Everybody has that memory, the one where a teacher made a difference in their life. Some people will never forget that teacher’s name, nor what that teacher did for them. Others can scarcely recall the teacher’s face, but the impact they made will last a lifetime, perhaps longer.
Over quiet drinks on a night away from the kids, old friends reconvene. At a raucous university party, only three years out of highschool, former classmates shout at each other to be heard above the music. In the most comfortable chair you could imagine, a grandfather whispers tales to his granddaughter, readying herself for her first day in kindergarten. All of them speak about the same thing: The ONE teacher. That one that stood out, that mattered, that made a difference.
Those that are remembered, those that leave a lasting impact, often share a number of qualities that leave them standing out in their former pupil’s minds. Yes, many of them use WARM evaluations and the COAT method of lesson planning. But there’s something more than that. They are ready to change themselves to enhance their student’s experience, they bring opportunities into the classroom that few others think of, and they connect with who their students truly are on a deeper level.
Who is the ONE teacher?
There are three things that make the ONE teacher stand out. The ONE teacher builds from a foundation of Universal Design for Learning, ensuring that all students have the best opportunity to engage with their materials, and reach their highest levels of success. Through every part of their practice, they strive to create deep learning experiences for their students.
The ONE teacher focuses on three key aspects of themselves and seeks opportunities to put them into practice. Those three things allow them to enhance each and every aspect of their practice. The ONE teacher constantly strives to be:
- Open minded
- Engaged in students’ interests
Some of those things seem obvious. Many teachers think that they embody those qualities, however as with anything, there is always room to improve. There are new avenues yet to be considered, and old ideas that were once cast aside as impractical or fanciful. To be the ONE teacher it is important to reassess everything one thought they knew. That all starts with the very first aspect:
One of the most dangerous things a teacher can do is limit their students’ experience to their own familiar understandings. Being open minded requires admitting that one doesn’t know everything, and that other peoples’ ideas are just as valid as one’s own. This is the hallmark of the ONE teacher.
When a student suggests that creating a cellphone application is the perfect way for them to demonstrate their learning, the ONE teacher follows improv’s greatest rule and replies “yes, and…”
Where some teachers instantly redirect to their comfort zones, essay writing, poster creation, or – if they’re feeling adventurous – video creation, the ONE teacher is open to new ideas, even if they extend beyond their current scope of understanding.
The ONE teacher listens to student ideas, and learns everything they need to to enable students to run with their ideas. After all, the most important thing about being an educator isn’t allowing the teacher to show off what they know, but creating an environment where students can show off what they know.
Embodying the Aspect
- Being open minded begins before the students first step into the classroom. Teachers must be open minded about their students, and their students’ abilities.
“I can’t believe you have them on your list…” is a phrase often whispered in staff rooms before the beginning of each new semester. Though these statements are often followed by tips to best help the student succeed, the ONE teacher must be willing to set aside all preconceived notions, and be open minded about each new student in their class.
Performance in one class under one teacher does not indicate performance in another class under another teacher. Going in expecting students to perform at low levels creates an immediate bias that damages the teacher’s ability to form a meaningful connection, and forge a relationship that promotes success.
- Teachers need to appreciate that they see the world through their very specific, and limited lens. No matter what their life experience has been, it is just one of billions. Students enter the classroom with their unique, and oftentimes very different, world view and background knowledge. Teachers must ensure that they respect the unique perspectives their students hold.
Roundtable discussions where students are allowed to engage with each other, rather than feeling as if their voice will be diminished by a teacher who thinks that they know best, promotes an environment that demonstrates respect for all world views, and outlooks.
By allowing students to share their thoughts without fear of top-down censorship and reprisal a community built on trust will be created. Demonstrating that each voice is valued and respected promotes high levels of success for all, including the often-labeled challenging students.
- When students present radical ideas like developing a video game or cellphone application instead of writing an essay there are often feelings of hesitation.
“That’s just not the way things are done,” is the enemy of innovation. Teachers need to push beyond what they were taught when they were in school; teachers need to push beyond their understanding of what media holds value and academic worth.
Rather than viewing the requesting student as trying to avoid work, it is important to understand that the creation of an immersive, interactive experience can be as detailed, thematically relevant, and academically worthy as any written piece.
Some of the best learning takes place outside of the classroom. Deep learning experiences are created where students can connect their in-class skills with practical applications. Allowing the creation of a short animated video is a fantastic and engaging assessment; having it evaluated by someone who works in the animation industry allows it to become a defining moment with the power to change a student’s life.
The ONE teacher must view everyone they know as a potential resource, and everyone they meet as someone who can bring new experiences to enrich their students’ education. The local baker that makes homemade doughnuts can be invited to share how fractions hold relevance beyond school, acting as the difference between a delicious cake, and a goopy mess.
The friend who ended up coding for a local company can teleconference about the importance of narrative storytelling in both classic and modern gaming experience. The person that was commissioned to paint custom art can give an interview that details the importance of using art to express their own understanding of the world.
By valuing everyone they know and meet, and being willing to put themselves out there, explaining that students can benefit from a unique perspective the ONE teacher provides the groundwork for educational memories that last a lifetime.
Embodying the Aspect
- Teachers have to be willing to ask for help from the most unlikely of people imaginable. Overcoming the fear of rejection is the first step to successfully networking, and allowing the skills of some to enhance the experience of all.
From a local book signing, to the person leaving a ticket on your windshield, there is no one who can not add to the rich tapestry of the classroom. Students are constantly bombarded with their teachers’ experiences; it is by hearing key messages reinforced from a variety of sources that creates a lasting impression.
- People are more often honoured to be included in the education process, than they are offended by the request. Not everyone is prepared to be a guest speaker, but many are willing to write a brief piece, give a quick oral interview, or allow for a photograph or two to be taken.
Teachers need to consider the best way to integrate other voices into their classroom and their curriculum. By understanding who they wished they knew to help enhance their classroom, teachers will always be ready to seize the moment when they encounter that very person.
- Connecting students with meaningful experiences and caring adults is one of the most important mandates of any school system. By bringing in a professional photographer to evaluate a visual assessment opportunity, or inviting a local chef to judge students’ culinary creations they will not only gain valuable insight, but also be introduced to someone who can help them as they link their passions with the reality of related industries.
Allowing other expert voices to carry weight in the classroom is an important step to demonstrating that the classroom accurately reflects honest experiences. By highlighting a variety of voices students learning is proved to be meaningful to life beyond the classroom, while showing care for the well-being and success of students beyond the current year.
Engaged in Students’ Interests
Allowing students to shape classroom content is a profound way to engage them in curriculum development. By demonstrating that student voice is valued, teachers can form fast connections with their students that have a profound impact on their performance and engagement with in-class materials.
The student who is labeled as a disruptive influence by one teacher can become one of the most committed students when taught by the ONE teacher. Rather than simply handing out work, and demanding that it be completed as is, the ONE teacher looks to their students during the lesson planning process.
Teaching the physics of levers and fulcrums has the ability to cause some students to tune out, and turn off, however, an understanding of their after school activities is often enough to keep them committed to the lesson. By understanding a number of students are avid skateboarders, the lesson can be framed to show that during an ollie, the skateboard acts as a lever. Now, those same students who previously disengaged are paying attention in order to determine how to maximize their ability to perform tricks.
Often, engaging students’ special interest areas don’t require any extra work. When presenting an inquiry based assignment, students should be directed to focus their learning around something that holds personal value for them. At its most difficult, engaging student interests requires teachers to find differentiated texts, or allow choice when it comes to demonstrating student learning.
The only tricky part is learning what activities and topics are meaningful to each student. Luckily there’s a simple trick to overcome this problem: just ask them.
Thirty seconds at the beginning of class, checking in with students about what they did, or the shirt they’re wearing, or if they’ve played any good video games, read any good books, or watched any good movies, is all it takes to start building a rapport that can be the difference between the success and failure of both teacher and student.
Embodying the Aspect
- Taking a moment to find a number of texts upon which students can build is a great way to engage students’ special interest areas. When focusing on research skills, rather than stating all students need to find a primary source that explores the impact of the 2009 Japanese frog rain, the students should be encouraged to self-select a topic.
Though they can be guided with suggestions – many may, indeed, want to look into the tadpole-filled precipitation – they should also be encouraged to find primary sources that relate to things they care about: Jessie James, Kurt Cobain, the costume design for Tommy the Green Power Ranger, the origins of Hermionie Granger, or even the original name of Pac Man.
In this example, it is important to reinforce that it is not what students research that is being evaluated, but rather their ability to research. Even if the curriculum specifies the final topic for a culminating task, essential skills should still be taught using personal interest areas.
- When constructing an inquiry- or project-based unit, students should be consulted during the planning phase. Rather than simply presenting students with a list of options, and stating that they can choose a different topic, their unique voices and experiences should be reflected in the initial assignment design.
Once teachers have selected which curricular expectations will be assessed throughout the unit, students should be presented with the list and asked to consider the best ways they can think of to demonstrate those skills.
Teachers will often be shocked to find that aside from framing the unit around areas of personal interest, students will be quick to point out a number of look-fors can be assessed through informal conversation, roundtable discussions, or small group meetings. Through this approach, there will be continuous learning, teacher marking will be streamlined as part of the learning process, and student voice will find itself at the forefront of class activities.
- Combining the need to be open-minded, the students’ interests are best engaged when they are allowed to complete a task that they thought would be considered taboo. When focusing on the study of a self-selected text, or thematic piece, students should not only have the option, but also be encouraged to select a graphic novel or video game rather than a standard ink-on-paper text.
Allowing students to focus on their texts-of-choice, students will not only increase their rapport with the teacher that encourages them to demonstrate their learning on their own terms, they will also be shown the inherent value of often overlooked formats.
The teacher that causes a paradigm shift, stripping the simple joys from video games, replacing it – instead – with a critical lens that can never again be set aside, is the teacher that will be remembered years, decades, and lifetimes later.
The Importance of Universal Design for Learning
Universal Design for Learning is the framework that ensures success for all students by designing lessons in a way that meets student needs before their needs are even identified. It’s the way to ensure all students feel safe, protected, comfortable, and ready to face the day.
Through becoming the ONE teacher you will ensure that learners of all types will find a way to engage with the materials, while also reinforcing key concepts in a number of different memorable ways, creating an impact that lasts a lifetime and beyond.
We know that the ONE teacher creates a difference in the lives of their students, but each of us demonstrates those aspects in unique, and wonderful ways. Join the community, and share your memorable moments in the comments below.
Michael Barltrop has been teaching since 2006, integrating comics, video games, and TTRPGs into his classroom. He has been the head of English, Literacy, Special Education, and Assessment & Evaluation and Universal Design. Feel free to reach out through Twitter @MrBarltrop!
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