When I was younger I was a good student. A great student even. I used to study hard. I used to apply myself. And I used to like it. But one day all of that changed. And, believe it or not, I can remember the exact moment it happened.
I was in Grade One. Please, hold your eye rolling until I explain. I know that it’s a young age to be able to pinpoint something as big as turning bad on something that happened at that time in my life. But it’s true.
I was in Grade One. All of my classmates were seated in front of me. I was at the front of the class, finishing up a presentation I had just made on vampires.
Here’s the thing: the presentation was my own idea. No one else in the class needed to do it. It was something I asked my teacher if I could do. And it was something my mother took me to the library to do research on. I had a huge Bristol board filled with pictures of vampires and facts about them.
From what I had been able to tell, my classmates enjoyed it. They all paid attention, listening to me talk. Some asked questions. Some added things they new about vampires or other mystical creatures.
And at the end of my presentation, there was applause.
Straight after, it occurred to me to do it again. I thought I could do a presentation on wolves. I could write about their habitat, their diet, their life in a pack. It was nothing that I knew anything about, but the idea came to me and I was excited to do the research and present it again.
I proposed the idea to my teacher. And in the second it took for her to respond, my life changed.
I should explain first that my first grade teacher was wonderful. She was by far my favourite teacher ever. I had her in Grade Four also, and that just reaffirmed my beliefs. But the truth was that her response, unintentional as it may have been, was what turned me bad.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. That was her first response. Her second was that we could talk about it.
I know now that she had nothing against me doing a presentation. I’m sure the only thing going through her mind was that there was a curriculum that she needed to follow, and it didn’t allow for her students doing random 15 minute presentations about something that had nothing to do with what we were supposed to be learning.
Yet her first response, that exasperation, had been enough. And I never gave that presentation on wolves.
More than that, I gave up trying to do things beyond what I was supposed to. And why shouldn’t I have? It wasn’t going to be appreciated. At that young age, I knew all that was important was finishing homework and doing well on tests. And, I’m not bragging here but simply pointing out the truth, I could do both of those things without even trying. That also meant I didn’t need to pay attention in class. I didn’t need to try. All I had to do was finish what was required of me.
And that was how I turned bad, disrupting the class almost every minute of the day from there on after.
It’s hard for me to believe that 25 years after that time, I ended up being a teacher. It was nothing I had ever planned on. At the time, it was simply a way to be able to live abroad. But the more I taught, the more I thought about that day my teacher had sighed and rolled her eyes.
It was that image that made me realize that the curriculum was never as important as allowing my students to express themselves openly and creatively. Finishing a text book never took precedence over a child wanting to sing a song in front of the class or read a short story they had written over the weekend. I had my students show their class dance routines they had learned, puzzles they had solved, pictures they had drawn. Ultimately, it was the students’ true selves I wanted in my class, not a bunch of kids who were made to learn pieces of information dictated by people who had never met any of them before.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of teaching the children information they need to succeed in the next grade and in life later on. I did get to the text books. And I did administer tests and issue homework. But the point of my class wasn’t the text books and the homework. It was about teaching young kids how to be people, and there was no way I was going to be able to do that by focusing solely on the pages I was supposed to assign to them.
I’m sure there are several people who will disagree with my stance. All of the administrators who push following the curriculum to the letter will be one. But, in the end, I don’t care about those people. I care about the kids. I care about them learning to feel comfortable with who they are. I care about giving them the building blocks to learn things on their own. I care about encouraging them to want to try their best instead of forcing them. And years later to have them come up to me, send me videos, and have them tell me they miss me tells me that the approach I took was the right one.
So, in the end, care about your students more than the pages in a text book and, believe me, the rest will follow.