The pen is mightier than… no pen

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As a second year teacher, stepping into the classroom this year I have benefited from having a deep understanding of the expectations and processes that are in place at my school. I have been assertive in setting ground rules and all the more clearer to my students because I am not just following intuition, but confidently believe what I am saying.

From day 1 of Term 1, 2013, this has materialised through particular routines and expectations, some of obvious importance, others seemingly mundane. For example, students must line up before coming into the classroom, enter quietly, rule up their books and immediately begin the task on the board. Last year, the size of margins in a student’s book were lower on my list of priorities, somewhere behind coming to class on time and not using phones. This year I care.

Why? Through conversations with colleagues, we have discussed the benefits of using the Cornell note-taking system, specifically how it can help students to be more organised and precise in their learning.

The routines that I rigidly enforce, such as this, are what I believe will help students to be successful learners.

After visiting a KIPP school in New York over the summer holidays, I decided to also adopt some of their practices. This school is renowned for taking students from disadvantaged backgrounds and showing that “demographics do not define destiny”. On entering a KIPP classroom, it is hard to ignore the many routines; such as the way students take out their folders, recite the times tables and respond to peers during class discussions. One particular routine I took back to my own classroom related to student organisation and responsibility.

“Six pens. This is how many pens you need to bring to every class”, I told my students during our very first lesson. I proceeded to ask who had ever lost a pen. Hands shot up. Who had broken a pen? Again, more hands. Who had lent a pen to a friend and not gotten it back? So now they started to get the picture. If three pens can become unusable so easily, then it’s probably a wise idea to have three more.

Now this might seem a bit silly harping on to high school students about needing pens.. haven’t they been practising this school thing for the past seven or more years? And so surely a pen is the most obvious thing (aside from lunch perhaps) to bring each day? Wrong. There is nothing more frustrating when you are trying to execute a carefully planned lesson and a hand shoots up. Great, you think, this student has been deeply engaged and has a question or insight to share with the class. Instead, the words that tumble out go something along the lines of, “Miss, I need a pen”. Unfortunately this scenario is not uncommon.

Admittedly, this is why teachers are often accused of being boring. We could easily fill an hour or two discussing what to do and say next. The point, however, is that students who don’t have pens disrupt the flow of lessons and themselves are not prepared (mentally and physically) for learning. So to avoid this scenario, the expectation of six pens was put in place.

Undoubtedly as I progress as a teacher and as my context of students, subject area or school changes, so will the routines I enforce. Currently, my practices are motivated by the idea that for students to be well-prepared and in a position where they are best able to learn, minor yet unnecessary disruptions must be avoided.

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I would be interested to know, what routines and expectations do you set as a teacher, or do you remember experiencing as a student when you were at school? And in what ways have these helped students to become better learners?

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All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth. (Unknown)

As I step into the classroom this week for the very first time as the teacher, not the student, I am in a unique position to reflect on the role of this ancient profession.  What is it that has drawn me into this path?  Why have I chosen to move away, leave family and friends, to plunge into this role, uncertain of what it has in store for me in the years to come?
The answers to these questions are not important right now.  What is important, is the belief that I have in teachers to potentially make amazing, wide-reaching, dramatic changes to those maturing individuals that come before them.  It is a profession that I, like many others, have many opinions about – I critique, I judge, I compare.  However, I am in awe of what teachers do in transmitting skills and knowledge to their students.
At the micro level, the learning of the student is in the hands of their teacher: initially, they can only know as much as the teacher knows. Is the developing mind of a child imprinted by the content and boundaries of their teacher’s own limitations of thought? Think Locke’s tabula rasa (blank slate)… Yet the inside of the classroom does also mirror the structure and governing rules of society at large.
The teacher in many ways is a vehicle for educating the future adult citizens of society and inducting them into the norms of society.  This role is elucidated by particular frameworks that are articulated by government, from vague and value-laden, to more tightly prescriptive.  In Australia, these frameworks include the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians and the incoming Australian Curriculum.  I argue that in addition, the NAPLAN tests carry strong messages into classrooms about what sort of citizens we want our young people to be (in particular, I am thinking of ideas around comparison and constant, measurable progress).
In many ways, teachers are technicians, who take in the normative ideas and language of the local, national and even global communities, and re-craft these into messages that slowly build up a foundation of knowledge for students.  It is with this knowledge, and toolbox of skills, that students then equipped, are able to emerge into the world as capable young adults.
At this knowing-yet-not-knowing stage of teaching, I do not have the hindsight to reflect upon my own practice. I can only look forward onto an uncertain path, hesitant yet eager to begin my work.