In my first year as a full-time teacher, it’s possible that I’ve learned more than I’ve taught.
In late August, I sat in a departmental meeting in which my colleagues and I were prioritizing our department-wide goals for the year. After a less-than-spirited discussion, the department decided to focus on building text-based analytical skills such as identifying how specific scenes of a novel are indicative of a novel’s theme, or how an author subtly uses intentional rhetoric to convince their audience of an argument. As I sat listening to my colleagues discuss how the curriculum’s text complexities were far beyond their students’ abilities, I tried to remain tight-lipped. I didn’t want to embarrassingly embody the “audacious newbie” trope. However, after listening to endless discussion about what students “couldn’t do”, I blurted out, “It sounds like we need to slow down the curriculum. How can students analyze texts if you’re saying they can’t even begin to comprehend texts?”
This unexpected contribution was immediately met with murmurs of agreement and numerous head nods; apparently I had stated what the majority of my department had silently wished for. Curriculum is too difficult? Students aren’t meeting standards? Slow down! Easy fix. As a department, we agreed to be mindful of finallyslowing down the curriculum throughout the year.
Here’s the thing:
Slowing down the curriculum is an easy fix to a complex problem. Slowing down the curriculum also presents its own set of issues; namely student lethargy and boredom, lost focus of the essential unit-wide goals, and a lack of rigor for high-achieving students.
Pacing is a constant question mark in the teaching profession – the “Goldilocks zone” of pacing still eludes me. However, after a semester of teaching, I’ve learned that slowing down curriculum is a response to my shortcomings as a teacher, and not of my students’ abilities.
In attempting to maintain a challenging-while-responsive pace for my students, I am forced to set high expectations for all of my students, while also planning more intentionally for students who might be initially overwhelmed by a rigorous pace. At the heart of this struggle, in my mind, is an issue of equity. I used to think that academic equity meant planning with the needs of the “lowest” 20% of my students at the forefront of my thinking. I still think this – however, what it really requires is planning with intentionality so that those students become capable, through my thoughtful planning and instruction, to keep up with the challenging pace that the rest of my class can keep up with.
Prior to full-time teaching, I would frequently hear this mantra: “If you set high expectations, students will meet them.” As a student-teacher, I talked the talk. Now, after meandering through a semester of instruction with what I thought were anticipatory instructional moves (but were actually low expectations in terms of pacing and rigor), I am seeking to walk the walk.
This requires more work on my part. It requires meaningful reflection about how I view the capabilities of my students. Strengths my students bring to the learning process include genuine curiosity, an eagerness to apply their learning, and a desire to re-learn content and skills that need to be retaught. It also requires turning that reflection into action in terms of how I research and plan so that each learner in Room 202 has a true shot at meeting accessible, rigorous standards. I don’t yet have the answer to this newly learned dilemma, but I have learned what the answer is not.
Ryan Baker (MAT 2018) is a first year teacher. He teaches 8th Grade English Language Arts (ELA) at Spanaway Middle School and 9th Grade ELA at Spanaway Lake High School.