“To teach is to learn twice.” – Joseph Joubert
At the beginning of the school year, a lot of freshman classes are quiet. They are nervous about starting high school. They are scared of the scarry high school teachers that the middle school people warned them about. The freshman in your Algebra class are afraid of the older kids in the room who must be there because they didn’t make it out. So they are quiet, waiting to see if they can ever find their comfort zone again. For me as a teacher, this always seems to be true unless I am teaching a class of bilingual, Spanish-speaking kids. They all seem to know each other, even if they haven’t ever met. They sense somehow that I am not there to hurt them, that I care. So they start getting comfortable pretty fast.
In my other algebra classes, I have a hard time getting classroom discussions going at the beginning of the year. They don’t laugh at my amazing jokes because they don’t want the other kids seeing them show emotion or standing out. So one day when I knew they weren’t ready for a big discussion, I had a problem of the day from Estimation 180, similar to the day before where I wanted them to give me a high estimate that was reasonable, a low estimate, and some kind of calculation or explanation for their final estimate. It was similar to the day before so I knew they could handle it. I got a polite discussion going with them by gently coaxing kids into talking, had them answer some more questions until I could tell they were done, and then I did some examples on the board to give them a break about whatever lesson I was linking the estimation problem to. It was fine, not the best lesson but I have the year to build it up and make it what I want. Then I got to my last class of the day.
In that class, I was tired and stood off to the side while kids started working. When I did this, two girls somehow took this as an invitation to get out of their seats, come up to the board, and teach the class. I was amazed. They mimicked my teaching style, went through the estimation process with the class as I had done the day before, and the class was engaged in the discussion and riveted. My jaw fell to the floor. After they were done, I went to the board and instead of lecturing, I put 12 to 15 problems up, left blank space for each one, then sat in the back of the room and waited. The entire class went to the board and worked on the problems in pairs or groups of 3. They yelled back and forth to ask and answer questions, they made fun of each other in Spanglish, they yelled back to me at the back of the room to check to see if they were right and if I was watching them. When the board was full, I went up and changed a few things, and added a few more as I discussed the problems with the class. The day wrapped up and I felt electrified.
Days later, I worked on my other algebra classes and got students up to the board in there as well. They were less comfortable but it was still better than me talking all day. I emailed the math teachers from the middle school my 5th period class had just come from and found out that they all had the same teacher. I told her how amazing they were and thanked her for teaching them and getting them ready for me. She was really happy to get happy feedback about her kids.
What did I learn besides some new Spanglish phrases? I learned that kids can have momentum and excitement about learning even when they aren’t the AP students. That they can teach each other sometimes better than I can teach them. That they can teach me because I watch what things they do to help each other learn. I learned that sometimes to be the best teacher I can be, I just need to get out of their way.