Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ask For What You Need!!

The front of my classroom, starring my "Ask For What You Need" banner

There is a banner at the front of my classroom that says "Ask For What You Need!!" It has been there since the day I started teaching in Philadelphia and has survived two classroom moves and one school redesign. I feel that it is an important lesson for my students, but more and more I realize that it is equally important for me (and teachers in general). 

I first thought of introducing this mantra in my classroom after watching a student stare blankly at an assignment sheet that I had distributed while I was student teaching. Our interaction went as follows:
            Me: Are you ok? I mean, does the assignment make sense?
            Student: Yeah. I get it.
            Me: Ok. Well, do you need some help getting started?
            Student: No. I’m all set.
                (A few minutes pass, as I’m checking in on other students.  I return to the original student who still has not started).
            Me: What’s going on? Why haven’t you gotten started?
            Student: Oh, I don’t have a pen. It’s cool, I just won’t do it.

NO IT IS NOT COOL! I was taken aback that this student wouldn’t just say something.  In a perfect world, of course he’d be prepared, but how could he just do nothing because he didn’t have a pen. After getting over my initial shock, I decided that one of the focuses of in my classroom would be personal advocacy (even if it was over something as trivial as a writing implement). 

Students: Ask For What You Need!!
My resolve with this mission of personal advocacy was only strengthened when I started teaching in my alternative school in Philadelphia.  I noticed students who would put their head down or their hood up and disengage just because they didn’t have a piece of paper or a pen or know what page we were on. 

As I became more comfortable in my role as a teacher, I’ve expanded my focus with the “ask for what you need” message.  I’ve encouraged students to ask for help with their personal situations, particular when they effect their academic life (as they often do in urban schools).  I remind them that I don’t need to pry into their business in order to offer help or resources. 

Much of this focus was even further confirmed as I read about the concept of learned helplessness as I was working through my graduate program.  While I don’t support all of the direct applications of learned helplessness to education, particularly as they have been applied to many urban students, I certainly feel that failure, retention, and other negative experiences have effected some of my students’ behaviors in the classroom.  As a result, I will continue to push them to advocate for themselves and speak up

 (Occasionally, this results in students asking me to sharpen their pencil or get supplies for them.  I typically point to where the supplies are and tell them to help themselves.  I want to be clear that “ask for what you need” is not the same as “be lazy and expect to be waited on”). 

Teachers: Ask For What You Need!
I mentioned the importance of  “ask for what you need” for teachers as well.  Teaching often feels like an isolating experience. You are in YOUR classroom, with YOUR students, teaching YOUR classes.  In order to keep your sanity, it’s important to recognize what you need (both tangibly and intangibly). 

For me, this has meant a number of things: reaching out to my fellow teachers and principal for help with particular students, sharing BOTH my successes and utter failures, connecting with a mentor teacher (even if she is in Vermont), and (more recently) becoming a “connected educator” (joining Twitter, starting this blog, and getting involved with a teacher PLN). 

Of course, there are always tangible needs within the classroom. I laugh every time my principal asks for our “supply lists” because I know that no matter what I put on it, I’m going to get a package of paper, a box of pens, a few whiteboard markers, and a roll of tape (not that I’m complaining, I make those supplies last).  Obviously, it’s important for me to find other sources for supplies.  There are great websites like DonorsChoose that match educators with wonderfully generous folks, but I have found better luck with simple CraigsList posts. 
             - Just by asking for it, I’ve gotten beautiful (gently used) bookshelves for my newly created classroom library, boxes and boxes of books, and a ton of supplies for my room from folks on Craigslist… all for FREE.
I’ve also tried writing to publishers and companies asking for materials. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it never hurts to ask. 

Obviously, it is absurd that teachers have to result to begging and scouring the internet for much needed supplies and in a perfect world schools would have everything they need, but until that perfect world exists, I will continue to ask for what I need… and encourage my students to do so, too.

Even if it means starting every class of every day with the phrase: “Does anyone need something to write with or something to write on.”

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