What I hope I am teaching

people-31339_640Let’s face it, when we teach, we never really know for sure what we’ve accomplished. We may see or hear fairly convincing evidence of our students’ learning. But determining exactly how much or which parts of that learning are actually attributable to our daily heroic efforts remains elusive. The space between teacher teaching and sudent learning strikes me as remarkably mysterious and ultimately unknowable territory. And I think that is part of what can make teaching feel so frustrating. Teach as much as we may – we can never control the learning.

Here’s what brought me to this cluster of thoughts: Working with my 4th and 5th graders on volleyball skills. So far, the majority of my students have been having a lot of fun with this unit and also a surprising amount of success. They have a nice selection of softer, lightweight volleyballs to work with. Several show signs of previous exposure and playing experience and we’ve been working on volleyball elements in fits and starts for a couple of weeks now. So today when I asked them to make small groups and practice returning a tossed ball over the net, they learned some new things (or so they said): “That it’s harder than it looks.” and “We need to call the ball.”

The critical piece for me was in recognizing that this lesson had less to do with improving those individual skills of serving, bumping and setting and everything to do with encouraging their intrinsic desire to act – to respond to the ball – to do something and feel confident in making any attempt. And so I found myself in the middle of the gym cheering wildly for a team managing more than one hit in their return and celebrating a first hesitant bump by my currently least skilled student. I told one group: “Of course I could go around and correct you all the time, looking for proper technique – but then you wouldn’t learn how to play. I really just want you to figure out how to respond to the ball each time, because it’s always going to be different – where you are, where the ball is, where your teammates are… I want you to do something, anything…”

I am not in control of their learning and (not but) I have a great deal of influence on the conditions and context for their learning. What I hope I am teaching is that my teaching is not the point. Rather, what I actually do is set up structured opportunities for my students to practice their many skills. I provide context, material, space, time, some frameworks and my enthusiasm for each of them. What lessons they take away from those experiences are theirs entirely, not mine.

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