By: Corita T. Silapan, Grade 5 Class Teacher and Level Head, BINUS SCHOOL, Simprug
During my first year of teaching primary children, I was very strict. As a new teacher in an exclusive school for boys, all immensely rich and spoiled brats where some come to school in a helicopter and with at least two bodyguards because they are sons of the president, senators or congressmen, I was warned by some of the senior teachers. I lived by the principle “First impressions last”, and my understanding was students need to get that impression that I am very strict on the very first day of school. By that I have to make sure that they get my message: “You have to be quiet every single day. You can only talk if I ask a question.” My classroom was like a military camp – every single noise made during individual activity was dealt with seriously. My lessons were straight to the point, meaning, there were no segue, purely business.
Purely business. That was my relationship with my students was like. No personal conversations. No sharing of experiences. No storytelling. No connections. I admit I was quite satisfied because I was not getting tired from teaching. Noise gives me migraines. I knew there was something missing, but I did not dwell much on the thought. When the school year ended, I celebrated. I thought I was successful as a primary teacher. The following school year opened, and most students were visiting their former teachers. No one came to my class. That hit me hard. I thought I must have misinterpreted the senior teachers’ warning. True enough, I did.
Fast forward. Like any other stories, I’m sure you can surmise what happened next. There was total transformation. Through the years, I have developed a stronger personal connection with my students and vice versa. I read books and articles on fostering positive student-teacher relationship. I learned to praise students; be sensitive to their individual differences; include them in decision –making; give them support and constructive guidance; listen to their stories of fear, anxiety and happiness; and share my own personal stories with them. It is always noisy during class discussions, but I call it “positive noise.” It still gives me migraines, but I always have paracetamol or mefenamic acid on hand.
I want to share the most successful learning engagements I’ve done so far in terms of “getting personal” and being more connected with my students. Most of them are related to our units of inquiry:
Grade 1, Who We Are:
We were learning about family traditions, and I made a book titled “When I Was A Little Girl”. It contained information about our family activities when I was young. I also included some of our real family pictures depicting the activity. The grammar focus for this unit was past tense form of verbs, and I was able to link it to the unit. For every page of my book, there was one sentence about an activity I did with my family when I was young. For example, “When I was a little girl, I went to the beach a lot”, “When I was a little girl, my father taught me how to play chess”, “When I was a little girl, I slept every afternoon because my parents said it would make me tall.” While I was telling the story, the children giggled and whispered to each other. They couldn’t believe seeing photos of me while I was young. I gave the children their chance to share their family practices among each other, and I was glad to witness the learning engagement that transpired- children all happy and excited.
Grade 2, Where We Are In Place and Time
The focus of this unit were choices and decisions involved in a journey, changes experienced because of a journey, and impacts of journey on individual. I made a slide presentation of my journey to Indonesia, the first country I’ve ever traveled to. My slide presentation had the background song “Journey” by Lea Salonga and the students were surprised to know that the singer of Mulan’s theme song is from my country, Philippines. I shared with them why I made that choice (later on they learned that one of the reasons is “economic”) and the changes I experienced such as cooking and doing laundry on my own, learning to speak Bahasa Indonesia, living in an apartment for the first time, and having to adjust to the Indonesian culture. The students were shocked to know that it was my first time to ride an airplane! After the discussion, many of them approached me and asked me to tell them more stories about my journey. They asked how I like living in Indonesia. I reckon they were happy to hear the positive things I said about their country.
Grade 4, Who We Are
Last Christmas with my father (Showed this photo to my students)
I am not sure whether my deceased father would be pleased or vexed with me for always using him as an example in this lesson. This unit is about body systems and impacts of choices of lifestyles. I would share a personal story to my students of how my father used to be a chain smoker who loved to eat just meat all the time. At the age of 57, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Two years after, he succumbed to the disease. I think telling the children a real story of the suffering of someone close to me was more convincing and had a more impact on their decision to live a healthy life. There was a lengthy discussion after this as children recounted how their family members also suffered from diseases.
There are other ways of teachers sharing more of themselves and connecting with the children. For example, sharing with the students how your weekend went and asking them how they spent theirs will set a positive mood for the week. The experiences need not be always positive. The students need to know that in real life, there are always desirable and undesirable events. Another example is filling in this activity sheet on the first day of school and sharing your responses with the children (e.g. favourite food, book and childhood memory, an accomplishment I am proud of, person I look up to, etc.). Starting with it will also help shy students open up.
It’s been 13 years after that alarming realization, and I have changed a whole lot as a teacher. I still live by the principle “First impressions last” but in a totally different approach – not a commander but a friend, a counselor, a guardian, a mother, and a storyteller to the children. I still celebrate success every end of the school year, and I feel these successes are more genuine.