Education, Lessons Learned In Combat

Teaching the Who, not the What

Throughout the ten years that I worked as a classroom teacher, I remember spending hours upon hours (upon hours) each summer working to develop units and “bare bones” lesson outlines that would give me some sense of what my school year would look like. I would devour professional books and educational web sites–there were few teacher blogs then, and Pinterest hadn’t yet been diabolically devised– culling each of them for all of the best ideas that I could then incorporate into my Feature Articles unit, my Poetry unit, my [insert contrived writing piece] unit. Working in this manner I felt confident that, by the time I was lured back to the hustle and bustle of my daily teaching life, I would ultimately be able to devote less time to planning my instruction and more time to doing all of the thousand other things that were expected of me as a teacher/counselor/administrative assistant/cheerleader/surrogate parent/etc. each school year.

But even as I designed my units to be fairly open and flexible, knowing that I’d inevitably have to modify them (at least a little bit) based upon what I learned about my incoming students, I now know that, flexible or not, I was missing a very important point. That what I would be teaching from the end of August through the middle of June was not actually a what, or a series of whats, but a who. Approximately 115 who’s, to be exact. I wasn’t going to be teaching capital P poetry, or grammar, or Romeo and Juliet, or even “language arts.”

I was going to be teaching students.

Instead of using July to plan my feature unit article from beginning to end–including how I would “engage” and “motivate” my students by the “anticipatory set” I chose to employ (using Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, natch), I should have been planning how to get to know my students–and how they might get to know each other. I should have been immersing myself in children’s literature, scoping out engaging informational texts, and marveling at the latest picture books. I should have been writing in my writer’s notebook, struggling to find the nugget of truth that made an entry worth sticking with–or realizing that there was no such nugget.

I should have been thinking about how to teach my readers to find books that were worthy of their time, energy, and effort; I should have been planning how to teach my writers to observe the world closely so that they were rarely at a loss for something to write about; I should have been reflecting on how best to develop a classroom community that was inclusive, safe, engaging, and full of wonder.

And as I listen to teachers excitedly plan for the upcoming school year, many of them talking and tweeting about books they want to “teach” their students, writing pieces they hope to assign, and projects they want their students to complete, I can’t help but think how differently I would utilize those hours of summer planning if I still had my own classroom. How instead of focusing on the what–the books, the genres of writing, the projects—-I would be putting every ounce of my teaching energy into what matters most: the who.

1 thought on “Teaching the Who, not the What”

  1. Well said! I’m also so thankful to have moved on to the next part of my life. I don’t miss the stressful days of August, but honor all those who are currently in its midst.


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