Personalization TIp #7
Accept that you cannot always be in control. Student-driven learning sometimes means letting them fail.
I've probably mentioned it before, but giving up control of my classroom was probably that hardest part of adopting a more personalized approach. Once upon a time - and even a little still - I was the teacher that would plan a semester at a time. mapping out months of curriculum at a time.
As I grew in my teaching, I learned quickly how futile it is to plan so far in advance. Good instruction is responsive and flexible - two words that I would never use to describe my young practice. I would attribute my change in mindset to attaining my National Board Certification. The reflective process required for this made me really focus on how I am reacting to students and creating intentional next steps throughout the year.
In each manifestation of my personalized approach... (I think we're on Version #294594 at this point)... I loosened my grip a little more. Version 1, I let them decide artifacts to show their learning. Version 2, I let them set their own pace. Version 3... and so forth. Each new approach gave up one more small piece of the control I obsessed over as a young teacher.
I would say I have grown into the responsive and flexible teacher I set out to become, but there is one challenge in giving up control that still holds me back:
How can I sit back and watch a student fail?
As teachers, we are told to do everything in our power to make sure that students are successful, often at our own expense. We stay late to let them come in and get things done. We extend the deadline, knowing it'll mean a fast turn around for grading. We pester and nag until we're just as annoyed as the kid.
This mindset has been problematic all along, but it's become the norm and unfortunately, the expectation of teachers. That we sacrifice ourselves in the name of student success.
There are so many things that have created this dangerous mindset: high stakes testing, incentives, toxic teaching martyrs, and more. It is so deeply embedded in our culture as teachers that we feel that we aren't "allowed" to let a student fail.
That said, they still do.
Often times, I need to remind myself that a student failing is not my fault. I'll recount all the different things I did to avoid the inevitable, but because of the deeply ingrained shame, I'll pick out a handful of additional steps I could have taken. I obsess over that one thing I didn't do.
I talk through this frustration not to complain or whine. Instead, I mention it so that what I say next doesn't come off as hugely callous or unfair...
Sometimes. Students need to fail.
As I said, stating this goes against everything I have been taught, everything I see in media, and the teacher I pictured myself to be 10 years ago. It isn't a jaded response to years of apathetic students, but a realization of how learning really happens. We learn from our mistakes.
Right now, I have about 5 students across my three sections of AP Language that are failing. They are missing assessments from previous units and they are behind on the current unit. While the majority of them will get back on track and pull it off in the end, I know I need to stomach that some of them will not. The best I can do is give them reminders, reach out to parents, and offer time outside of class. Beyond that, I have to draw the line.
They may blame the flexible pacing. They may blame the self-designed assessments. They may blame a lack of direct instruction. But the bottom line is that all of these could have been altered by a simple conversation with me. By reminding them of their options frequently, I am also instilling the core premise of personalized learning: that they are in the driver's seat.
If the intention of building student agency is for students to take more control of their learning, that control has to come from somewhere else. In other words, I have to give up control so that they can have more. And giving them control will mean mistakes and failures.
Accepting this fact is, in all honesty, the real first step in adopting a more personalized format. As long as you take steps to help students along the way, you cannot blame yourself when they fall short. Instead, you can talk through the choices they made to end up there and help them evaluate what needs to change.