As a teacher, I have always fought with myself about how hard to push my students in the classes I teach. In a perfect world (which doesn’t, has never, will never exist) students would come to school and say, “Make me learn! I love growing academically! Oh, please, I want to know more!” Instead, we may have a handful of students who have a natural inclination towards our subject, most who want a good grade pay attention and do their work, and the rest… well… mehhh, they’ve got better things to do with their time. While at different percentages, this applies to all levels of classes, both on-level and AP/IB.
My first few years I didn’t push enough. I wanted to make students want to learn on their own; so I was fun, I was very creative with my lessons to increase engagement, and I erred on the side of being too easy rather than too hard. While I now recognize the flaws of this approach, it wasn’t without many victories.
I did help students love English when they didn’t before. Students did see the study of English as more than grammar worksheets, book reports, and essays. I made them think more deeply about literature than they had ever before. I loved teaching and the students liked learning… for the most part.
After a few years of this method, I noticed that many students were just playing the game. They were acting the part of the engaged student, but weren’t truly engaged. And because I was so nice and fun, they just smiled and went along with it. My students worked hard enough to get the grade they wanted, but were rarely out of their comfort zone and didn’t grow nearly as much as they could have.
Then I made a big mistake. I became the other kind of teacher. I made class about work and I put all the responsibility on them. “You want a good grade,” I would tell them, “then you’re going to have to work for it and ask for help yourselves.” So I gave them work. And if they didn’t take ownership of their education and seek me out for help, they would drown. I told myself I was fine with this set-up and went to sleep at night with the mantra of: “They need you to push them. If they don’t like your class, well, then, tough. They don’t have to like it, they just have to learn.”
You’ll never guess what happened… I hated teaching. The students hated my class. Learning was even more superficial than before. More students cheated. I’ll stop there, but almost everything that was beneficial about my class stopped and I was left with pain and misery. What could I do? I wanted to go back to the way things were before, but I wanted them to learn more. What I was doing currently, however, was far worse. I needed a different plan.
What I do now is the best mixture of both. Class is fun again; I make it engaging, joke around with the students, recognize when they’ve been working their tails off and give them a break, and seek them out when they need support. However, what I expect them to do, how well I expect them to perform, and how analytical I expect them to be is through the roof. I let them know from the beginning just how hard they’re going to have to work, but balance that with how much support they are going to have from me to get them there.
At the beginning of the year, their jaws dropped when I described what they were going to be capable of by May; they didn’t believe me. But when I have them reflect back on the year, they are proud of themselves. I’m proud of them too.