Being open to surprise in the classroom

December 6, 2013

In the second of her monthly posts, 2012 Inspired Teaching Fellow Jenny Leehey discusses the value she’s found in being open to surprise in the classroom.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my fiancé asks me each year. “I don’t know. Surprise me!” I always say. Of course, now that I teach three-year olds, I get my fair share of surprises every day at work.

Like all teachers, I spend hours each week planning and rehearsing my days, but no lesson ever goes exactly as planned. There are happy surprises: that afternoon when it finally stopped raining and we went outside with a bag of colorful scarves and the kids discovered wind and how it works. There are not-so-happy surprises: that day my aide left for a doctor’s appointment and two kids had bathroom accidents while our class was trying to make playdough. There are lots of little surprises every day, but as I reflect on my school year so far, I can think of one surprise that continues to amaze me. (Spoiler alert: it’s a happy one.)

Rewind all the way back to the week before school started, when I received my class roster and began calling families to invite them to visit our classroom before the big first day. I was expecting a host of anxious questions about school day logistics, so I had notes and answers ready. What I didn’t plan for was that the majority of family members I spoke with did not understand or speak English. The fact that I would have a class of three-year olds who were not only brand-new to school, but also brand-new to the English language did not feel like a Christmas-present-type-of-surprise. It was intimidating, and it made me wonder how effective I was really going to be at teaching my students.

Instead of wasting too much time feeling worried and scared, I started searching for ways to communicate with and engage young English Language Learners without being able to speak their home languages fluently myself. Motivated by my desire to build relationships with my students, I drew from strategies we learned during our exceptional learners course with Inspired Teaching and opened myself up to practices that were new to me. I started incorporating song into all of our classroom routines, even making up my own! I enlisted the help of a monkey puppet who has since become our beloved class mascot. I made visuals and charts to introduce new concepts, daily schedules, and classroom behavior norms.  Despite being someone who had always avoided drama class, I went outside my comfort zone and discovered the value of wacky voices, new personas, and structured play as ways my students and I could better communicate with one another.

I was committed to acknowledging and understanding my students’ backgrounds, their own areas of expertise, and what brings them joy, and my students have already shown me so much about what it means to create a developmentally appropriate, student-centered classroom. Teachers always say they learn from their students, but I cannot help but feel thankful for all that my little ones have taught me in just half a school year. For me, the biggest, thrilling surprise has been that even though it’s only December, I can already see so many changes and so much growth in my teaching practice. May there be more happy surprises in 2014!

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