Thinking about back-to-school, thinking about teachers, thinking about thinking

I know that school starts at somewhat different times in different places, but wherever I’ve lived throughout my life Labour Day has signaled the end of summer and the beginning of school. Today is the day that those yellow buses start rolling. Today is the day that the university students are suddenly everywhere, out and about in our town with its 2 universities and 2 community colleges. It’s always a special time of year as far as I’m concerned, more like the start of a new year than New Year’s, but this year is special.  This is the year most places are starting the school year in the hopes that – fingers crossed – COVID is no longer in charge. There may be some masks remaining, but students are in school, with their friends and their activities, just as it should be.

As I watched the school buses rolling today, I remembered back to my excitement of starting a new grade when I was a kid. As I watched the university students arriving, many feeling their first taste of independence in their lives, I remembered when my parents dropped me off at my residence as I left home to start at McGill that first year, and when I started as a graduate student away from home years later. In each case filled with a little trepidation and a lot of excitement. I thought back to when I started teaching computer science to first year university students a very long time ago. I felt the same sense of trepidation and excitement!  And each subsequent year, for all those years, as the new school year started, I felt the same combination of trepidation and excitement to be back in the classroom. Trepidation that everything would go all right and excitement to meet the new students and take the journey of the semester with them. … And now I’m retired from it all and I just watch and remember!

Recently I’ve read posts from fellow bloggers that I wished I’d been able to read while I was still teaching; I would have loved to use their ideas. The first of these posts that inspired me, by former teacher Natalie Webster, was entitled Midlife Mud and Metacognition.  Doesn’t sound like a post about teaching, does it?  This is how it started:

Metacognition was one of two vocabulary words I’d teach my second- and third-graders the first week of school. The other word was persevere. These words established the norms for our classroom. Thinking about one’s thinking — and not giving up — set the stage for each year of learning.

I should point out that Natalie was named National State Teacher of the Year for Ohio in 2011; maybe this is a hint as to why she was so recognized. I was blown away by the idea of introducing 7- and 8-year olds to a word and concept as “grownup” as metacognition. But, of course, treating people of any age with the expectation that they can (and will) absorb a concept at a high level is a sign of respect.  We rise to the challenge when given encouragement and positive reinforcement. I just thought to myself, “Why didn’t I ever think of doing this with my students?!” And persevere. What a great discuss for a first day of class, for any age whatsoever.

Thinking-Metacognition

The second paragraph in her post explains how it worked:

Using the Frayer model for learning new vocabulary, young students would write examples and non-examples of metacognition. Their examples included “explaining how you got the answer to a (math) story problem.” Non-examples included “copying your answer from somebody.” One of my favorite examples was “trying to explain to (the school principal) what you were thinking when you hit (a classmate).”

Thinking-StidentCartoon

A few weeks after Natalie’s thoughtful post, another fellow blogger, Crystal Byers, posted her reflections on her first day back at school as a teacher of high school English and creative writing, entitled Every Day is a New Day.  Once again, I wished that I had read this while I was still teaching. Among several inspiring thoughts on her first day back teaching, she included this description of what she had the students in each of her classes do:

They folded printer paper into thirds like a brochure and wrote their name on one side where I could see and call on them. On the inside, they wrote a goal for themselves before they graduate and one piece of advice for me.

This took me back to those years in my classes. I also had my students fold a piece of blank paper into thirds and write their name on one side, so I could call them by name and get to know them. My sign looked like this:

Thinking-Sign

I told them that they should write whatever they preferred to be called, as long as it wasn’t rude. This worked really well for getting to know my students.  But, gosh, I wish I had thought to ask them to think about their personal goals and write one down. Just to get them thinking intentionally about having goals is an important step, regardless of age. And I sure wish I’d thought to ask for a piece of advice from each of them. Those responses would have been valuable.  And intriguing!

Our students come to school to learn, but also to grow as self-confident individuals.  Learning to think things through, learning to understand ourselves and what motivates us, is a lifelong process. Having good teachers and a healthy learning environment is an important part of that process.

The past few years have been challenging for everyone, and few more so than our teachers, from junior kindergarten to upper-year university. They have had to adapt within a matter of days to teaching their students remotely. They have had to try to engage students remotely.  They’ve had to try to be there for their students remotely, knowing that many of their students were falling through cracks. When back in classrooms, they’ve had to worry about their students falling ill, masks or no masks. It has been very a stressful time for all concerned.

Here’s wishing all teachers and their students a COVID-free year of fun, learning, and personal growth.

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29 Responses to Thinking about back-to-school, thinking about teachers, thinking about thinking

  1. Belladonna says:

    I love this post and I have so much respect for all the teachers out there, I don’t know how y’all do it! I always loved the first day of school and that feeling lasted all through college and into my kiddos school years. Such a wonderful time of year.

  2. Sharon says:

    And then there are the teachers who held low expectations of you because you didn’t fit but, being stubborn, you decided they were wrong about you and yours.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh, Sharon, so true, as with too many other parts of life. Another commenter grew up with that exact experience of being pegged by teachers because of family circumstance. One teacher, who saw her potential and encouraged it, made all the difference to who she became. There’s so much asked of teachers these days and so much can fall between cracks, but let’s hope that the magic can happen. And as you suggest, sometimes that “magic” comes from a student thinking, “I’ll show you!”

  3. Jane, please forgive me for just seeing this. I’m honored to have been included in this rich post. Thank you! And thank you, also, for always inspiring, informing, and enriching us with your brilliant storytelling and compelling examples. I’m in awe of teachers everywhere — all are super-heroes 💫❤️.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Goodness, no apologies needed, Natalie. Thanks so much for your kind words. I agree about teachers, and if each child has at least one teacher (hopefully many) who recognizes their potential and encourages it, the magic happens. Sometimes the impact is subtle, but has an important effect on a young person’s self-confidence.

  4. I really liked this one, Jane. The recent news stories about how crazy-expensive school supplies are this year,\ got me thinking about how that was always the best part about returning to school each fall (I know, I know: for some it was the clothes!). I still hope kids enjoy school as much as previous generations did. G-d knows, there are so many challenges facing them now. Of course, my sympathies go to the teachers equally now, what with so many governmental bodies and parents putting their noses where they don’t belong. – Marty

  5. heimdalco says:

    Bernie … thank you for your response. I was the vascular & plastic surgery manager for 20 years & for 4 years also managed the neuro surgery service. The OR & ALL of its services are very different & like a “strange new world” for new graduates. I feel blessed that you & I have left such a positive legacy. Since taking an early retirement I’ve seen much more of the ortho service than I intended having had 2 knee replacements … LOL

  6. Rose says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing the beautiful words of other bloggers. I really enjoyed their posts.
    I loved school, the first day of school, and every day of school. I didn’t like the social aspects, but the learning – reading, history, math, science… I soaked up like a thirsty sponge. My 4th grade teacher was my favorite, most encouraging teacher. It seemed she was the first one to see ‘possibility’ in me, where most others saw me through the lens of my family’s poverty and dysfunction. I owe so much of who I dared to become, to her.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Rose. Your experience with your 4th grade teacher exemplifies the powerful impact that a teacher can have on a student. Changing lives. The same can be said for mentors later in life, often a boss or a supervisor. We’re so lucky when one of these people, a teacher or mentor, enters our life – at any stage.

  7. Natalie and Crystal sound like exceptional teachers. I had only 2 or 3 teachers who had a strong influence on me, but it didn’t hurt my love for learning new things, or the joy of reading and writing.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s interesting you say you only had 2-3 teachers who had a strong influence on you. I gave some thought to that myself and considered asking that very question to readers near the conclusion of the post. I had a few more than that, but when I went through my list, I became aware that I identified more from high school and university than from the earlier years. I think that’s a little unfair of me. My guess that we’re more aware of the influence and more receptive to it when we know ourselves better. I’m pretty sure I had some excellent elementary school teachers who had a significant impact that I wasn’t really aware of. At any rate, Debra, there’s no doubt about your ability at writing (and thinking), the joy you get from it, and the joy others get from reading it!

      • Thanks, Jane. It’s strange, but I don’t remember the name or face of a single elementary school teacher. Mind you, Grade 7 was over 50 years ago, so there’s that 🙂

        • Jane Fritz says:

          You’re just a young’un, Debra! My guess is that those teachers you can’t remember had an impact, and set you on a good path for learning. Those are important years, even though we barely remember them.

  8. Wynne Leon says:

    I think the start of the school year is one reason I love fall so much. I love the examples of great ideas you include. Natalie is always brilliant and inspirational. And the idea of personal goals – wonderful.

    Thank you for being a teacher now and then. I know you inspired students with your wit and wisdom for all your years as a prof just like you inspire all of us now!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What a sweet comment. Thank you, Wynne. This is my favorite time of year, too, both for the anticipation of new starts and for the beautiful crisp fall weather in our little corner of the world.

  9. Thanks for the shout out, Jane! I like how Natalie taught her second graders the word metacognition and how they practiced. I have my students reflect on their understanding without using the meta-word. I think I’ll rethink.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s fun to learn about what others do and think about new possibilities, isn’t it?! You and Natalie are both special role models, challenging your students in such positive ways. 💕

  10. Mary Rimmer says:

    The smell of a new Pink Pearl eraser was one of my favourite September things in grade school, along with the new notebooks and pencils. I still take an idiotic pleasure in sharpening a new pencil–and yes, I still use them! But I also wanted to respond to Jane’s comment about wishing one had encountered some of those (wonderful) ideas about teaching before retirement. I have some of the same regrets every time I talk to someone about teaching strategies and think ‘hey, I could have used that!’. But then there’s no such thing as attaining good teaching. It’s always a process of thinking, rethinking–and thinking about our thinking! Every year a few more ‘notes for next time’, every year new ideas from student feedback, every year some more mistakes to learn from–it’s no wonder that when we retire the habit is still there. I hope the process will go on via some of my former students who have become teachers; if they found anything I did useful they may go on to build on it and do it better. What’s more, a blog post is surely another good way of passing on useful ideas, even if we can no longer put them directly into practice!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I love your observations and reflections, Mary. Great examples of putting thinking about thinking to good use. Here’s to the commitment and creativity of the next generations of teachers!

  11. heimdalco says:

    This made me think of my anticipation each year when it was time for school to start again. I hated to see summer end & sleeping late & swimming & being “free.” But I also looked forward to seeing my friends, football games, cheerleading, & new teachers. I remember so many first days & that “school smell” that is nowhere else on this planet … books, waxed hallways, the cafeteria. I loved English literature, journalism, art class, science & hated math. From my then-perspective it seemed like it would never end. From my now-perspective I wonder how it went by so fast. And it all started with that first day of school at the end of summer. Like you, there is so much now I wish I had known then or had even a clue. I was a member of the FTA for years (Future Teachers of America) but in the end, became a nurse. Our goals & paths change but those memories about the first day of school are with us forever.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s true, isn’t it, Linda. Those memories never leave us. Our school year experiences play a significant role in who we become. Every child deserves to thrive in their school environments.

      • heimdalco says:

        You know what just occurred to me? There may be teachers ‘out there’ right now that were students under your care that may be using techniques in THEIR classrooms that they learned FROM YOU. As a nurse manager in the OR I was responsible for teaching new graduate nurses that came to work for us. So many of them have told me years later about some specific way I taught them or encouraged them or made the experience positive for them & that they passed it along to THEIR students when they found themselves in the position I once held. Your post made me REMEMBER that. Those memories made me feel good all over again. Thank you for the reminder. We really never know who we touch, how we influence & where something we taught may have led.

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