People sometimes tell me I’m a good teacher. In fact, I had a principal even say once that I am a “phenomenal teacher.”
The problem with that is that I don’t always feel like I know what I do that makes me a good teacher.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about meeting my students where they are. “Differentiation,” it’s called. And, man, I really try But when I have 29 students in a class and their abilities range from gifted to learning disabled and everything in between, it’s hard for me to know how to meet each student’s needs.
A few times, I’ve developed different assignments for different groups of students, so I had about three groups doing different things. Other times, I’ll have them complete an assignment and I’ll check it, and then they re-do the assignment until they get at least 85% correct. Unfortunately, those kinds of things often feel like chaos to me. Everyone going different directions, with me in the middle trying to direct them all, plus keep the unmotivated kids on task when they’d really rather talk about their Fantasy Football stats or play games on their iPads.
I’m trying to cram literature, writing, and grammar into 55 minutes per day, and I’m skimming over speaking and media literacy standards. (They can’t really be tested on a standardized test and I don’t have time to get to everything, so those are the things that fall by the wayside.) I want to assign more writing, but it takes so long to grade. Sometimes I have them do the work of making an outline and planning an essay but then have them write only one paragraph of the plan. Sometimes I have them write the whole essay, but I have them choose their best paragraph for me to grade. But sometimes, I just have to assign and grade entire essays. Sometimes I have students give speeches on a topic. They use many of the same skills as they would in writing an essay, but the grading load is far less for me and then I hit my speaking standards. Of course, it takes up a lot of class time to get through 29 speeches, and that’s time I could be spending teaching more content.
Students’ grammar is terrible. At first, I thought it was all the fault of their previous teachers for not teaching it. (And I do think that some of that is true; some of the elementary teachers felt so pressured by the state’s reading standards and reading tests that they taught grammar haphazardly if at all, much like I teach — or don’t teach — media literacy.) Part of it, though, is that many of my students are not willing to commit it to memory. So even though I spent weeks at the beginning of the year going over parts of speech, now that I’m on direct and indirect objects and predicate nouns and adjectives, I still have students who can’t identify the verb in the sentence. I wish I had more time to spend on grammar.
The reading part is fun, but this is another area where I wonder how to differentiate better. I simply can’t read multiple novels for the same class at the same time and then plan lessons for each novel. One year I gave out two reading tracks — one tackling two chapters per day and the other taking only one per day — and that seemed to work out okay, but I can’t remember what on earth I had those students do who finished the book in half the time. However, I may try that with The Outsiders when I teach that to 7th graders after break. (Oh, and I have some students who have already read that book, so what do I do with them?)
When I feel so confused about what I’m doing, how can I be a good teacher? Shouldn’t a good teacher know what she’s doing that is good? I’m trying to improve, and I know that is positive. But still I wonder.