Educational Theory, Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Philosophy Tune-Up

In nearly every teacher training, MEd, or apprentice program in North America, emerging and veteran teachers are asked to sit down and put pen to paper with regards to their personal teaching philosophy. In this format, teachers are encouraged to think deeply about their ideas, ethos, values, and beliefs surrounding education and their learning spaces and will inevitably reflect on the lessons and truths of their present and former classrooms. In doing so, it can help teachers deepen what they believe, but also over time, become aware of blind spots and areas of growth in their beliefs. Teaching philosophies seem to get dusted off and tuned up mostly when applying for new jobs and looking forward, but I’d like to get in the habit of reviewing mine on a yearly basis. With Spring Break looming in the distance and the promise of fresh starts and strong finishes, what better time to re-evaluate and share?

My Updated Teaching Philosophy (Feb 2020)

I believe learning should be authentic, and students are capable and ought to study real-world challenges, engage in meaningful dialogue with one another, with their school, as well as connect with members of their broader communities to learn more about the world and people around them. I believe students ought to be represented respectfully and honestly in their learning material and experiences, and I value students’ safety to share themselves, as well as their beliefs and concerns openly and without judgement in a supportive classroom environment. I value a classroom and school community in which students know where they are situated physically and politically and from a land-based perspective. Educators hold an immense amount of power and influence in classrooms. I value a teaching approach that is constantly self-evaluative: one that questions and critiques personal positionality; one that actively seeks to scan for blind spots or biases; and one that seeks and responds to difficult feedback and professional development focused on these matters. I value safety, individuality, personal expression, and identity and believe these are essential foundations upon which a classroom environment can be built. 

My instructional approach is student-centered, and I seek to connect deeply with communities within and around the schools I teach. I believe classroom management is one piece of the puzzle in co-constructing safe and healthy learning spaces with students, however, it cannot be the only piece. Foundations of a safe and expressive classroom cannot be achieved simply by catchy call-and-responses in the classrooms nor creative methods to divide groups. Rather, they require deliberate practice on the part of the educator, as well as deliberate practice between the educator and students, as well as between students. While classroom management can help an educator respond and react, as well as provide students with structures, if the fundamental pieces of the classroom community are lacking, there is no essential purpose for management. Indeed, I believe the foundation of successful classrooms lies in relationships, particularly in fostering, maintaining, and restoring relationships, responding reflexively to what situations demand. Indeed, student-teacher relationships are an essential key to having a successful (meaning supportive, safe, and growth-oriented) classroom and have far-reaching effects beyond the present school year. 

Additionally, it is essential as an educator to advocate for supportive relationships with students across the school community, rather than in one’s own classroom walls. When the structure of the school is one of a community of support and caring, students can be insulated from large and very real stressors, not limited to family and friends dynamics outside of school, pressure of workload and academic demands, social dynamics and issues within the school, as well as overarching positionality within existing power structures (race, ability, sexual orientation). Children come into their classroom with all of these realities and cannot hang them at the door, and necessarily, then, as an educator, I ought to focus on creating a supportive and caring environment for which these realities may be expressed. In order to foster these relationships between educators and students and student-to-student, deliberate practice in engaging in community must take place on a routine basis with clear expectations of engagement. These relationships founded on trust within the classroom largely must be earned, as some students may not come to school eager or willing to trust their educator and/or peers. The reality of students’ lives outside of school, earning trust, and building relationships necessitate that this type of social-emotional learning needs to be embedded within the curriculum across all subjects and concretely integrated into all activities, rather than as stand-alone, discrete, and somewhat abstract or not directly applicable lessons. Practice and routine with social-emotional learning and relationship-building across all subjects also involves students in the conversation of values-based norm-setting and helps them concretely see, empathize, and relate to others’ experiences in the classroom. In short, students can fully receive, embody, nor extend actions of support through deliberate and routine practice. As well, for this relationship-building to be most effective, educators also must engage in the process, rather than solely facilitating these activities with students. 

Defining and articulating my teaching philosophy is only part one of actually realizing it. In order to build, sustain, and grow a supportive learning space enriched (with social-emotional learning across the entire curriculum) in my classroom, there are a series of rituals and traditions in place, as well as intentional structural supports. These activities, rituals, and traditions are inspired by others, as well as personal creative takes.

At its core, my classroom is a safe and supportive learning environment. The approach I subscribe to is relationship-based and follows many of the guiding principles of Developmental Discipline, which fosters self-awareness and empathy, as well as a commitment to all learners in the classroom. This commitment to the classroom also includes an awareness and an excitement that every person in the class is different and brings their own culture, beliefs, values, experiences, and identities. To foster this, my students and I engage in daily, weekly, and mid-year reflections. 

In order to articulate how the above listed activities speak to the goals of my classroom, a brief description of each activity can lend clarity and further speak to the means to the desired ends. Daily check-ins in the classroom give students opportunities to not only build comfortability in sharing and articulating their response and reflections in real-world challenges. Additionally, students also build comfort and practice in listening to others. Hearing and connecting to others’ experiences helps students build the necessary foundations for engaging in meaningful dialogue with one another, as well as with their teacher and potentially school administrators (or whomever is involved).

1-on-1 Teacher and Tea TimeI throughout the school year gives students and parents the opportunity to share something that is on their mind (positive, negative, neutral, growth-oriented, questions, etc.). This is an initiative run on an as-needed basis, however, all students have at least 2 per term/semester. During this time, students can engage with me in more of a mentorship/coaching relationships and bring up things related to their home and/or community life, school, or anything else. This is time dedicated to forging and strengthening a positive, supportive student-teacher relationship in which I serve as their advocate. 

In order to build positive, respectful relationships, my class engages in Mid-year Keep/Scrap/Adapt goal reflections. This reflection happens, as the name indicates, in the middle of the year. In this forum, students are able to share, in a Socratic format, how they have contributed positively to the class, behaviours they’d like to keep, and what they’d like to change. Additionally, they can also voice what is working for them in the class (what they enjoy and would like to keep), as well as what isn’t working and what they’d like to change. In being able to communicate their contributions, reflect on how they might differently or more healthily contribute to the class, and hearing every other student do the same, students bolster relationships as well as their own security and place in the class.

From a curricular perspective,  engaging students in representative reading material, in which a rich and wide variety of central and support characters are represented with dignity can also help build relationships in the classroom. This reading material is not limited strictly to English Language Arts, but rather will engage students in a variety of different perspectives and ideas mathematically, languages, social studies, science, career education, ADST, and beyond. In ensuring there is a wide range of representation in course material, students will hopefully feel a sense of safety and support and thus more willing to engage without feelings of judgement. 

Social-emotional learning plays an integral role in my learning spaces. In these spaces, students have a safe, nurturing space in which to learn, explore, connect, and grow. These are spaces that celebrate success as well as failure and are framed around growth. In my classrooms, there are structures, systems, and tools to help students engage in social-emotional learning at all times, including during lessons as well as breaks in the day. Students are introduced to and engaged in the practice of SEL, including “self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.” What this looks like in my classroom is offering students deliberate and optional breaks during learning (brain breaks and/or sensory breaks), where they can recognize their emotional state and re- or de-stimulate themselves accordingly. In teaching and working with students to develop skills to self-regulate and take agency in their own self-advocacy, students grow into a heightened sense of awareness and gentleness with themselves and others. 

It is easy to become idealistic about one’s classroom environment when typing a teaching philosophy, however the reality is, difficult situations will invariably arise. These difficult situations are welcome in my classroom because often tension between others ultimately can lead to learning and understanding. If students are experiencing tension or difficulty, it likely means they have not yet negotiated how everyone can make space for their true and authentic selves not at the expense of others doing the same. Therefore, a strong focus on social-emotional learning in the classroom also fosters relationships outside of students individually and encompasses the entire learning environment. In my classrooms, students develop peer leadership and followership skills and consistently practice and explore what it means to respect and attend to others. This includes working together on assignments, creating presentations and/or shared learning experiences, solving problems, and giving one another peer feedback, as examples. Because these skills are practiced in academic settings, they are not stand-alone skills and are integrated deeply into students’ learning experiences, such that they become an integral part of the curriculum.

Implementing a Student-of-the-Week spotlight in a non-intimidating, creative, and choice-based way is another way my students feel appreciated and connected in their communities. Students are nominated to be a SOTW for one week throughout the school year and nominations are guided by community norms in the school community (such as Grit, Curiosity, Social Intelligence, Self Control, Optimism, Connection, Craftsmanship). Students are nominated based on how they displayed community norms in the community, and they are given choice with respect to seating, as well as the classroom community gathering, where they may decide to facilitate or suggest an activity.

  • When is the last time you updated your teaching philosophy?
  • What is most important to you as a teacher? 
  • What strategies do you employ in your classroom to create, maintain, and grow with and alongside your students? 

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[Photo by David Peters on Unsplash]

Must-Reads

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir (Nicole Chung)

AllYouCan
Photo from Amazon.ca

  • The Stats: 240 Pages, published March 2018 
  • Who Should Read It: Teachers, school administrators, educational program designers
  • My Rating (out of 5 ♥): ♥♥♥.5
  • My Thoughts: This book was recommended by my library (the Vancouver Public Library), and I admittedly did not expect to be so moved by the Nicole Chung’s story. Chung shares a raw, honest account of her upbringing as a child adopted from South Korea by a family in the Pacific Northwest. She shares candidly about how not knowing her parents or culture; balancing gratitude and connection with her adoptive family with an ever-present sense of wonder and longing of her birth family; stumbling through the institutional racism in the overwhelmingly white community in rural Oregon (“where are YOU from?”); all the while navigating the expected trials of childhood. Chung begins the book by sharing a recent conversation of a well-intentioned friend, herself looking to adopt, and Chung finding herself not able to answer in the simplistic,”Yeah, all adoption is great!”

Chung’s story weaves through difficult realities of meeting and knowing her birth family, while navigating this with her partner and her adoptive parents. While it is anything but cookie-cutter, it’s also surprisingly relateable in how Chung’s story of disappointment, pain, curiosity, and ultimately, love and connection.

Why should educators read this?

I was surprised at how little I realized I knew about adoption, as well as the hidden assumptions I didn’t even realize I was holding onto. Chung has a relatable voice, yet doesn’t sugar-coat anything about her story, and shares insight and truths that tugged at my heart. The trials Chung faced from anyone from her teachers and classmates to hairstylists highlighted to me that adopted children are nearly always reminded they are adopted, which while I’m sure comes with some highlights, also clearly comes with stigmitized, complicating, confusing, and even traumatizing feelings. To understand this as even just one person in a child’s life can be there to listen, undertand, and love.

Thank you, Nicole, for sharing your story.

School Design

Surprise Money for Classroom Makeovers: My Experience, Reflections, and What I’d Do Differently

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

My first semester of teaching was all about survival. The second semester was about student management and creating systems. The summer was for picking up a side gig to pay the bills (and bonus time refining my management style).

After building the confidence and practice as a new teacher over the first full year of teaching, my second year saw a shift in my focus away from management towards content creation and creating learning spaces. I worked at a private school and funding was somewhat nebulous– sometimes there was a random yet marvellous donation, sometimes budgets were watertight, and most of the time, teachers had a fair amount of autonomy in how they created and designed their learning spaces. I toyed with flexible seating options, including rugs and beanbag chairs, as well as intimate spaces for independent or quiet study time. Eventually my school received a large amount of funding to be used on learning spaces, and my classroom was elected as the test classroom ( S C O R E ! ). We involved the students in the decision-making process by arranging a field trip to the classroom furniture store (very similar to this place). Here, students worked in small groups to product-test. Their job was to explore the options in the following categories:

  • Independent work spaces
  • Group work desks
  • Seats

Using clipboards, they kept track of the products by recording their model, assigning them under one of the above mentioned categories, and giving them a ranking. The rankings were as follows:

  • Converts to group + individual work station
  • Only Group
  • Only Individual
  • Helps me focus
  • Just for fun

They also kept track of price and a few other details (such as size dimensions, as applicable).

Students spent about an hour product testing, which was a hoot to watch. It was also somewhat clear what pieces of furniture would actually be effective for groupwork (as evidenced by students engaging in their furniture debates on the actual pieces of furniture), and which would decidedly not be (*unpopular opinion* Fatboy— so comfy, you could fall asleep in them. Perhaps their marketing with adults in pajamas is indicative of their purpose… #notinmyclassroom).

Back at school, students then created proposals, which included designs and drafts of their proposed learning space needs, including quantities and makes/models of desks, chairs, tables, and other elements. Student proposals included drawings featuring multiple iterations of group and individual seating arrangements (they gave these arrangements names, and we used these names in class for future groupwork). In addition to layout, students also wrote value statements, which included why their selected pieces of furniture would add value to our classroom, in terms of group needs, as well as any identifiable and unique features (ie: can they speak to a learning style?). The proposal went to the head of school, who would be placing the order and decide upon the best proposals put forth.

The entire process from field trip to proposal lasted in total 2 days and was done in the first week of school. At first, my team and I questioned the value of furniture testing, however, we quickly saw that this would be an excellent opportunity to start setting norms about field trip etiquette, craftsmanship, groupwork, and ultimately, teachers shouldn’t have exclusive say on the learning spaces. Students will spend nearly 1/3 of their day in these walls, too, and it’s important to include them in the process.

In the end, the classroom arrangements included 2 standing desks, 8 folding desks on wheels, 2 Fatboys (*sigh*), and a classroom set of Hokki stools. We were able to keep our existing set of classroom chairs in addition to the stools.

After the classroom upgrade, was there a notable difference in learning?

One of my frequent musings when perusing the world of teacher Instagram accounts is: classroom renovations can look absolutely STUNNING, but if they don’t serve to enhance student learning, is funding truly being allocated wisely?

That’s generally my query, but with funding in any school typically being somewhat random and dependent on other factors, most teachers (myself fo sho included) will not be turning down funding for classroom upgrades anytime soon.

In this particular case, I can’t truly answer if there was a notable difference in learning. This is partially due to timing, as the funds became available 2 days before school began, and this endeavour lent itself to some of the first-week projects. It ended up taking several months for the furniture to actually come, and we used somewhat random bits and bobs of furniture, including camp chairs and discarded art tables (the school was undergoing unprecedented growth). We also spent a great deal of time on field trips with our class and were used to frequently creating makeshift classroom on a city hall lawn, museum cafeterias, and hospital waiting room.

While creativity and motion are invaluable, by the time we got the furniture, we were all ready. So, how did it all go?

The Wins

Having flexible seating options, particularly for some of my wigglier students, was helpful. The Hokki stools, in particular, I cannot recommend enough. Like any new tool, if students are given boundaries and can help generate acceptable etiquette, there generally will be success. With Hokkis being new and exciting, at first all kids wanted to use them. Over time, the kids who really needed the extra motion to help them focus saw success with them. Some students became more distracted by the motion itself and found more success in the traditional classroom chairs. For some kids, the Hokkis and a traditional chair still didn’t seem to cut it, though other strategies did (such as standing at a desk, or using a rug on the ground). I identify as a wiggly adult and found these stools to be the missing ingredient needed to bolster my attention span at faculty meetings.

Standing desks seemed to have mixed success. Some students, particularly my tall students, found them helpful, but most of the class tended to use the tables or the floor when given choice. My teaching partner and I tended to get more use out of the standing desk during prep and planning time.

The folding desks with wheels were the most invaluable. The flexibility to use them for individual work, labs, large group discussions, and to completely roll them up and stash them away was huge. We were able to gain tons of space using them, and there’s very little that can be distracting on them. At times, we even folded them and used them as temporary displays of student work.

What I’d Change

Fatboys! I want to love these, but I’ve had little success with bean bags in my classroom. I find they get trashed during lunch hours or during other classes (I shared my classroom), and that norms were challenging to implement across the many students who used the classroom. I’m certainly not opposed to beanbag seating, but I don’t think I’d do it in a shared classroom again. Fatboys, however, are juuuust big enough that students can almost squeeze 2 people on them, and while at times cute, is overall more distracting than it is an asset to learning.

More Affordable Options

Admittedly, I had it made in this scenario. A wide range of learning space supplies at my fingertips, opportunity for student input, and a generous budget? Truly- it was a blessing.

And, oh, what a rare blessing it was, and one I doubt I shall see again any time soon 🙂 I savoured it, indeed.

I’m completely aware that this is simply not viable or possible for every educator. So, how to make classroom renovations more affordable? Check out DonorsChoose. This website is created specifically for classroom educators who are looking to improve an aspect of their learning spaces (supplies, furniture, etc.) and put out their classroom wishes. Donors choose which projects they want to fund and can provide a funding match, as well. Similarly, AdoptAClassroom is a platform for teachers to propose funding needs and create campaigns for their classrooms. AAC can also be used district- and school-wide.

  • Have you ever done a classroom renovation?
  • What are your favourite elements of flexible seating?
  • How have you involved your students in classroom makeovers?
  • What ways have you made classroom renovations affordable?