As a brand-new teacher, I spent a lot of time abiding by unwritten rules. It was not that anyone had informed me to follow these. After all, they were unwritten, and yet so much of my time was spent deciphering the decisions and instruction taking place around me so that I could be seen as a better teacher than what I probably was.
I came prepared with my college degree, my formatted lesson plans, and my eagerness to be the type of teacher that students remembered. To be the type of teacher where students ran into their classroom, eager to start the learning. Then the reality of teaching struck me squarely in the face.
Those first few years I slowly lowered my own expectations for what type of teacher I would become. I no longer needed to change the world as much as just get through the lessons I had meticulously crafted at my house late in the evening. I knew they were not as powerful as they could be, and yet to me one of those unwritten rules of being a teacher was that you were not supposed to have any weaknesses. You were hired to be good at your job, and that included knowing how to craft lessons that would not only engage all students and meet their needs, but also awaken their inner curiosity.
I thought good teachers graded everything that was handed in. I thought good teachers gave lots of homework to ensure further practice. I though good teachers had answers to every question, even if I truly had none. I thought that good teachers could craft lessons that would be admired by others, and yet I was clearly not a good teacher, because my lessons were okay, sometimes amazing, sometimes awful, but mostly just average. The unwritten rules that I seemed to have so masterfully deciphered, therefore, did not actually help me become better; I did not question them, but instead stifled the process that we all must go through to become better teachers.
I thought I knew how to plan a lesson. I thought that time would make me better as long as I kept working on the format I had chosen, and as long as I reflected on my lessons and left myself feedback for the following year. And as long as I followed the advice that was given to me once or twice a year when I was formally observed.
And then, one day, in the middle of a grammar packet lesson, we were a few pages in, a child raised her hand. Before I could even call on her, she blurted, “I am so bored.” She was nine. I was the teacher. I was momentarily stunned. The audacity of her comment. The ruthlessness. The embarrassment crept in. After all, for a child to dare say they are bored, we must be doing something awful. I felt found out like I was truly not a good teacher. Yet I stood in my silence for a moment and then took a chance. Instead of admonishing her for her supposed rudeness, I asked a simple question; “What can we do differently?” We, because it is never up to just teachers to make their instruction better. We, because our classrooms are shared experiences that need to work for all. We, because it turns out that my students often have much better ideas than I do. She took a moment then told me, “Can we do this with a partner, not as a group?” I answered yes and the rest we can say is history.
I wish I would have known as a brand-new teacher just how much power lies within the lesson design process. Just how much power we can tap into if we bring the very students, who will experience our lessons, into the planning process. It is not meant to be a total transfer of ownership, but instead a shared process. One where the expertise and research base of the teacher is coupled with the needs and ideas of the students. I think how often I have asked my students, “What can we do differently?” and been amazed at the ingenuity of their ideas and the small tweaks that make an otherwise doldrum lesson come alive. At the little changes we can implement, that matter so much, not only to our instruction, but to the overall engagement that the students develop within our schools.
Lesson design was never meant to be a solitary adventure. We were never meant to be the sole thinkers in our classrooms, the experts on every single aspect, on every single need, on every single dream of the students we teach. Instead, we can use the lesson planning process as another tool to invite students into the learning journey that they are undertaking. It becomes yet another way that we signal that this is not my education, but yours, so invest your ideas, invest your time, and invest your voice so that you can change the very experience itself and make it more worthwhile for you. I am here to support, to lead, to guide, but also to listen.
I tell my students — all of my seventh graders — that I want them to speak up. That I want to hear their ideas. That I want what we do to matter to them, but I will not know how to get there if they do not become a part of the process. Many are reluctant at first; they would rather have the role of a spectator than of planner, but as the year progresses, as they see their ideas take shape and transform the learning we do, their ideas multiply. Their voices multiply. We ask for their investment and they see the difference it makes. It turns out that there were no unwritten rules when it came to creating meaningful lessons; I was simply under the illusion that there was and therefore chased a perfect teacher mirage, feeling like I was already so far behind.
So, when we plan our lessons and when we take the time to think of the learning opportunities we want to create, don’t leave out the very people who will be experiencing it. Don’t fall into the same trap of thinking that you must have everything planned, ready for them to experience. Instead, ask, “What can we do differently?” and then take their ideas to transform your teaching.
This post also appears in the OnCUE Journal for Fall 2017. Pernille will be the Closing Keynote for the CUE 2017 Fall Conference. Register here.
Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities. She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.