I have often thought about my purpose in educating my students. Obviously, I needed to teach them the standards that the state told me to teach. Teaching is so much more than the state standards, though. When I began my career, there was no such thing as state standards. It wasn’t until I was nearly halfway through my years as an educator that they came into existence. The question that needs answering is, “What should my students receive from their days in my classroom?” Any teacher can teach standards, especially when the teacher’s manuals began scripting lessons. Thank heavens we weathered that storm and the Common Core Standards came into effect. Good teachers though provide much more. We all come into the classroom with our own experiences and our ideas of what’s important. We have to be careful as to what we impart and how we do that. What is it that I hoped that my students learned from me beyond the academic standards?

When I began my teaching career, I was just trying to keep my head above water. I worked from the time I got up in the morning until the time I went to sleep at night, I think, and that was just to be ready for the next day! The job consumed me and filled every weekend. In fact, for the first couple of years, I went into my classroom nearly every weekend. The people in the security office likely waited for my call to allow me in every Saturday! Eventually, the pace slowed for me, and I was able to stop going in on the weekends. I learned that I could bring it all home instead! At the time, my thoughts were simply to put together interesting lessons, stay on top of correcting work and trying hard to keep kids interested in what I was doing. The curriculum was my focus and not much else beyond that seemed to be in the forefront of my mind. Maybe there was, but I sure don’t remember it being there.

In my first summer school session, which was all enrichment, I do recall thinking that I wanted the kids to leave my class looking at the world differently and with a creative twist to their perspectives. All the activities that I did that summer were focused on creative thought. I taught grades 2-6 and had the students for about an hour a day, with some grades on some days and other grades on other days. That certainly wasn’t enough time to make sweeping changes in kids’ perspectives, but maybe I could get them looking at things slightly differently. As it turns out, creativity and innovative thinking would become a strong force throughout my career, especially at the end. It was always a part of what I wanted my students to do as I reflect over the years I spent in education.

As my career moved forward, I began to think of the soft skills that kids needed. Sure, they needed to be responsible and do their homework, I wanted them to work hard and do their best, and I wanted to see good effort in everything that they did. But, did I outwardly teach those things? I think that in the beginning, it was more a situation of teaching through modeling with very little being stated outright. It was the 1980s and there were no standards. Teachers taught the textbooks and that alone was supposed to do the job of educating children. I suppose it did, but the expectations seem low in retrospect. Anyone should be able to teach a textbook once he or she learned the layout. But what about the skills outside of the academics that children needed?

I know that in my early years, I relied upon my own enthusiasm to motivate my students. I wanted to have fun while I taught, and I wanted my students to enjoy their classroom, too. I think we did enjoy it. There was always a lot of laughing in my classrooms, and that was intentional. I took kids’ achievement seriously, and I had high standards. Was I teaching kids that it was good to work hard, pursue high levels of success, and have fun at the same time? I hope so, but it wasn’t really a goal-yet.

My career reached a point where I philosophically disagreed with the direction of the school in which I was working. It would not be the last time. Everything had become centered on test scores and getting the best scores in our district. Great-we can teach kids how to fill in bubbles well; monkeys can do that. How far will that take our students far in life? All other aspects of a child were being disregarded. I could not work in that atmosphere. Throw in an administrator who referred to her time as the principal as her “regime,” and it was time to go. Leaving that school, a school I once loved and in which I grew up, is when I evolved from teacher to educator.

I landed a position where I was to teach 4th grade gifted students. The curriculum bounced between grades 4-6 and maybe a bit into 7th grade at times. The program in which I was working required us to “sell” our program and get families to come to our school as we needed to fill our classes with kids from all over the district. We were competing for a pool of gifted kids with two other schools. We had to be very good at articulating the program that we designed and implemented. It was at that point where my reflections lead me to examine what my students were truly learning in my classroom. It was far more than the standards and it should have been; there was a litany of skills being developed, too. Without moving to this new school and new program, I wonder if I would have ever sat down and thought about what I was teaching in addition to the academic standards.

As my career continued to unfold, it was becoming obvious that kids were needing help with character education. It didn’t seem that there was as much a need for building character across a classroom in the beginning of my career, but by the end, it was nearly a daily need. The students who I taught were generally regarded as the “good kids” but of course, even good kids need to be shown how to interact positively with one another. For some students, that was just plain and simply not in place. I’ve written about this in another article, and I’ve often wondered what changed over the course of my 35+ years. The advent of technology is what I continue to examine when it comes to this trend.

When I began my career in the 1980s, digital technology was in its infancy. There was nothing online for kids to dabble with, and their time on computers was sitting at a monitor and running a program from a five-inch floppy disc. As time moved forward, kids began to use advancing technology and definitely gained an online presence, even as fourth graders. Maybe it was the time online that desensitized them as their interactions were not always face to face any longer; they could say things that they wouldn’t say to the faces of their peers. Some of them were interacting with strangers online, and the formality of having to be kind wasn’t necessarily a consideration. Additionally, I’ve not seen anything that sped up life faster than technology and having the Internet in our homes. Parents began putting more of their time into their computer endeavors. With their work, with their social networks, their games and the mindless numbing of online content to peruse, less time went to their children. Kids, year after year, expressed that they would try to talk to their parents, but they were frequently ignored when mom or dad had the iPhone out. I imagine the reverse was true, too: kids ignored parents when they were on their devices. I wonder who started the ignoring, the kids or the parents? Therefore, how much character training was going on in homes during the latter stages of my career as opposed to the early days? I can unequivocally say that the time was not the same in the two eras. I saw the results in my classrooms. Kids were coming to school with fewer appropriate social skills, and thus, the need to teach them was foremost in the classroom.

I used my curriculum to teach positive social interaction. It was embedded within our day. I was always opposed to the canned programs that were continually thrust upon us. I taught character education every day and actively used the material in my curriculum to address the needs that each particular group of students had. We sat down and talked in circle groups as needed, and we discussed the issues in our classrooms. I tried to ask questions to get kids to realize that the things they were doing were sometimes hurtful and discuss the behaviors that could replace the negative actions. Positive messaging with phrases from videos we viewed were hung around the classroom, and the meanings of those phrases were discussed and applied to our own unique interactions. Lastly, I worked hard to model positive interactions and hoped that a good model would spur the students on to behave with respect in the classroom.

Respect was a vastly important trait that I hope students learned from me. It was the one character element that I discussed on the first day of school every year. My belief is that all positive interactions begin and end with respect. If students do not have respect for other individuals, or themselves for that matter, they will not be able to interact in a way that will bring them success in their lives. They need to show respect to their peers, the adults in the school, themselves, and the environment around them. I echoed the call for respect frequently; that was the key that I saw to unlocking all the positive interactions that were needed if a classroom was to be successful. I truly hope that the idea of respect left my classroom with all my students and was embedded in them for the rest of their lives. I know that I alone cannot create a respectful student, but I sure gave everything I had to facilitate respect.

I always wanted to instill a sense of responsibility in my students. I hoped that they would be responsible for their work as well as the interactions that they had with one another. In today’s times, we seem to have moved into an era where people look for others to blame and the accepting of responsibility for one’s actions has become a bit thin. Therefore, in my classroom, I attempted to have kids assume responsibility for what they did, both good and not so good. I held kids accountable for turning in their work, and I kept records regarding that. Notifications were sent home when kids missed turning in an assignment, and a report as to the completion rate of their work for the week went home for a parent to sign. On that same sheet, behavior scores were given. If the parents and I worked together and a child knew that he or she wasn’t going to be able to slip by, hopefully a sense of responsibility would be built. Encouraging words were always written on those reports, even if some of the other news wasn’t so positive. However, there were parents who simply didn’t want to read the information that maybe their child had something to work on in the classroom. Thus, a loophole for those children was built in by their parents. I wonder how those kids are doing if that is the way they were being parented. I felt bad for them.

Responsibility spills into so many differing aspects of life. I tried to instill that the functioning of our classroom was all our responsibility. Therefore, when the place was a mess after a lively activity, it was all our jobs to clean it up. I didn’t care who individually made the mess; everyone was expected to help clean it up, and that included me, too. So, I modeled responsibility in the form of cleaning up the classroom for my students. I worked to instill that each student had a responsibility toward his or her peers to allow each student to learn. That meant that everyone had the responsibility to come to school ready for the day, they had the responsibility to allow instruction and interaction to occur without disturbing the process, and they had the responsibility to participate in that process. We all learn better when everyone contributes to the overall knowledge of the class. Once again, they had the responsibility to work together with respect for one another, and allow each other to have their own thoughts. The responsibility was to allow others to share their thoughts and ideas without ridicule and allow for each of their peers to have his or her own voice. That was a huge component of the responsibility toward the functioning of our classroom.

In the early era of my career, collaboration was just becoming an aspect of learning. When I was a kid, talking together in the classroom as we worked was considered cheating. In the 80s, talking together in collaborative groups was being seen as a good thing. Over the course of my career, it became a necessary component to our day.

I aligned my teaching to what became known as the four Cs of the 21st Century Skills. I bought into those skills wholeheartedly, I embraced them for myself, and I centered my classroom around them for my students. The four Cs are communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. To me, those are the hallmarks of success, and I wanted my students to have those skills entrenched deeper when they left my classroom than when they arrived. All day long, every day, we practiced communication. The students engaged in full class discussions, small group discussions, one-to-one interactions with one another, and they communicated via written words. Every day they communicated their written ideas to me and to each other, and I had them communicate ideas through art projects embedded throughout the curriculum. In those ways, they were also able to develop their creativity and critical thinking skills. Creativity and critical thinking were developed in the classroom through our activities, and students always had the opportunity to hear the thoughts of others, see the work of others and apply their own ideas to their critical and creative endeavors. The students worked and communicated in groups every single day, and a lot of days, they worked with many different groups for different purposes. Collaboration became central as to how my students learned. Students need to know how to work with others, and if they can learn to perfect some leadership skills, I think that bodes well for them in their future. Not all students will become leaders, but having some semblance of leadership allows them to take a role where they are more willing to assert themselves and allow their thoughts to be known. The world benefits when different thoughts are proposed, challenged, developed and innovated upon.

There seem to be so many pieces that I wanted my students to learn in my classroom. One final aspect I would like to address is the idea to not shy away from a challenge but instead, embrace it and take it on. Students were given intellectual challenges every day in my classroom. The task for me was to make them appropriate. My thought was to aim high and see how that went. If I aimed too high, I would scaffold the learning to the point where my students could attain the goal I had for them. High level challenges keep the mind engaged, and by hearing the thoughts of others, the students who might not have understood the ideas could learn a snip of knowledge that might unlock the key to conceptualizing the entire challenge. If students learn to accept challenges and strive to succeed in meeting the challenges presented to them, they learn confidence for the next time they are face to face with something that is rigorous and requires their utmost effort. It was my job to work with the students to find success in meeting the rigors of a gifted classroom. Not everyone attained the same level of success, and many factors play into that phenomenon, but I hope that each student was able to find a level of success that gave them what they needed to confidently attack the next situation that required their full effort. In that way, they learn how to solve the problems that they will encounter in their lives.

The task of educating students is enormous. People think that a teacher’s job is to teach content. Clearly, that is a portion of the job, and it seems, almost a small portion compared to all the other components of running a successful classroom. The task of educating young people is teaching them how to be successful people. The content is simply the avenue through which that goal is developed. I always hoped that my students saw my classroom as a fun, lively, energetic place to spend time. I wanted them to feel comfortable in taking risks as they expressed their ideas and not fear that someone would degrade them for their thoughts. I wanted them to enjoy the content and fully dive into all subjects with the idea that maybe they would find something that hadn’t interested them before but now was an area of curiosity. I hoped that they would get up in the morning looking forward to coming to school because they could count on the fact that they would be respected, valued and encouraged to engage in our activities. Then, they can show respect, value and a willingness to engage in the process of learning. I tried my best to keep the day interesting and challenging for the minds of my learners. In essence, my goal was to have young people enjoy the process of learning, no matter what that learning happened to be. I know I enjoyed the process of developing my students for that short snippet of time in their lives. I hope that the short time in my classroom left my students a little better off than they were before they came to my room. For sure, they left me a better educator when they left each year.

Is there ever a finite set of skills that a teacher tries to teach?

emphases change and time marches on, what is taught evolves just like the teacher does.