end. There is a ton of learning that goes along with baking - math, literacy, life skills, planning and time management - not to mention a delicious treat to enjoy together for days to come.
Teach your kids about your traditions. I don’t mean the historical significance of Christmas or Chanukah customs from ancient times - although if those stories are important to you, then by all means, include them. What I’m talking about is help your kids connect with their family history. Tell them the story of how Grandma made the angel on top of the tree, or how you celebrated as a child. Let them know about the time Uncle Mike drank too much eggnog and knocked over the tree (when it seems age-appropriate, of course). Relate the tale of their first Christmas and flip through old pictures. Sharing your family history and the stories that mean the most to you, help kids feel connected and rooted.
Play together. Play board games, play card games, play in the snow. Sure, your kids will gain mathematical and problem-solving skills, but more importantly, you all just may have some great fun together. Family fun leads to more confident kids, which boosts success in school.
Let your kids enjoy some quiet time on their own. The holidays are a time to take a break. Give your kids a chance to relax on their own - reading books, building elaborate Minecraft worlds, sketching their dream house, sleeping in - however they like to pass their time. We all need to learn to enjoy our own company and revel in the downtime. Give your kids time and space to find and pursue their own passions.
Holidays should not equal homework; they should be a well-deserved, much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The best homework for your kids this season involves spending time together, having fun, eating delicious food and sharing a laugh. Your A+ holiday homework is simply to let go of the stress and the over-scheduling and to relax together with those you love most.
I spend my days surrounded by twenty-five energetic little creatures, from three to five years-old. And, in case it has slipped your notice, December has arrived and snow has begun falling. That means much of my group is alight with Christmas spirit. There's a lot of chatter about Christmas trees, anticipated gifts, and of course, Santa.
Yesterday a sweet little face looked at me with trust and asked, “Mrs. Chawla, is Santa real?” So what’s my role here? Do I break their hearts and shatter their wishes in the interest of open and honest discourse? How do I balance the needs of my diverse classroom, comprised of kids from a variety of religions, cultures and traditions? How do I answer without contradicting what families have told their children?
Over the past few years, I have read the posts and social media comments from questioning parents, wondering if they should perpetuate the Santa lie. My personal stance, in my household, is ABSOLUTELY! I believe in having an honest relationship with my children and in answering their questions truthfully, but I also believe in giving them a childhood full of magic, creativity, and wonder.
I grew up believing in Santa and at some stage (I think far later than most), I finally had to admit to myself that he was just a story - but that realization didn’t shatter me, or cause a rift of mistrust between me and my parents. Even well into high school, my mom and dad would sneakily fill our stockings, never admitting that it was an inside job - and we all happily went along with the ruse. It was just good fun.
I think children have a way of intermingling reality and fantasy in a way that makes sense to them and in a way that fosters imagination and joy in their lives. For example, my daughter is currently a big fan of Elmo and his friends. We recently took her to the Sesame Street Live show, and she was in complete awe. She screamed like a teen fan at a One Direction (insert current popular boy band here) concert when Elmo was revealed, and proceeded to dance her toddler self up and down the aisle for the duration of the show. Now have I sat down and patiently explained that Elmo isn’t real and that it was just an actor in costume? No way! Sure, letting her believe in a muppet may be a lie in the strictest sense, but for me, the pure joy and wonder far outweighs the need for reality here.
And the same goes for good old Santa Claus. In my family, we choose not to stress the idea that St. Nick is watching you always and judging your behaviour (I find that part of the tradition rather creepy), but we talk about his visit, read stories about him and never forget to leave carrots for Ruldolph on Christmas Eve. In my family, I say long live the jolly fellow in the red suit! Let him fill our stockings and fill my children’s eyes with wonder for years to come.
So back to the classroom, with that sea of eager faces awaiting my response to the “Is Santa real?” question. I feel its my duty as a teacher to honour my students beliefs and their family traditions - whatever those traditions are. I replied that many, many people believe in Santa Claus and we went on to talk about some of the stories about Santa. We also talked about the fact that there are many who do not believe in Santa. I told the kids it is up to them to decide what they believe and that not everything in our world has a right and wrong answer. We discussed how sometimes people have to look at all the information and make a decision for themselves.
I say, when it comes to sharing such stories with your children , take what works for you and your family and celebrate that. Trust your instincts on this. For me, I believe in the spirit of Christmas, in the delight that comes from giving, in the comfort of time spent with family and in the many wonderful traditions that surround this time of year. If a student asks me for my viewpoint on this debate, I will have no problem saying with conviction, "I believe in Santa!"
Erin Chawla is a teacher and blogs for YummyMummyClub at The Kiducation Learning Curve.