Humility and the Teaching Triangle

I have been struggling lately with the direction in which my biology class has been heading: apathy and excuses. It has made me desperate to get them going in “my” direction. It is has become a battle of wills. I want them to study hard, pay attention in class and participate. They want to do just the opposite (typical high school kids). Recently, after entering their mid-term grades, I realized that there has to be a better way. The old way of preaching better habits and hoping they listen does not work. Today I decided to take a different approach.

The class began with us going over their mid-term grades. Needless to say, there were a few unhappy students. Initially, their frustration was directed to me. It seemed to be my fault they were struggling, not their own. Even though I knew they were just placing blame, I started to play that angle. I asked the class what I could have done to help them prepare more for class. They had to be prodded at first but slowly, they started giving suggestions. I listed their input on the board and had a student act as a secretary writing it all down. Their suggestions ranged from a study guide to getting assignments back quicker for review. They even let me add the suggestion that there should be more “small quizzes” and assignments to reinforce what they are reading and discussing in class. Not a bad start…at least they were engaged.

Then I talked about how I could live with those suggestions and in turn asked what each of them could contribute to “meet me in the middle.” I went through the class and had each of them list 2-3 things that they could improve upon to help me in class. The answers were honest and right on. I had set the example and they followed suit. The suggestions ranged from doing their homework on time to stop distracting the class. When we were done, we had a board filled with things that the “team” had to work on to succeed. After the class agreed to uphold the new standards, I told them that I would type the list and email it to everyone so that we could use it as a reference for ourselves and each other. That was that and then I went on with class like normal

Immediately, it started to happen. Students and I started to call each other on what they had said only minutes before. It was sort a living reminder of the agreement they had made. At one point, I was distracted by the actions of one of my more difficult students, so I stopped to see what he was doing. I watched as he stopped taking notes and gestured to another student across the class to take out his notebook and start talking notes. The second student reluctantly opened his book and started taking notes. That was a first for me.

The apathy and excuses became concern and direction. There is partnership in the class. They each had a sense of ownership and they were exercising it.
Colin Foye, 2009