By Kevin Parr
Bath time was over. Toy boats were anchored, PJs donned, and bedtime stories selected. I had neglected my duty to prepare the pot for morning coffee the night before (a big no-no in a household of two teachers and one toddler), so I reminded myself to do it before I could forget again. I was just about to add scoops of ground coffee when I heard tiny footsteps approaching, followed by, “I help, Daddy?” So with Mason standing on a chair in front of me, I began to count the scoops as I added them. And then it happened: Right after “one,” Mason began to count with me. “Two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six,” we ended together and then added a jubilant, “Yay, coffee!” It wasn’t so much the fact that he was counting that amazed me; it was that I had no idea he could do it. It was a complete surprise—a magical moment.
Right then and there, we began counting everything we could find in the pictures of the books we read and our bedtime story ritual was transformed. Reflecting on it within the context of my classroom, I wondered: How many opportunities like this had I missed? How many surprises had I ignored? How many magical moments had I failed to take advantage of? Too many, I realized.
In that moment, I recalled the advice various mentors offered me as I was starting out as a new teacher: Learn to identify and take advantage of “teachable moments”—those unplanned questions or comments that are so thought provoking or bring up a topic so enticing that it is impossible not to address them. The message then was that these moments were often the ones that stuck and that kids remembered years later. It is still true today; I had just stopped listening.
With so much attention on having students meet new, rigorous standards; test scores that are now tied to teacher evaluations; and school improvement plans and the like, there is simply no time to waste. In fact, much of the discussion now is focused on the loss of instruction time and how to make every minute count. Obviously there is a lot of good in all of these efforts. We definitely want to make the most of our students’ time at school, set no less than the highest of expectations for them, and believe that our schools can continuously grow, but at some point, having our eyes so focused on the destination causes us to miss the wonders and surprises of the journey.
So, how can we both reach our destination and honor the wonders of the journey? How can we expect surprises and seize those magical moments?
- Prepare for plan B (or even C), but don’t lose sight of your goal. Instead of planning each week with an activity a day, think about the week as a menu. It is still essential to maintain a sharp focus on the overarching goals for the period of instruction, but try to anticipate the questions students might ask or insights they may have and plan for them. Surely, this is a guessing game to begin with, but it becomes easier with experience because the questions and insights seem to be somewhat similar from year to year. By thinking in this way, though, we are predisposed to the notion that our plans may take a turn, and we are open to assisting our students as they navigate the path they help to initiate.
- Don’t worry about the future; focus on the present. Don’t let the test looming at the end of the year cloud your vision of today. When we focus solely on this one future event, the tendency is to race ahead to meet and beat the test at the expense of almost everything else. Sadly, this is a race that will rarely be won and much, much more than the game itself will be lost. Even though dedicating time to topics that might not perfectly match the assessed standards may seem counterproductive based on outside pressures, it is in those moments that students are motivated and engaged and true learning takes place. This decision to focus on the present is just one of the many difficult decisions teachers must make in the interest of student learning. This does not mean, however, that teachers should not have short- or long-term goals or teach to the standards. Rather, it is a reminder that these goals and standards shouldn’t get in the way of students and their learning. We can be flexible and reach our goals at the same time.
- Shift your focus: What you need to teach versus what students need to learn. This is a subtle difference, but it goes beyond rhetoric. It is a simple, yet critical, shift from focusing on what we as teachers are doing or plan to do, to what our students are doing. When teachers begin by stating, “we need to teach X,” it implies that the plan is already set and students’ voices are not nor will not be part of the plan. On the other hand, by stating, “our students need to learn X,” we imply an openness to students’ interests and curiosity and will adapt our plans to match the students in the room. By simply changing the way we talk, we invite surprises and create the atmosphere for magical moments to occur.
When we change our mind-set in these ways, we honor the potential for surprises and unexpected detours along the way and acknowledge that learning rarely occurs on a predetermined, linear path. When we allow ourselves to take advantage of those surprises, the moments we encounter will be magical. These moments we have with our students are too important. I think Ferris Bueller said it best: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master’s degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail, or through his blog.