The Power of Students

Like many teachers, I tend to deflect credit away from myself and toward the people who are doing the actual learning. Working with middle schoolers, especially girls, I can make a strong argument for why I should do that. Middle schoolers are seeking to define and take their place in a grown-up world and have to feel they are agents of their own destiny to do so effectively. Girls in particular (or the “girl-brained” at any rate) are more likely to give credit elsewhere, building a stronger relationship in the process but diminishing their self-concept as strong people making their mark in the world. I want to work to counteract that effect. And besides, let’s be honest, as I once told the entire school, “There is no good teaching without the power of students.”

John Norton, the founder of the MiddleWeb listserve that would eventually be absorbed by NMSA and renamed “MiddleTalk,” and also one of the key forces in Teacher Leaders Network, once posed the question whether teachers might be hurting their cause through their relentless modesty. When I say, “Oh, it’s the kids. They’re amazing. They deserve the credit,” am I leaving out an important part of the story? If so, how does that reflect on me and, more importantly, the profession of teaching? Bearing in mind the kids are amazing and do deserve a good chunk of the credit.

The Upper School Rock Band has had an especially good run these past two years. A stable core of the drummer and bassist, both of whom sing well, has been augmented by a number of other talented players. With all the strong groups we have had through the years, and all the justified compliments they have received, this is the first group that ever won the compliment, “You guys rock!” I’ve always credited the drummer and bassist for their aggressive playing and singing, and talked about how they pull everyone else along. And they do. But as I think about it, maybe there’s a little bit more to the story than that.

The turning point for the group in going from being the Rock Band to a band that rocks was arguably the Green Day song “21 Guns,” which we performed in the spring of 2010. As loud as the drummer may always have been, it seemed like she was holding back something inside of her, and one night I suggested she hit the crash cymbal at least twice a measure throughout the last verse and on all four beats heading into transitions. “Are you kidding?!” she asked me and I responded, “Nope. Give it a try and see what you think.” She did, and while she may have felt a little silly at first, she stuck with it, and over the next few rehearsals, the song took on a raucous feel, like a quintessential garage band just banging the heck out of their instruments.

So how much of this transformation was teaching and how much was learning? In one sense, who cares – the end results speak for themselves, and the power of students was unleashed.

But in another sense, it does matter. After all, we all need support from time to time, and doesn’t it help students to know their teacher has succeeded in helping other kids before them? Doesn’t it help parents to know that their children are growing steadily and that their teachers have played a part in that process? For that matter, doesn’t it help me as a teacher to concede that I have an effect on my surroundings, that it’s not just the luck of the draw if the rock band sounds good, or Humanities 7 writes beautifully, or ESL students show tremendous growth in their English?

We live in a time when, arguably, the profession of teaching has never been held in lower esteem. Even the U.S. Secretary of Education applauded when the Central Falls High School in Rhode Island laid off every single teacher. And yet, whether in enviable conditions such as Stoneleigh-Burnham teachers enjoy, or in far more challenging conditions such as may be found in schools in some of the poorest areas of the country, there is a lot of wonderful teaching going on. That fact needs to be recognized and celebrated. At our school, to that end, the Stoneleigh-Burnham Trustees created an award for teaching in 1997. This year, I was honored and privileged to be the first teacher to win it a second time.

As I was walking back after accepting the award from our Head of School, I caught the eye of our drummer standing among the Seniors, cheering and applauding and giving me a fist pump. Perhaps I had indeed helped unleash the power of this student. And if so, then others as well? My smile curved up a little more and I returned to my seat, among the middle schoolers, where I belonged.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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4 Comments

Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Performing Arts, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

4 responses to “The Power of Students

  1. Well thought out and beautifully written, my friend. I think you’ve found the precious middle ground between over-modest and overbearing. And I couldn’t agree more that “…there is a lot of wonderful teaching going on. That fact needs to be recognized and celebrated.”

    Which reminds me – I have one great project to propose before I join the Dude and simply abide. I’ll be in touch!

  2. Hank Mixsell

    Bill,
    I LOVE your blog and have shared it with many (now ex-)colleagues! While I’m in Mexico with three Hamden Hall Students, I’m catching up on reading that I haven’t gotten around to, including a book that was given to me by a friend as a going away present. It’s “If Holden Caulfield Were in My Classroom” by Bernie Schein. If you haven’t read it, I strongly urge you to do so. I think it’s a must for any middle school teacher. Schein “gets it” (“it” being the mind of a middle schooler) like no one I’ve ever read or heard before. I have literally laughed and cried my way through it the past couple of days. If you can wait until school starts, I’ll be glad to share my copy with you; if not, it’s ISBN # 978-1-59181-076-6, published by Sentient Publications (www.sentientpublications.com).

    Am VERY excited to be working with you next year!

    Cordially,
    Hank

  3. John, thank you very much! Any project with you involved is bound to be exciting.
    Hank, thank you, too. I’m equally excited to be working with you next year as well. We’ve got a strong team forming. 🙂 I’ll check the local library for that book and perhaps borrow from you if they don’t have it. See you next month!

  4. I loved reading this as it struck that fine balance between humbleness and confidence in the purpose and difference you make every day. A beautiful reminder that #TeachingIs showing up every day to unleash potential…even if that potential is our own.

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