“Teacha, can I bathroom?’” “Mr. Holland, wouldn’t this question be easier if we just use calculus?” I have not – to the best of my knowledge, anyway – taught students with learning disabilities, but I do have to accommodate a wide range of English language skills and mathematical aptitude. The school I work for, Young Hoon International Middle School, is home to students of socio-economic backgrounds ranging from North Korean refugees to the heir to the Samsung throne. I believe that it is essential to provide a learner-centered environment. In my classes, I consider participation to be of the highest importance and give students as many incentives to be vocal in class as I can dream up. As is the case in any class, some students jump at the opportunity to speak their minds, while others require some prodding and encouragement. I recently did a research project on the inclusion of extroverts and introverts, the latter of whom tend to be overlooked these days. What I learned during the course of this study tempered my insistence that students be outspoken in large groups. Accordingly, I have made more of an effort to give students multiple avenues through which to demonstrate the extent to which they have internalized the content we study. A Think-Pair-Share approach is also useful in that students are given time to generate ideas independently and then share them with others.
I also continually seek to incorporate more hands-on learning into my classes to give them some real-world skills through which they may apply what they have learned in their classes to real-world situations. I recently showed students how to use Microsoft Excel to apply formulas they had learned and to generate graphs to illustrate the variation of one variable with respect to another. The students gasped audibly when they saw how easy it was to generate graphs illustrating the pressure variation experienced by a scuba diver throughout his journey. This is just one of the many ways I have tried to integrate enabling technologies into my lessons.
I believe that math and science teachers need to show students why the material matters and my engineering background allows me to make clear connections between my classroom and the real world. Choosing examples that interest students is one way to make material relevant to the students. Another is make students themselves the subjects of word problems, which is one of my favorite ways to engage students and keep them entertained, whether it’s a question about the trajectory of a student defenestrated by Mr. Holland for failing to complete his math homework or the probability of a win in a student-teacher basketball game given a set of amusing and laughably inaccurate set of statistics. What makes me feel greatest as a teacher is to have an entire class engaged in a lesson – and having fun – forgetting that they are actually learning something.
Another important aspect of classroom management is to make sure students understand the rationale for everything we do. This can be demonstrated during ‘think alouds,’ and stressed and elicited during ‘guided practice’ and ‘independent practice.’ I hate to think of my students mindlessly following procedures, and I praise them highly when they question the methods we use.
I do my best to engage every student individually. In doing so, I must consider individual strengths and weaknesses. So, as we solve word problems together in class, I elicit the simplest steps from the students with the weakest English or math abilities, while reserving the more difficult steps for the more advanced students. It is important to balance the individual involvement between within their comfort zone and in areas that they find especially challenging. In one of the nicest letters I’ve gotten from a former student, Yewon, told me how this approach made her feel: “You were able to pull out the best interest and ambitious participation of every student, especially me. I remember how anticipated I was in raising my hand no matter how wrong I may be. It had made me unafraid of asking questions and displaying my views.” Though I can’t claim that my methods have been universally successful, it’s nice to know that they have been in some cases.
I believe that bettering oneself as a teacher doesn’t happen in isolation. We must share ideas with our colleagues. By observing others, feeding off of one another’s ideas, planning our cooperative approaches, and reflecting on the execution of our plans, we can overcome our weaknesses and solidify our strengths by imparting our knowledge to others.
While brainstorming some ideas for my essay for my application to graduate school, I consulted with some colleagues, asking them how they would describe my teaching philosophy. One point that really made me think was that I “expect excellence from my students.” At first, I thought about the negative implications that could have. I mean, how can a teacher expect everyone to excel? In the end, I agreed. I do expect excellence. That does not necessarily mean perfect test scores, but it does mean giving it your very best shot. It means attempting all your homework questions. It means asking questions about the problems you didn’t get right. It means raising your hand when your teacher says something you don’t understand. Students quickly learn that if they don’t do these things, I will keep pushing and pushing until they do. And I don’t hide my excitement when this does happen. The rewarding nature of teaching is multifaceted, to be sure, but nothing gives me greater satisfaction than bringing a once-withdrawn, uninspired student out of his shell.