The One Thing Every Teacher Needs
Sara Ziemnik is a veteran teacher at an Ohio high school and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History's 2017 National History Teacher of the Year. Sara's teaching emphasizes debate and discussion, while her work (via a Teaching American History grant) has included contributing content to a history app with Cleveland State University. Sara will discuss what she wishes she knew twenty years ago, what teachers tire of hearing, and what teachers need more of.
There's one thing that every single teacher in America needs more of, and it's not what you think. More technology? Sure, that helps. Interactive whiteboards, cool apps, and more resources? I mean, of course, I'm not turning down any of those things—none of us would. But that's not really what we all need. There's one thing, just one thing, which every single educator wants. No matter where they are, no matter what district—rural, urban, suburban, public or private, struggling or successful.
We need more time.
See, many of us have classrooms full to the brim (or overflowing!) with students who all have different needs. They have different levels of engagement, different motivations, and different dreams. Some carry with them a significant amount of trauma like an oversized backpack weighing them down, every single day. Some are smiling, but dealing with overwhelming anxiety to succeed. And as an educator, I can tell you, if there's one thing American schools need more of to help all of our kids, it's time.
We need time to meet every single child in our classroom where they are, at that given moment. Time to differentiate our instruction so they can learn . . . and this is very difficult given the constraints of state-mandated testing schedules.
See, the pressure is on teachers to Keep To The Schedule. It's quite confusing, actually, because we want to—we need to—meet every kid individually where they are in a given moment, which by that definition means we must be flexible. With 30 or more students in a room, it is inevitable that they will all be learning at different paces depending on the day, the subject, and even what's going on in their lives. However, the pressure is on to stay on pace and keep going, no matter what. No room for error and no room for movement; there is simply too much content to cover and the stakes are just too high.
With more time to teach every single kid, we could come closer to this lofty goal. For me, I think the key to more time means smaller class sizes. With smaller groups of kids, teachers can provide thoughtful, individual feedback often so students can reflect, adjust, and grow. Feedback can't just be a checkmark or a "10/10." But in the crowded classroom of today, that is happening more than it should, and I feel just as guilty as the rest of us do about this. When I have a smaller class, I have more minutes of that period to devote to individual instruction and have been able to conference with kids to talk face-to-face about specific ways they can improve their writing. I know educators in America today who are teaching high school classes with 32, 41, and 45 students in one room. Not only is it standing-room only, but often, the class period becomes almost a "triage" of sorts—teachers have to address the most serious roadblocks to learning first, leaving only minutes to meet individually with kids to provide specific feedback to help them grow.
We need more time.
With more time, we can have richer discussions. We can encourage kids to think critically in every single lesson, which is what we need to do anyway. We can adjust and slow down for students who are struggling, and provide enrichment opportunities for our kids who are mastering the material more quickly than others.
These are all the things we have been trained to do, and all the things we know we should. We lose sleep over this, because we know we can't do what we want to do given the short time that we have. The bell rings, and the state report card is coming, and the budget is tight. There's just no time.
Give us more time to go deeper, push for more analysis, encourage critical thinking, and meet every kid where they are every single day, and we will do this. We can fix this. Our kids deserve it.