A few thoughts on what makes students successful

Leanne Welch

Leanne Welch

My name is Leanne Welch. I have been teaching at Carman-Ainsworth Schools for the past 30 years, primarily in third grade. I was recently asked to speak to a group of curriculum superintendents who had noticed that my MSTEP scores had been consistently high over the past few years. These are the thoughts I shared with them…

My superintendent came to me and said, “What is it that you do that causes your kids to perform?” After some pondering, I came to the conclusion that it’s obviously not the content; we all have the same standards in front of us. So, I think it’s more about the traits that we teach kids to have that allow them to use the skills they’ve already learned in class more efficiently. Interestingly enough, as I was pondering this, I thought to myself: These are the same traits we want our teachers to have, so I tried to make a few parallels between students and teachers.

Successful Trait #1-Flexibility

Successful students have learned flexibility, the ability to think on their feet. Often times, students appear to not know how to do something that they’re really quite good at simply because the problem on a test is presented in a different way than they’re used to seeing it. As a result, it looks like this child has no idea what they’re doing, which in reality is not the case. So, what do kids do when they haven’t learned flexibility? They freeze! Which is not what we want happening during a test.

But think about this: How can we expect teachers to teach flexibility if they themselves are not allowed to be flexible in their own right? Teachers need to be afforded the flexibility to deliver curriculum in a way that they see fit rather in a way that is drawn up by others in a certain fashion. Now this not only changes from teacher to teacher, but it can change in a single teacher from class to class. I teach differently every single year based on what I have in front of me. Teachers need to be allowed the flexibility to react to the students sitting right in front of them instead of being pigeonholed to certain procedures or methods that other people may think work. I guess what I’m saying is, my consistent high scores are mostly due to the fact that I’ve chosen to be inconsistent in how I deliver content from year to year.

Successful Trait #2-Maximize Learning Time

Successful students have been taught above all to maximize learning time-to make the best of every single second. Makes sense, right?

Well the same holds true for teachers. If we expect students to maximize learning time, shouldn’t the same be said for teachers? Teachers need to be trusted to manipulate their schedules in order to maximize student learning. For me, some days I may dedicate an entire hour to math; other days, I may only give math 20 minutes, because the new concept being taught in language arts needs to dominate the majority of their time. Sadly, all too often I hear teachers who feel pressured to precisely follow the schedule they have handed in because they’re worried about coaches, principals, or someone else coming in to observe them and they want to be on pace with whatever they handed in. We need to stop this way of thinking because it prevents teachers from maximizing learning time based on the needs of the kids sitting right in front of them. Teachers know what their kids need and when they need it. Trust them to make these decisions from day to day. In other words, you hired them to do the job, let them do it!

Successful Trait #3-Strategies

Strategies are really, really important for kids. They allow them to be able to problem solve through issues they run into. Successful students not only need a toolbelt of skills but, most importantly, they need strategies and they need to feel comfortable stepping out of the box to form a new strategy. When you’re taking a test, the worst thing you can do is to start second guessing yourself-we’ve all had that happen. So, we need to teach kids not to second guess themselves but to trust themselves to come up with a strategy that will work for them.

Again, teachers too must come prepared with a multitude of strategies. If a particular strategy is not working for a particular class, or even a single student, teachers need to be allowed to adjust as opposed to continuing to do the very thing that may have already proven to fail for them the day before. All too often I talk to teachers who feel the need to forge through pacing guides. I understand pacing guides are important; however, if a teacher knows all of their students or most of their students are failing, they need to take a different direction. They need to be encouraged to follow their gut, to listen to their instincts, to seek out or even create new strategies to reach these students. In other words, teachers need to be encouraged to think outside of the box because, let’s face it, we’re getting more and more students for whom the standard is not working.

Successful Trait #4-Independence

This is probably the most important one. Successful students must become independent. Kids nowadays really resist this idea. All too often kids expect me to watch them complete every single step in a problem. They require constant reassurance and seek out constant feedback. One of the most common phrases in every classroom… “I need help!” As teachers, it’s our instinct to want to fulfill all of those needs and to guide them every step of the way. But what we’re really doing when we’re doing this is hurting kids. Because the quickest path to failure once we say, put kids in front of an MSTEP test, is to have them not know independence. What do kids without independence do when they hit a question they don’t immediately understand? They panic or just plain give up and move on. So, it’s importance that we teach kids to work through confusions independently, not help them every step of the way. This is hard to do, but teachers have to do it! Kids need to try to do things on their own rather than instantly asking for help, which is the instinct of kids today. The amazing thing though is, once you teach kids to do this, they’ll start to learn that they are able to push themselves farther than they ever thought they could, that they are smarter than they thought they were! They start to trust themselves! Of course, this will include some failures along the way, but kids need to be taught that failures will eventually lead to successes which will then lead to independence.

You guessed it; teachers too need to be afforded the latitude to be independent. Teachers who rely on a micromanaged curriculum, tend to fail. Currently, my curriculum is asking me to teach my 8-year-olds coordinating conjunctions when they don’t yet know how to write a complete sentence. That is not okay! As a teacher, I need to be independent enough to stop and teach the basics and then eventually lead to coordinating conjunctions, rather than forging blindly on as if the students are catching on. If a teacher knows page 56 or even 2 whole chapters in a workbook are not effective for this class, he/she needs to be confident enough to make an independent decision. A teacher needs to find and, I’ll be honest with you, often create their own materials to reach those students. Yes, it does require creation which means the teacher is indeed spending their personal time to do this, that’s the hard part. Please appreciate this sacrifice, as it is truly unique to this profession. As teachers, we don’t expect a lot of personal time, so we’re willing to do it. But what teachers don’t need is the added pressure of worrying about whether or not they’re going to get in trouble for not following the district prescribed program with fidelity. They don’t need the added stress of buying paper and ink for their home printers because they’re afraid to exceed their copy allotment. Because good teachers, quite frankly, are going to be good teachers no matter what the rules are, and they will react each and every day. They make decisions about what needs to be taught tomorrow based on what happened right here today. They can’t make these decisions ahead of time because they need to react, and they need to be allowed to make these decisions independently. That is the only way students will thrive. So please let teachers think independently rather than micromanaging them.

I recently read an article stating, “Veteran teachers are dwindling at a fast rate, and most new teachers suffer burnout by five years.” The honest truth is, despite the fact that I know I’m in my true calling, I would not make it as a new teacher today. I survive only because I’ve been in this profession long enough to trust my instincts. But most teachers, are afraid to do that! So, I ask you as administrators to help take the burnout and the fear out of teaching. Because there is one thing that we all know for certain-overwhelmingly, teachers go into teaching for one reason, and that’s because they want to make a difference. So please help them to do just that!

Leanne Welch is a teacher in the Carman-

Ainsworth Community School District.