By Amy Merk
As confirmation numbers and departure times get set for our second ConnecTeach adventure, I have begun to reflect on what our first trip meant for me. It’s taken me almost a year to realize it, but ConnecTeach really has changed my professional life forever as an educator. In the first month, as I got back and started getting my own classroom ready, the first trip was an opportunity to “give back”, “make a difference”, and use other such well-intentioned clichés, which made a good impression in the faculty lounge. After we got feedback from the teachers we visited, my experience became more than just a conversation topic- I was a positive influence on other teachers. What I didn’t expect was that this week, I would feel the true impact that ConnecTeach has made on me.
If anyone saw me in my classroom that morning before school, they might have thought I had finally lost it. I was giggling out loud as I cut strips of paper, folded them up, and put them in jars.
During March and April, the faint smell of number two pencils on scantrons becomes a stronger and more frequent sense memory. You can see a change in the faculty in many schools across the US. Still dedicated, still determined to engage, but somewhat doubtful. Will I get my students to where they need to be? Will my students’ test scores reflect the growth that I know they have made? The never-ending push toward rigor leaves some with rigor mortis. The brightly colored bulletin boards created by energetic hands back in August have now dulled.
At ConnecTeach, we believe that students should be engaged in meaningful learning. Students should be allowed to develop thinking skills through cooperative learning and multi-sensory experiences. I greet my students with a smile as I try to enact lesson plans I developed based on these very principles. But Tuesday, all I saw all day long were tired, discouraged faces- from my students, from my colleagues, and even from myself as I caught my reflection in a trophy case proudly displaying our test score performance from last year.
And then…Wednesday morning at 4 am- it happened. I jumped out of bed and yelled “I have to practice what I teach!!!!!”
In July, I remember standing in front of a captive audience at the Hope School in Hyderabad, telling the teachers how important it was to empower students to take responsibility for their own learning. We got the teachers up and moving to demonstrate learning as an active process, and that teaching, also an active process, must be an act of constant reflection and growth. “Teaching is an art and a science,” I had told them, “a profession where creativity meets trial and error.” This was all going through my mind as I got ready for work on Wednesday, knowing what I had to do.
If anyone saw me in my classroom that morning before school, they might have thought I had finally lost it. I was giggling out loud as I cut strips of paper, folded them up, and put them in jars. Ten minutes before the bell, I delivered my gifts. I gave the fifth and sixth grade math teachers each a jar of bad math jokes. By eleven o’clock, I had performed a reminder rap about rules and procedures to 25 sixth graders. After lunch, I caught a student making a flip-book in his math journal during class. Expecting me to reproach him for off-task behavior, he looked a bit puzzled when I enlisted him to make one demonstrating the division process we were learning (he was more than happy to oblige).
I really don’t know how many test scores I increased on Wednesday. What I do know is that I saw about forty more smiles than I had seen the day before. If school is a place where teachers and students want to be, there is engagement. Where teachers and students support each other through collaboration, there is engagement. Where students realize their teachers are also learning, there is engagement. Where there is engagement, there is learning.
ConnecTeach challenged me to do what I am asking other teachers to do. It impacted me as well as many in my school on Wednesday morning in Bedford, Texas, in the same way we hope to impact schools halfway across the world. My work as a ConnecTeach volunteer is the best professional development I could ever have. As we prepare for our second trip, I hope that my fellow volunteers will get to experience this same gift, delivered at that time during the school year when we all need it the most, all for the cost of a few hours of our spare time. Thank you, ConnecTeach, for the impact you make on everyone involved in this project, especially the one you continue to make on me.