Being Present in the Classroom

Through reflection and growth, each school year offers an opportunity to discover new passions in education.  As a creative person, often times my passion and focus in teaching is about creating new material, new lessons, new assessments, new everything, in order to give students the best learning experiences possible.  I entered this school year with the focus of presence.  I have a new conviction that my presence with these students in the classroom is not only “enough” of a focus, but it is the most important focus I could have.  There will always be initiatives and new research about the best practices of teaching.  These things are good and necessary in a changing world, however I need the reminder that I didn’t get into teaching to be good at producing the best math lessons, I became a teacher for the students.  Of course I will create new materials as the need arises, but instead of productivity this year, my focus is being with, listening to and noticing students.

We had a student panel as a session on our back-to-school institute day.  Students gave up one of their last days of summer to talk to teachers about their experiences in the classrooms and hallways.  Their honest conversation reminded me that all students are trying to find their identity in this crazy world of high school.  They want to be seen and known.  If I am super concerned with lessons and curriculum and content, I miss the opportunity to acknowledge students for who they are.  The other theme I heard from the student panel was stress.  The pressure put on students by their parents, peers and themselves is very heavy.  They need adult advocates who are helping them navigate the stresses they face on a daily basis.  I want my presence in the classroom to be calming and stress-relieving.  

One of the best ways that I’ve been intentionally present with students this year has been a question I used on my student information form.  I wish I knew who to give credit to for this idea, but I don’t remember where I got it. The last question on my form was “What question should Ms. Fruin ask to get to know you better?” I made time to ask students their questions before or during class.  Students wrote questions like “Ask me about my personality,” “Ask how my day is going,” “Ask me about cross country,” and “Ask me about my learning style.” Since students chose questions about things they are comfortable talking about, they really opened up and I had many fun, delightful conversations.  

I have had two challenges this year where being present for each of my students led me to handle situations differently than I would have in the past.  I had a student who was exhibiting characteristics of defiance. In the past, I would have exercised my authority to discipline this student.  This time, I asked myself why he was being defiant, and what I could do to help him feel validated in my class.  It has taken time, but this has turned into a positive experience.  By finding ways to give this student power to think differently than me and the class, to argue his ideas respectfully and to point out my mathematical errors, he has much more buy-in to the class than he did a month ago.

I had another experience where a student went to administration to request to have a different teacher.  This initially stung since I’ve been intentional about getting to know students and making them feel comfortable.  Ultimately, it came down to her being uncomfortable with my teaching style.  With both a student exhibiting disrespectful behavior and another one wanting out of my class, I had to reflect about what presence means.  To me, it means choosing to be for all of my students, including the ones who are defiant or who don’t like my teaching style.  I have had purposeful conversations with the student requesting a teacher change that have helped her see why I teach the way I teach so that she knows I am intentional about her learning for understanding.  My hope is that by the end of the semester, she won’t want to leave my class.  Presence is taking cues from students, being humbled by them, learning and growing just as I expect them to grow.  

The idea of being present sounds so simple.  We all show up everyday sharing space with, and breathing the same air as, our students.  However, our minds are occupied with so many different tasks to complete as well as our own stresses both at home and at school.  If I make my priority to be present, students will feel valued, respected, and safe which creates a great environment for learning math.