I recently re-connected with a former 6th grade student of mine. It felt like yesterday that she was in my classroom, but the reality is that this week, she’s about to embark on her first student-teaching assignment. She asked me, “Mr. Wiley, what advice do you have for me?”
Where to begin? I could have shared with her the less-than-inspiring advice I got when I started out, like “just stay out of the teacher’s lunch room!” or something equally trite. I could have talked at length about the Common Core Standards, teacher accountability, or the changing landscape of education in this country, but those didn’t feel right, either. Instead, I told her I’d like to think about it and get back to her. If you will indulge me, here is my reply to Kara and all those educators out there equally committed to making a difference in a student’s life.
Let me begin by saying how absolutely thrilled I am that you have chosen such an important and significant career path. What sage advice would I offer you as I reflect on my career as a teacher, staff developer, and school administrator? There are so many things I’d like to share, but many you will need to experience through hard work, long hours, setbacks and breakthroughs—that, my friend, is what makes the journey worthwhile.
First, the job will not be easy. Teachers today are charged with preparing students for an interconnected, global world. Your responsibility to prepare the next generation of citizens to live, work and lead in our society is unequalled. Helping students develop their ability to become better problem solvers, to be collaborative, and to think critically will very much impact their future success.
In my current role , I’m proud to work with teachers and school leaders around the United States who are committed to preparing students for the world beyond the school walls. The term “global” is increasingly being used in education, with varying degrees of understanding and application. What “global” means for a young student can be even more abstract. As the teacher, it is your job to make the abstract real. Hanging flags in the hallways, celebrating different ethnic holidays or hosting the international potluck dinner are not enough. Making your school global involves creating learning experiences, both in and out of the classroom, that require students to engage with the world around them.
How can you help develop global competence in your students? It isn’t always easy, but it also isn’t a mystery. One aspect you would find in every globally focused school is that interdisciplinary project-based learning is the driving form of instruction. Through the development of a rigorous, globally focused curriculum, students are empowered to take an active role in their learning, often while working with their peers.
I offer these four elements to consider when making decisions about learning in your classroom:
Student choice: Too often in schools, students must follow a lock-step approach to their education. They must follow the same schedule, take the same classes and participate in the same types of lessons that students experienced a decade ago. Providing opportunities for student choice within learning is a key move away from this practice. When possible, learning tasks in your classroom should call on students to plan and assess their work over time through reflection. Ask students to make key decisions about the direction of their work, the focus of their inquiry, and how to present the fruits of their learning. By placing students in charge of their education, you promote self-reliance, motivation, and pride. Choice can sometimes be the hook that allows students to explore concepts and topics that interest them, within the context of your learning goals and required curriculum. To support this, the learning task should provide opportunities for you (and others) to deliver formative and summative feedback to the students throughout the learning process.
Authentic context: Make sure the curriculum provides an experience that resembles what adults do in the real world. This requires students to communicate, collaborate, think critically, be creative, negotiate with other people, and use digital media in ways that support knowledge building. Every career and field of study has commonly accepted conventions and forms for producing and sharing information. Teaching students how to identify and use these forms is critical. I can’t remember the last time I was asked to build a diorama or create a collage poster to summarize a research project for my job. Why would this be acceptable for us to expect of high school students?
Global significance: The learning tasks in your classroom should foster the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance. Everything from the economic downturn to environmental stewardship to scientific innovation has the potential to impact all communities. Helping students understand these issues and develop a connection between the local and global, while developing a desire to be part of the solution make the learning relevant and purposeful. When possible, this learning should draw on various disciplines since life is not segmented into discrete class periods and subjects.
Exhibition to an audience: When I hear teachers lament the fact that students are not motivated or that they don’t complete assignments, I wonder sometimes why they think they would. For many students, they don’t see the purpose of the assignment, how it relates to their lives or connects to anyone besides the teacher. Provide your students with opportunities to showcase or present their work to an appropriate audience beyond your classroom. Students need opportunities to discuss their work and receive feedback that helps them improve their scholarship, but also holds them accountable for their decisions and claims.
My colleagues and I lovingly refer to the four elements of instruction above by their acronym, SAGE. When you find explicit ways to embed these elements in your lessons, you will give students a purposeful way to apply 21st century skills, and they will become more engaged in their learning.
I believe you will find great satisfaction in seeing your students learn in meaningful ways. You’ll undoubtedly feel great pressure to prepare your students to meet high standards and perform on state and local assessments. Take faith though, that engaging them in learning of this nature will not only prepare them for a lifetime of tests, but for the tests of life.
As I look back on this letter, I realize there’s another reason not to give you the same “stay out of the faculty lunch room” advice I received before my first teaching experience. In hindsight, it was in the faculty lunchroom with my colleagues that I learned some of my most valuable lessons about teaching, learning and friendship (and still do today).
Welcome to the first day of the rest of your professional life!
Readers, what advice would you offer to new teachers?