A couple months back, I had the amazing experience to “shadow” a teacher at my high school. All the #BowTieBoys were given this wonderful opportunity so we could see a small glimpse of what it is like to actually run a school, so we could see what improvements we think need to happen to benefit the students and teachers. Some of us shadowed administrators and others (like myself), shadowed teachers of core subjects. I decided to choose my math teacher from my freshman year that day, Mrs. Briles. The reason I picked this teacher is because I always felt comfortable and productive in her class, and I genuinely think she is a wonderful teacher. She also has a lot of classes to teach. She teaches Algebra 2, BC Calculus, and on a completely separate note, an impact study hall class, which I will touch on later. She taught each of her classes in a different way that seemed to fit the students in that class perfectly.
Once I got to her classroom at 8 o’clock, we discussed what we think needs to change in the school system, and she brought up some very critical points that I had not thought of before. When she asked what the goals of the #BowTieBoys are, one of the main things I told her about is our push for more student voice and input in the classroom. Her view on this was similar to mine, but there are some difficulties with implementing student choice into class. For example, she expressed that she barely has time as it is planning lessons, grading, and trying to spend at least some free time with her family. It would add an immense amount of work to every teacher schedule if they tried to take in the voice of the students in each class to improve, and that is time that some teachers really don’t have. We did talk about other ways that she uses student choice in the classroom that are more practical, and some of them are truly brilliant in my opinion. In her Algebra 2 class, the way she uses student choice, is in the homework assignments. Full homework packets are given out at the beginning of each unit, and every class after that, one of the worksheets is due. But these aren’t like your typical high school math worksheets that are just tedious and repetitive, they are almost all different. Along with that, each problem on the worksheet is given a point value. The easier problems are usually one point, and the harder ones can be up to five. All the students need to do, is do enough problems correctly to get to the point value they are assigned that night. So for the easier topics, students may only need to do three problems a night. This also solves the issue of teachers giving students an unhealthy, and even unhelpfully large load of homework.
The next topic we discussed, is what principles her classroom is built of. She said that she likes to keep an open and warm classroom built on trust and respect. The way her classroom is set up also matches the way she teaches. Mrs. Briles is the most happy and energetic teacher I have ever had, and she wants her students to be the same way. All questions are accepted and answered at any time, and no student is ever put down for not understanding the content. She also has a good personal connection with her students, and frequently will walk by her students and talk individually about if they understand the material. Review games like Kahoot are often played before quizzes and tests, which the kids love and seems to be very effective.
Mrs. Briles is often open to technology use in class, but then again she brought up some issues with completely letting students use their technology whenever they want. This issue is what we called the “One Percent Theory”. She said the reason she doesn’t want to completely open her class to tech, is that she knows that there is always going to be a small percentage of students who end up taking advantage of that system by distracting themselves and everyone else. To fix this issue, she lets students use their technology when doing independent work in class, and when they are done with an assignment.
The last topic we discussed is about student punishment. We were talking about how some students have been suspended in our school’s past, and due to administrative policies, teachers are not allowed to know why a certain student has been suspended. They are only notified that it has happened. I believe that this is a mistake that should be fixed. Any student who has been suspended for any reason most likely has some other things going on in their lives that are difficult, and they don’t know what to do with those feelings. I think it is a huge connection building opportunity between student and teacher if teachers were told exactly why one of their students was suspended. Instead of just coming back to school to the same thing, this way teachers could sit down and talk to that student, which could change their lives. After all, school is about learning life skills just as much as subject based content.
Right before her first class of the day (BC Calculus) started, Mrs. Briles expressed to me that she had one of the worst things that can happen to a teacher happen. She stayed up past midnight the night before to plan an engaging lesson for her calculus students, and then forgot to bring it to school. It had been a very rough day and week for that matter for her, but when class started, she seemed to put all of that aside and give her students every ounce of energy she could. This in my opinion, is one of the marks of a truly great teacher. Having the ability to push aside everything that is going on with you personally and still teach an amazing class is remarkable. Even with her lesson plan at home, she delivered a great lesson that all the students seemed interested and engaged in. I wish I could describe the use of some techniques she used in this class to explain the material to her students, but calculus is completely Greek to me, and I had almost no clue what was going on, given that I am three levels of math below this class. The class mostly consisted of independent work and note taking, but all the students seemed to like it. Mrs. Briles would go around to every student and make sure that they understand the material, and if not, she would describe how to do the concept in a different way.
The next block of the day was her impact study hall class. Impact is a class run by Mrs. Briles that acts as a free period just like any other study hall. However, what makes this study hall special is that every student in the class has either lost a family member due to an illness, or has a family member suffering with a severe illness. All of these students get together every other day just like a regular study hall, but they have special privileges. They can go to different schools to help with the special education programs. Mrs. Briles told me the reason they do this, is that sometimes the best way to help yourself, is to help others. This lesson was probably the biggest one I took from the whole day. During this block, we talked about how teachers of core subjects can also help students like these, and other students with issues of their own, without making them feel vulnerable. This is what is so beautiful about the impact though. Before this day, I had no idea that a group like that even existed. They aren’t pointed at, or made fun of. They just band together to help others, even though all of them have had quite rough pasts. The day I was there, some of the kids decided to go over to the local middle school to help their special needs classes, and the others just stayed and used their study hall period to do their work and talk.
The last period of the day that I was with her, was her Algebra 2 class. I took this class my freshman year and loved it. For me as a student, math is probably my favorite subject, besides English, and Mrs. Briles did a great job teaching me that year. The class had the same high energy teaching as her calculus class earlier in the day, but the way students worked was different. There was more activities and chances for collaboration than there was for the calculus class. The class started off with a math puzzle for a warm up, and once students completed that, they were allowed to either help others, or listen to music and use their phones. Then she would go to every student to help them if they needed it, or just chat about whatever sport or activity they are a part of. This is one of the most important things a teacher can do, because it shows your students that you actually care about them, and are there to help them. Once every student completed their warm up, the notes started in the front. This is what differed the most from her calculus class. Instead of being more lecture based, it was very interactive. Students were told to do problems together, and write their answers up on the board if they chose. This is another great technique in my opinion. Students get tired and bored if they are just sitting and listening, even the best students do. Class wide activities can help students stay focused, especially when they seem to get out of focus. She did not do this in the class I was shadowing, but when I had her last year, she would do projects like an around the room math treasure hunt, where the winner would get some sort of prize (gum, candy, snacks, etc.) for winning. This use of positive reinforcement is a great way to keep students doing their work, and it also shows them a tangible reward for the hard work they have done.
Through the day of shadowing Mrs. Briles’ classes, I learned a lot about teaching strategies, had many discussions about school politics, and teachers lives when they either don’t have a class, or aren’t at school. Teachers are very busy people, who generally have students’ best interests on their minds. Students and teachers can work together to have the most productive and beneficial classes by leveraging student choice, rapport, and discussion. I am so thankful that I got that opportunity to follow a teacher for a day. The information I used will help me with my blogs, tweets, and presentations in the future.