It’s somewhat of a cliche that teachers learn from their students, but I do actually think this is true. Of course, it doesn’t mean that my middle school students are teaching me decimals and basic algebra. Nonetheless, I do learn from them, and these lessons make me a better teacher and often a more compassionate person.
I love when a student shares their thought process with me. Sometimes a student will explain how he or she arrived at an answer, and it is completely different from any way I would have come up with, but just as valid. It helps me understand the way students may approach problems, and when I have that knowledge, I am better able to explain concepts in ways that click. Sometimes the student explains an incorrect way to approach the problem, but this still helps me. I keep a mental repository of misconceptions about various topics (especially for math), which helps me steer students away from them in the future. Whenever someone explains the incorrect thinking that led them to an answer, I add it to the list!
More importantly, I think, I learn to empathize with students who work really hard and just have trouble making material stick. I was one of those lucky kids who could tuck away facts as they were given and recall them, and I absolutely loved math. By no real effort of my own, I saw math problems in a way that made them easy. Sometimes this meant that I didn’t empathize enough with my classmates who needed things explained a second time, and I felt frustrated that I’d spend large amounts of class time sitting around waiting for everyone else to finish a test or a worksheet. But these students make up the majority, and some of them put a tremendous amount of work into school. Seeing firsthand the daily struggle these students go through, from the perspective of a tutor, made an enormous difference in my opinions on classroom time. There is nothing wrong with these students. They just need a little extra time, a second explanation, even simply a bit of encouragement. I see that now in a way that I never did, and I want so badly to help those kids. Like my younger self, they have such potential – I want to give them the tools and confidence they need to reach it. Interestingly, they help me to help them, just by sharing their struggles with me.