Amanda Read Sheik – Unconventional

My experience teaching full-time high school and middle school in the classroom was wonderful and… downright bewildering. As far back as I can remember, when people would watch me corral my siblings and explain things with compelling and enthusiastic detail, they’d tell me that I was destined to be a teacher. But this apparent ability to command a group of juveniles and enrapture an audience weakened as soon as I began teaching in a conventional classroom on a daily basis.

There were some shining moments (which I credit to the Holy Spirit), and moments when I could have wept (apparently a normal experience). I had some students say I was their favorite teacher, and some students say they hated my class. I studied the process backwards and forwards, watched other teachers, developed unique routines, and introduced things that I would have loved as a middle schooler. That last item was probably an error on my part, as evidently, I was not a normal child (my husband tells me I was born an adult).

From the author’s classroom teaching days, a snapshot of her desk as decorated by middle school students.

A few students embraced my techniques right away. Yet many would stare confused when I gave assignments. They said that they didn’t understand what I was telling them to do because I used “such big words.” (One student’s example of my big words: “You shall do this…”) It gave me flashbacks to community art class at age 12 when I was a laughingstock for identifying “sup” as an abbreviated form of “supper” instead of slang for “what’s up.” I’ll admit that sometimes I did indeed use an above-grade level word, and I explained the meaning when I realized it. But most of the time I was completely confused as to how I was confusing to them.

One eighth grader summed it up thusly: “Mrs. Sheik, you should be a college professor. We’re too immature for you.”

How could this be? I think they were all fairly bright kids – and likely some were smarter than myself when it came to math or even certain details of historical events that especially piqued their interest. Yet there was some barrier in communication that I never completely breached in my brief full-time capacity.

I’ve gone so far as to wonder if it is fundamentally neurological due to our very different developmental backgrounds and expectations. As a homeschooled student, I grew up learning in a bustling home environment of mixed ages, crafting a laser-focus no matter what happened around me. I learned how to not be distracted and thus didn’t notice common distractions. These students grew up learning in a carefully curated environment in which the teacher was supposed to eliminate distractions, and thus they were sensitive to disruptions that barely, if ever, crossed my mind.

I grew up being taught like a college student, expected to plan my own study routine and work independently to achieve academic goals from a young age. I was encouraged to learn how to identify when I needed instruction and when I could solve things on my own. Most of these students grew up with their days and routines planned for them by teachers. They were used to very specific instructions and assignments that followed a unified pattern. They were used to cut and dry multiple choice questions, not open-ended questions with rhetorical nuance. School was something that happened to them rather than something that they made happen.

This prompted me to revisit a document of some forty-thousand words that I typed over the past 18 years on the subject of education. I was fully prepared to have my original ideas upended after teaching in a classroom. To my surprise, most of the hypotheses I had about education before experiencing a conventional K-12 classroom were affirmed rather than contradicted by the experience. But there was plenty that I didn’t realize, and I’m sure plenty I have left to learn.

Because I don’t like bullet point lists to show up at the bottom of a bloviated post, I’ll feature a list of a few conclusions in a later article. Overall, I think that while good education can be accomplished in conventional classrooms, their fundamental structure doesn’t prioritize skills necessary for developing citizens of a self-governing republic.

 

Amand Read Sheik Unconventional Studio

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