Teachers & Students: The Heart of the Community--Carol Ponganis

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Middle School science & math

"The starting point for all real education"

From the Spring 2010 Caller

Teaching is all about the relationship between a student and teacher. The discipline I teach just provides the venue to get there. Teachers can’t expect to transmit information, let alone transform a child, if they haven’t formed a connection.

The very first day of class I always ask my new students to tell me a story about their name. Everyone has a story about their name. In that story I often find out personal things that begin to establish the connection. I assume that if you don’t know someone’s name, you don’t know even the most basic thing about that person. A teacher has to understand the student’s needs, point of view, background knowledge, interests inside and outside school, family lives, assumptions and biases, and cultural differences. In turn, the student needs to understand the teacher.
I try to establish a classroom where students can expect to be treated fairly and respectfully. If that doesn’t happen, they won’t be able to learn. They’ll be constantly guarding against embarrassment rather than paying attention to the lesson.
I compliment my students as a method to encourage them. I say, “I can’t believe the quality of your project!” or “That was a great solution you thought up!” They feel they’re doing better when you point out their good works. You get what you expect. I want to spend an equal amount of time on all my students, whether they’re average, or doing well, or doing poorly. I want to spend as much time with the kids doing right as those doing wrong.
We teach who we are. I know that I have to stay aware of my views, my values, and my assumptions— and accept those of my students— to be an effective teacher. A fellow teacher once told me that affirming our own identities is one of the most powerful things teachers can do. If we do that, students feel free to express and explore their own identities. Creating a community that values diversity teaches students to be open-minded, and they start to understand the complexities of life. This is where personal relationships begin. That’s the starting point for all real education.
One way I establish a culture of caring is that I “catch” my students being good. I reward them with a small candy called Swedish Fish. They are so tiny, we nicknamed them Swedish guppies. Publicly handing out these guppies indirectly shows other students the kind of behavior I value and what I expect in my classroom. I give them out as pats on the back for acts like asking a great question, helping out a fellow student, or volunteering to clean up the lab.
We celebrate each child’s birthday with a quick ritual. I want students to know that I care about their special day. I also acknowledge the holidays that students observe by asking silly questions like: Who tried something new to celebrate New Year’s? What is your favorite side dish at Thanksgiving? What was the weirdest gift you received for Christmas or Chanukah? These questions let students bring their personal lives into the room. It lets them know that I am interested in them as more than just my science students. These little acts help create a sense of community in my classroom.
Carol Ponganis has taught at Catlin Gabel for 22 years. She holds a BA in biology from the University of California–Santa Cruz and an MS from Portland State University in curriculum and instruction.