“he’s very rarely in front of them teaching”

When I started teaching (5 whole years ago), the focus of instructional methodology was on engaging students in the learning process using a variety of tools.  That sentiment has only grown over the years as I’ve attended countless professional development sessions and even led several about the importance of student ownership of learning.

This concept was comforting to me, especially as I learned how to craft assignments and assessments that challenged students’ thought processes.  Eventually I became an expert at using 21st century technology to engage students – SMART Boards, Tablets, CPS remotes, document cameras, and mobile labs.  I have always looked for ways to engage my students using current events, webquests, infographics, and opportunities to create their own products of learning.  This is why I love teaching.

This year has been different.  I found it challenging to complete a lesson with my new students, so I began simplifying my plans – Warm up, 10-15 minutes worth of spoon-fed instruction, student application/practice, and review.  Each element usually revolves around some sort of vocabulary practice or essential question activity.  On a good day, students complete each part of the lesson and are on-task, even asking questions out of curiosity as we go.  On a bad day, which happens more often than not, students are behaviorally challenging, off-task, and unprepared (the 75 pencils I bought last Monday were gone by the end of the day). 

I have sought out much advice about this professional conundrum as I have never been faced with the reality of failure before.  Because my value as an educator will be based on my student’s test scores at the end of the year, I am attempting to intervene in every way possible.  Administrators, colleagues, parents, even other students have all been called upon.  Still, this week seemed to be no different.

During my planning period, I had a very candid conversation with my special education collaboration teacher.  She’s in my classroom every other day to assist with learning-, emotionally-, and behaviorally-disabled students, so she’s been able to observe a great deal.  She has also noticed my frustration.  After sharing a little with her about my teaching background and what a surprise this year has been, she had several things to share.  This one stuck with me:

“The other Civics teacher uses the computers every day.  He has them come in, work on their warm-up, then go straight to the computers to do their assignments.  He’s very rarely in front of them teaching.  It just works so well.”

I sat, stunned.  I waited for clarification, which she gave me:

“That’s what you need to do more of.  Some of your kids ask me why your class can’t be more like his.”

I nodded, feeling more defeated than I have ever felt in my entire life.  Never have I been told to do less, but that’s exactly what I was told today.  Stop engaging them, just put them on a computer. 

I couldn’t help but wonder why I was hired in the first place, if my job can be done by a computer.  And what happens when the online assignments aren’t aligned to the curriculum, as is the case with “the other civics teacher”?  What is our instructional focus – student engagement or technology?  How can we encourage the use of both without negating the other? 

Obviously I recognize the value of computers and online instruction when it’s done right, with the right guidelines and alignment.  It is a struggle for me to see so many opportunities for what I believe is student engagement, only to be told “no, that’s too much.”

While I contemplate these things, I will prepare for the start of our two-day, in-class local government project.  In small groups, students will be creating their own county, city or town.  They will then have the option of presenting it through a filmed commercial, website, online newpaper, or billboard. 

I wonder what “the other teacher’s” class will be doing.