I was an elementary school teacher for 3.5 years, but now work in the business world. People were really shocked at such a dramatic career change, but teaching children has equipped me with some fantastic skills and experience that is a pretty unique stance to have in the business world.
Understanding and treating each child as an individual was of utmost importance to me in order to ensure I did the best job possible. My ultimate goal, often unattainably so, was that each and every child would achieve the learning outcome by the end of the lesson. In reality, this never happened as each child had different emotional needs; learning styles; physical and mental capabilities and intrinsic motivation. Learning to address each of these for every child is, to me, the sign of an excellent teacher.
Although achieving the learning objective is near on impossible for everyone, ensuring every child has the same opportunities and the same exposure to each opportunity is paramount. I had to allow each child to achieve, even if that meant putting building blocks, or scaffolding in place, so that they could work their way towards achieving the ultimate goal. For example, say my learning objective was for children to be able to add numbers to 10 and I am teaching a mixed ability class of roughly 30 five year olds. Within that class, I will probably have a couple of exceptionally bright, motivated students; several bright students who are more interested in playing than putting pen to paper; some children who are of average ability and very motivated and eager to please; a group of ‘naughty’ boys; a group of girls who ‘tell on each other’; some quiet children and some children with special educational needs. Having such an eclectic group of children is typical of a British classroom and when planning how to teach these children this mathematical concept, I would consider many things.
1. What do the children already know? What prior knowledge can I activate? I would pitch the initial introduction at roughly the middle ability, planning in higher order questioning for the more able children (typically meta cognition – getting the children to think about their thinking/how they got to their ultimate response) and repetitive questioning or closed questions for the children with special needs. By planning this, I was able to ensure that engagement levels are high; children start off with what they are familiar with and everyone was able to achieve.
2. How can I make the content meaningful?
Some children have very high levels of intrinsic motivation and will willingly participate in any classroom task, but for most, they are much more engaged when the content is meaningful and makes sense in their world. Knowing the current trends is vital as even just an image of a Pokémon or a loom band in the midst of my lesson made the subject matter seem much more appealing. I often introduced a classroom mascot at the start of each year and the children chose a name and developed an identity for the toy, so incorporating this mascot into lessons as a ‘helper’ or a ‘naughty toy’ who would get every question wrong, instantly sparked enthusiasm. Enthusiastic learners are open to applying themselves so much more.
3. What motivates each child?
Even for motivation there is not a ‘one size fits all protocol’. Motivation levels vary between children and can even vary depending on the time of day, what has happened prior to the school day starting, hunger level etc. Some children have high levels of self-motivation and will work exceptionally hard whether praise is given or not. Other children require a lot of extrinsic motivation. For some, verbal praise is what they seek, for others, they want something physically given to them. I used to use raffle tickets and stickers, resulting in grand prize draws at the end of the week. Others respond to positive reinforcement and praising other children provides their motivation.
4. What method of recording does each child prefer?
Some children love writing; some love drawing; others love building and some love talking. Playing to their strengths gets the best possible outcome for each child. By knowing each child’s preferred method of communication, I was also able to work on areas of weakness in short bursts, providing focused support.
5. How am I going to measure success?
The Floridian classroom seems to measure success in one way only; standardized tests. This is something I wholeheartedly disagree with as I believe success is multifaceted and can be measured in so many ways.
Self assessment. This required a lot of training of my classes as it takes a lot of environment building in order for the children to both understand, and be comfortable with, sharing when they really do understand something and when they really don’t. Peer assessment. Again, this required training – more on etiquette than anything else – but giving children a set of criteria to look for in a piece of work also made them so much more accountable.
Random questioning. This provided me with instant feedback, enabling me to plan the next steps more easily.
Individual marking of work. Something that Floridian classrooms neglect, but actively taking in each child’s work from every lesson, reading, reviewing and writing comments on it, enabled me to have a detailed insight into how well the children were able to apply the taught concept.
Application of taught topic to something abstract. If a child was able to apply the subject matter to a wholly different situation, then this showed me they had a deep level of understanding.
6. What am I going to do next? How can I stretch the children who achieved the objective and what am I going to do about the children who didn’t achieve it?
There was always children who excelled, always children who understood it but the knowledge was not concrete, and always children who struggled and I always ensured I had a plan for all of them. How can I extend the children who fully grasped it? Am I going to use larger numbers? Incorporate the numbers in problem solving? Give them a self-led group task? For the children who need reinforcement; am I going to repeat the lesson? Provide a practical alternative? Ask them to work with a partner? Ask them to be a teacher and teach somebody else? And for the children who struggled… do they need to work with smaller numbers? Do they understand what each number represents or do I need to go back to counting for them? Do I need to present the task as purely play and ‘sneakily’ incorporate mathematical concepts?
And how does this all apply to business?
1. Knowing what people know is vital. I always make it clear to my boss what I don’t understand. I was on a conference call and kept hearing about ‘V look ups’ on Excel. I didn’t want to detract from that particular conversation, but I followed up with my boss immediately afterwards. I don’t like not knowing what is going on and if I had understood the term, I would have got a lot more out of that conference call.
2. I really try to focus on getting to know anyone and everyone I meet. I meet a lot of people with my job and being amiable and personable makes your day so much easier. It also makes your day more fun and I often find I learn something new, whether business related or not. I first started listening to podcasts from a recommendation of a colleague, which has ultimately led to me being a sponsored athlete!
3. I understand that everyone is motivated differently. I am incredibly self-motivated, but I also understand other people are more motivated by other means, e.g. recognition. Knowing what motivates someone is a great way to engage in business discussions and to make every interaction as purposeful as possible.
4. I understand that everyone has different styles, preferences and ways of doing things. I have really learnt to be adaptable and to eradicate ‘cookie cutter’ ways of solving problems and completing work.
5. I know that success is multifaceted and don’t attribute ‘winning’ as the sole measure of my success. I have learnt to measure success by progression and being better than the time before.
6. I ensure I have contingency plans in place. I don’t just have one option, or idea, to present, but multiple. I also go into situations knowing where my negotiation limits are. I also make sure I take something from every meeting, conference and experience. I am all about self-improvement and I think the teaching environment where no lesson was ever perfect has set me up to understand that no situation is ever perfect.