Counterpoint: How, indeed, can schools get students ‘seriously engaged’?

The June 6 commentary “Shouldn’t schools be about students learning?” finally compels me to add my two cents’ worth.

Given all that has been written and discussed regarding the proposed “Page amendment” to the Minnesota Constitution that would make quality education a civil right, I have been continuously intrigued by the same questions posed by Ted Kolderie in his commentary, especially his first: ” By ‘quality education’ do you mean what the district offers, or what the students learn?”

When it came to motivating students, I believe my students might suggest that I was a fairly successful high school teacher in an inner-city high school for 13 years as a second career (based upon my placement in the high school’s hall of fame, as well as the dozens and dozens of thank-you letters I received from my students over the years). Unfortunately, on this issue of motivating students in their desire to learn (which appears to be Kolderie’s principal issue), I haven’t had the pleasure of being interviewed by the naysaying teachers union, the school boards association and the superintendents association in order to offer my perspective.

Disclosure: I taught business/marketing education classes (eg, entrepreneurship, personal finance, business law, business management, etc.) commonly referred to as electives. Some may take issue with my contentions about motivation (especially teachers who teach the core subjects of English, social studies, science and math), since the common misperception about teaching electives is that students “choose” to take those classes.

The truth of the matter was that only about one-third of my students intentionally selected these subjects. Another third were talked into taking them, usually by their counselors, who were seeking to make sure their advisees had the 14 elective credits necessary to graduate. And the final third had absolutely no clue why they were in my classes at all.

Suffice it to say, anyone can also dispute my experiences and observations solely based upon some unique teaching skill I supposedly possessed. I should also add that when I earned my Master of Education degree, I did so without shortcuts. I wanted the full menu of teacher education offerings so I would be instructed and assessed just like every other teaching student seeking licensure. Full disclosure aside, I need to comment on what motivating students meant to me and why I believe it is something every teacher and student can achieve.

Motivation principle 1

Enhancing a student’s desire to learn has a lot to do with the enthusiasm teachers bring into the classroom, combined with the applicability of the subject matter being taught. By applicability, I am suggesting that students need to be able to relate to both what is being taught and how it is being taught. Many of my students came from very different backgrounds and life experiences. As their teacher it was my responsibility to learn how best to communicate the curriculum and ignite my students’ desire to embrace it.

Granted, not every unit required to be taught by the state standards was a winner. However, it was my challenge as the teacher to create enthusiasm around each topic as best as possible. Often my students would help me when asked for their insights. The goal was to inspire each of my students to realize the potential they had to learn, especially knowing that the subject matter was new and different and often difficult.

Motivating principle 2

Students should have choices regarding how they learn and how they are assessed regarding their learning. Many of my students knew English only as a second language, with varying degrees of competency. Paper/pencil formative and summative assessments were not necessarily the most effective means by which I could discover how well I was doing with my teaching.

Students in my classes were usually given several options by which they could demonstrate the knowledge they gained from each unit taught. Deadlines were negotiated. Projects and interviews were successful assessment alternatives. Choices also included allowing students to work with friends on joint projects and encouraging them to select the means by which they experienced the subject matter being taught. Often, this made for many 12-hour days on my part, but the outcome was well worth the extra time.

Motivating principle 3

Love kids first, teach them second. I chose teaching as a second career having spent the first 25 years of my adult work life as a health care administrator and business manager. I knew my subject matter quite well based on my experiences, which made for great stories when I was teaching content to my students.

More important, I loved my kids first. Seeing them every day made me happy. Despite teaching high school, I never forgot that these young people were still children and needed the kind of relationship with their teacher that increased trust, confidence and caring.

Yes, individual students will have bad days — but, then again, so do adults. So many of my students dealt with hardship and stressors that I could only imagine. But empathy and compassion never go out of style when dealing with young people as well as adults. I wanted my students to know that I truly cared about each one of them apart from our business in the classroom. So many of my former students still keep in touch with me thanks to Facebook, sharing stories of marriages, births and even family losses. I still cherish these contacts.

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I don’t know much about whether a constitutional amendment is the right path to take to help students learn better. Nor do I know if teacher education programs are providing insights into the motivation principles I have mentioned. Much of what I practiced was emphasized in a book I read on my own, “Quantum Teaching.”

All I know is that these principles served me and my students well and helped me sustain a positive learning environment for hundreds of young people who energized my professional life every semester. This is the message I would share if the amendment’s promoters — former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari — and the state teaching leadership ever asked me.

Howard Wyn Schwartz, of Golden Valley, is a retired teacher.

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