A guest post by Ashley Porter
7th-grade math teacher, Webster Groves School District, Missouri
Imagine Learning now publishes monthly guest posts in order to stimulate conversations about K12 education across the country. Opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author and may not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Imagine Learning.
Think back to the college years when you were choosing your major. Education? Check. As to age group, you would have noted four basic categories: early childhood, elementary, middle, or high school students. Each had its merits, but you could only pick one. Check.
I chose the math path–middle school first, followed by high school math later. I decided on math because it was in my comfort zone. That’s what most middle school and high school teachers do; they choose the area they’re most comfortable with. Yay! No more science, world studies, or English for me, right?
My first teaching assignment was at a high school, teaching all levels of algebra. There was a big push, as there should be, to get students to graduate on time. Some teachers were assigned as “graduation coaches,” and I was one of them.
It was my job to work with students, build a relationship, help them catch up, and get them to a timely graduation. These students were struggling, behind on credits, and risked not graduating at all (or certainly not on time). So, as a graduation coach, I was encouraged to help students in all their areas of struggle.
At this point, I received some of the best advice I ever got as an educator.
Essentially, I was told by a principal that if I helped students with all subjects (not just math), I’d build my student relationships beyond anything I was currently experiencing. And that’s exactly what happened.
Take a Risk, Help a Student
I think as teachers, we get in our comfort zone but still want to push students out of theirs. It’s an understandable tendency!
In the classroom, students obviously have a lot of opportunities to form impressions. As teachers, we all want to build relationships and help students succeed. But what’s the best way?
In my own case, by pushing students and working with them outside my norm, I grew as an educator while imprinting the importance of education on the students I helped.
Again–think back to your college days. While you may have avoided certain teaching subjects because you weren’t comfortable with them–you still passed these core subjects. That means you still have the capacity to remember and refresh your knowledge in those areas.
Simply put: it was possible for you then, and it’s possible for you now.
Too often, teachers like to say “I don’t teach that subject. There’s a reason why, and I can’t help you.” Unfortunately, such statements send the wrong message to students about the importance of all subjects, hinting that those “other” subjects are of no use to students in the future.
Start outside your comfort zone, go cross-curricular, and get in the trenches to help students with other subject areas. By not just concentrating on your own area of expertise, you show students that you believe in and support them, care about them as a whole, and aren’t only interested in what they’re doing in your class or subject area.
Marshall Your Best Resources
Think how often teachers ask students to use all their available resources when learning something new. Guess what? You can do the same! And your students are truly your best resources.
To begin, talk through what students already know and then help fill in the blanks. Secondly, follow your own best advice by thinking through what you already know and remember about a given subject.
Google your questions. Look at notes. Find another teacher who knows more. These are tactics you already know, so now’s the time to use them.
By working through assignments or class work with students, teachers have a better chance to help those same struggling students turn their school careers around.
Learn Lessons from Outside the ‘Zone’
I learned a lot my first year as a graduation coach–not just about my students but also about a host of other subjects. I brushed up on my Spanish. I remembered why chemistry gave me a headache. And I learned more about the importance of commas and semicolons than I cared to remember.
Was this extra work? Yes. Was I doing more work than my students? Some days. Were they suddenly miraculous students? No. But did they know someone cared? Absolutely.
I left that high school–and my duties as a graduation coach–a couple of years ago to work at the middle school level. But I still reflect fondly on those experiences in high school.
My current students are now further away from graduation than my high school students were, but I find myself asking them about other classes and checking on them regularly.
So, what have I learned from going outside my comfort zone?
For one thing, I’ve learned that it’s never too early to show you care about students and their academics. Sometimes that’s all they need to build good habits and do well. I’ve stayed in contact with the students I coached and I enjoy such positive memories of our times together.
At the end of each school year, I let my students in on a little secret … the past year wasn’t all just about the math. It was, and is, about more than that. It’s even bigger than what’s happening in the classroom.
Now that I’ve gone outside my own comfort zone, I have some advice for all the teachers out there: Get out of your comfort zone to help students succeed, even if it means that you’ll put them out of their comfort zone in the process. Growth can’t happen any other way!
Life is about embracing new challenges. When you show your class that you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone, you give them permission to do the same. And that’s where the best learning adventures start.
About the Author
Ashley Porter currently teaches 7th-grade math and algebra at Webster Groves School District in St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys challenging her students and making her classroom fun.
Now in her fifth year of teaching, Ashley has also taught all levels of math in both middle school and high school. To foster greater discussion between students and their family, Ashley writes a classroom blog on math.