Learn them; they are why you teach

Written By Pamela D'Andrea Montalbano

After the cooing phase, babies begin to babble, the first beautiful expression of the languages they hear around them. This is so remarkably a sign that babies are ready to communicate through language that even if babies are surrounded by a signed language instead of a spoken one, they babble with their hands. Equally amazing is how the adults in these babies’ lives react to the babbling, seeking to understand the meanings babies are trying to make, and with careful, slow, exaggerated faces and sounds adults teach them the words the babies are wanting to elicit.

I have noticed there is a stark shift that occurs when a child enters school. Learning stops becoming about what the child is ready to learn and instead becomes about what teachers, schools, and larger entities such as governments and dominant ideologies, want to teach. The rift between child and school is large, but it’s largest for people and communities who are already pushed out and excluded from access to these larger social entities, people whose children are our most vulnerable and least represented students.

In the third grade I looked up the word “sex” in the dictionary during class thinking it might have been a cuss word. In hindsight, I give myself credit for using the “ESOL” strategies I had been been taught since the second grade when I arrived to the U.S.  The definition used the word “intercourse”, so of course I now had to look up “intercourse”.  I still didn’t get it, so I decided to abandon understanding and show all my classmates the cuss word in the dictionary in the hopes of at least gaining cool points out of this fruitless linguistic expedition. My cool factor was not raised (1) and all I did was cause a wave of tiny giggles over the audacity of what was in the dictionary, and although the details of what ensued are fuzzy, I remember being publicly scolded by the teacher.

It may not seem like it, there is a lot happening in this short classroom story, beginning with my teacher’s action based on a series of unsubstantiated assumptions she made during the incident. First, she assumed I was being defiant, when I was trying to make friends and to feel like part of the group. She assumed I was curious about sex or that I knew what sex was, when what I was curious about was a new English word and I wanted to learn how to use it. And even if she had found that I or other students in the classroom were curious about sex, her action can still be seen as suppressing our natural curiosity.

By taking action based on assumptions, my teacher was not being “intentionally” cruel, she simply took part in a long tradition of teacher-centeredness in the classroom. This tiny incident that I have no doubt in my mind is remembered only by me, is part of what I see as a great tragedy in schools in which teachers make “teachable moments” (and almost all instruction) about them and their assumptions and beliefs (2). By partaking in this behavior, she, regardless of intentionality, contributed to the rift between child and school, and because I was also an “ESOL kid” (as it was termed at the time), she mirrored and exacerbated the rift between my ESOLness and immigrantness, and American society at large.  By not taking a moment to understand what I and the other students were asking to learn, what we were saying we were ready to learn and experience, my teacher centered herself and dominant cultural views and quashed curiosity, love for learning, and the deep need of children to connect with each other no matter their language.

And the key here is that with every student behavior, with every use of language or play, students are telling us who they are, what they know, what resources they bring to the table, and what they are ready to learn, and what their next steps can be.

There is no more powerful tool in teaching than knowing what students are ready for. Knowing this is the first critical step to student-centered instruction and, when embraced as a standard practice, it positions the educator for the successful adoption of resource pedagogies (as opposed to deficit pedagogies).

“Student-centered” has fallen victim to the educational buzz word phenomenon, often used without regard for what it truly means. The process of centering also involves the process of de-centering, in this case the teacher. To both center and de-center, and to hone in on the craft of teaching by honing in on students, as teachers we must first learn to:

    1. Constantly listen and observe our students. As teachers we are often ready for output, forgetting that we teach students, not subjects. We need to get to know our students as much or more than we know our subjects. Listening is also an act of selflessness, an act of love, the most important component to centering the student (the students are after all the whole purpose of this thing we call school). And whenever possible, we must pay attention to students not only when they are in class, but during play (recess or after school activities) and within the community. Learn them; they are why you teach.
    2. Not make assumptions. It’s remarkable how both as an elementary teacher and a high school teacher, I spent considerable time working with students to separate observation from inference. We have a natural tendency to take the information we’re receiving at any given time and connect dots, synthesize, and run it through the filter of our knowledge, experiences, and beliefs. And although this is natural, we need to stop the mindless and automatic (and therefore dangerously biased) version of connecting dots with students. This does incredible harm to kids and stifles the effectiveness of our teaching. After listening and observing, we must take that information and ask ourselves: What are students expressing an interest or need to be able to learn, say, or do? What do they already know or believe? And, not to be missed: How can I confirm that my answers to these questions are correct? Not making assumptions, but instead carefully researching our students, we are able to make more informed (and supportive and loving) decisions that drive student learning.
    3. Facilitate our students’ learning.  Once we know what students are wanting to say, do, learn, experience, etc., then we take on the supportive role of teaching (3). This is where we can really begin to push our students, hold high expectations, and from this student-centered position, we can better use the teaching strategies we know (such as using students’ Zones of Proximal Development to scaffold). Starting with a framework of centering the student is a leg up to better understanding and applying deeper practices such as critical pedagogies and culturally sustaining pedagogies.

These simple actions are the foundation to student-centered teaching, and somehow still a radical step forward for many teachers thanks to a system that sustains the teacher-centered soapbox. Had my own third grade teacher done this, she might have partnered me with students who I wanted to befriend to support my social goals and she might have praised me for using my strategies and taught me new ones for when the dictionary cannot answer my question.

Continuing to center the teacher is to act at the expense of children, to continue to create a rift between schools and kids, one which only grows as students grow older, and one which mirrors and contributes to the rift between kids and other institutions they encounter in their lives. By carefully learning from students, not filling in blanks with our own assumptions, and therefore allowing students to lead instruction, we as teachers are embarking on the same act of love an adult shows in support of a baby learning language; one that can produce the wonder, excitement, and innovation of collaborative learning.

(1) It wasn’t raised in the fifth grade either when I decided to write the “f-word” for the first time in a note I passed during class, but gravely misspelling it by adding an “a” and an “l”. The fact that this was an expression of my perception of the sounds in the word did nothing to lessen the ridicule from classmates. At that point I gave up thinking cussing for coolness could be my thing.
(2) It’s important to point out that this is not only a tragedy for students, but for teachers themselves, who under teacher-centered instruction are tasked with the impossible: to know everything and to be the gatekeepers of what is right. First, this means the limits of the classroom, and the heights of learning that can be reached, are that of the teacher’s, completely cutting out the possibility of the innovation and creativity that can result from the beautiful pluralism of multiple voices in a classroom. In addition, this puts so much unreasonable pressure on the teacher both within schools and outside, where even their ways of living become governable and scrutinizable. Teacher-centeredness and impossible standards on the teacher are, in my view, completely related. A footnote to the footnote: this point, of course, is not intended to lessen the great responsibility of teaching. Responsibility and a sense of duty are not the same as ruling and controlling.
(3) There are many concrete examples of how this can look, such as regularly engaging student interests.

Pamela D’Andrea Montalbano is an Associate Researcher at the Center for Research and Evaluation at Metro Center.