5 Things I've Learned From 10 Years In The Classroom

I've been teaching over ten years now in one way, shape, or form.  I've taught marines how to survive in water combat situations.  I've spent a ton of time teaching my little brother Jonathan  (who has autism).  I've taught kids with "severe and profound" disabilities including cerebral palsy, autism, intellectually disabled-moderate and mild, fragile-X syndrome plus many more.  I've taught teenagers with severe emotional and behavior disorders who have been abused and who have abused others.  I've taught middle school language arts and middle school social studies. I've taught as an adjunct professor at the university level.  I currently teach photographers and help them with their businesses. .  

As a teacher it's been hard over the years as you can imagine.  I was immersed in chaos, defiance and frustration when trying to teach my students.  I honestly didn't know what I was doing for a long time and had to "fake" it. It's taken perseverance, discipline and some deep reflection to get to the point where I actually enjoy teaching.  I'm happy to say that I'm getting there though.  I'm also extremely happy to say that I am actually "teaching" too.

Here are five things that I've learned and have brought to my photography education through all of this:

1. Divergence

Divergence is made up of these four main areas and I try to practice them in all areas of my life including my classroom.

Deferring judgment: During critiques, grading, peer reviews or simple sharing activities I challenge my students to use language like "I notice", "I see that" or say "I wonder" rather than "I like", "I don't like", "it's good" or "it's bad".  This type of language leads to negative and emotional responses that make students (and teachers) judge themselves.   

Being open-minded and considering every possible idea:  During goal brainstorming I encourage students to put ALL ideas up on our "goals sheet".  Some students are hesitant but over time they loosen up and stop judging their own ideas.

Encouraging different perspectives: Building a culture of diversity and difference is so important.  This all happens during my questioning sequences.  

Building off of the ideas of others:  Daily I have students share with others what they are doing.  This allows them to notice other's reactions to their work and motivates them to think about them in a critical way throughout the process.


2.  Students Lead

In my photography education...students lead most of the big decisions like how they're assessed,  what the project is on,  how they go through processes, discussions and much more.

One example is students spend multiple days exploring, discussing, twisting and considering ideas before goals are made for every project. They make their own goals and those goals eventually turn into their rubric.  This takes away any "gray" areas and mystery during the actual "evaluation" of the project because they actually came up with the objectives.  They take ownership of the goals.  When a questions arises about how they're being graded I point to the big poster on the wall where they wrote down the goals.  I make them do 90% of this because students tend to get frustrated with the "wishy-washieness" of the modern day teacher regarding grading, expectations and if they're going to get in "trouble".  

BTW. They were only able to come up with their own goals after a ton of questions were asked: what makes a good..., how is this most effective..., what type of person would respond to ..., how does the public see a ..., what would happen if our world didn't have, what are the alternatives, if I was ___ what would..., etc...


3. Freedom To Fail

Generally, students (especially teenagers...I said generally) are brainwashed.  They are so afraid that they are going to get in trouble or get a bad grade or their parents will get mad at them or they'll get sent to the principal's office or whatever.

I aggressively work from to "re-brainwash" them into understanding that they are in charge of their choices and they get to choose in my classroom.   

I do this in many ways.  When it comes to grading I have students grade themselves and a peer before I ever consider grading them (using the goals they created ⬆️). This forces them to reflect on their own work and their peer's.  I give them each 12.5% of their own grade and mine is worth 75%.  I justify mine being worth more because of my years of experience in the field (like getting paid or evaluated by a boss in the real world).

When I see the fear in their eyes about doing it right I help them think about the outcomes of their decisions and I help them and reassure them that failing is part of learning.  I continually communicate to them that failing is an important part of learning in my classroom.  There are some students that get this quickly and some that don't.  The important thing is that the culture of my classroom revolves around the "freedom to fail".  If students ever feel rejected then we talk about that and what happened.

Some questions I ask my students to help with this are: what are you actually being graded on?...If you respond in a way that others don't agree with what's the worst that could happen?...why do you think that is?


4. Go With The Flow

I used to try and control how my students learned.  The process they went through.  The activities they did.  I used to judge their natural responses to my teaching strategies in an unhealthy way.  This was because I wasn't "going with the flow".

I now plan on acting spontaneous and intuitive when teaching.  I know that I've always been a thoughtful, creative teacher but it didn't show until I accepted that problems, unexpected events and uncommon situations WILL arise on the daily. 

I've started experimenting with things like "wait time", the vocabulary I use, body language and tone of voice during my teaching to help with this.  

You can't learn this one except by doing it though.  This is also just letting go of things you can't control and using those uncontrollable events to your advantage as a teacher.


5. Do Less

The only way I can do any of the previous four is because I do less.  This means I assigned less work, spend less (and almost no) time on tests and quizzed think more about each project.

Some benefits of doing less for me has been that I've observed students going deeper in their work and the students who used to "slip through the cracks" are much more easily identified because I'm able to go through the process with them and observe, experience and facilitate the environment according to what they need not what I need from them.  I am basically able to actually think on a deeper level about each individual aspect of my classroom.  

More importantly,  when I do less I'm happier and when I go home to my family I don't feel like I've just been run through a gauntlet.   


This is my opinion and I challenge you to create your "way" to be happier and more effective.  I feel like whether you're a teacher, artist, business person or manager then one or more of these ideals could be shaped to help you enjoy your job more and make you more effective.