First, Understand Students as People
As a beginning teacher, my colleagues told me not to get "too close" to the kids, don't let them "catch you off guard," and "plan, plan, plan"—and if that doesn't work—well, plan some more. They feared that the kids would run circles around me.
What I gleaned from trying this was that the kids missed that human contact they needed and quickly ranked me among the "nonhumans" who taught them on a regular basis. I remember one child who was so shy that she would only shrug or reply in monosyllables when I approached her. Her best friends told me that her last two teachers had decided that she was disabled and made sure she knew what they thought. I decided then to open up to students about my own life, my hopes, my likes, and my fears. These self-revelations didn't miraculously remove discipline issues, but it placed any problems in a context of understanding and empathy, allowing me to be firm but fair with these kids. A new class rapport was born. My shy student began to open up and later told me that she didn't feel so "weird" or different when she heard her classmates describe their fears and likes. Students began to feel free to display their individuality and the things they were passionate about, and I was better able to link my lessons and teaching style to their individual experiences and preferences.
After I had read some good literature, such as Wilder Penfield's neurological research and Howard Gardner's studies about multiple intelligences and individualizing and diversifying lesson plans to create multiple learning opportunities in the classroom, I began to understand that kids love a measured challenge. However, I didn't receive any formal training or support from the administration or my peers. In fact, I was ridiculed for trying to teach for the kids rather than to them. I was warned that I would lose their attention, be run ragged, and end up failing to achieve the expected standards. None of this happened, but nobody recognized or appreciated these efforts until years later.
I created a lesson plan that outlined a basic introduction to the material; major objectives for student achievement; and a series of different activities ranging from the most elemental, simple work to the most complex, challenging, and difficult tasks. Students could proceed at their own pace and go as far as they could. When a small group reached a certain point and couldn't go any further, I would ask one or two kids who had reached the most difficult level to stop and take them aside to show them what they needed to do to advance. The top students were told specifically not to solve the problem for those students who were challenged but to lead them in the direction to learn more, whether it meant rereading the chapter or activity, discussing where they were blocked, and so forth. Although this didn't always work magnificently, it did succeed most of the time, and it kept everyone involved, enthusiastic, and focused for the lesson.
Getting to Know Students
As I became an experienced teacher, I always used one block of 70 minutes at the beginning of the school year to meet with all children individually and ask them what they liked and disliked, their passions, hobbies, favorite foods, music, sports, hobbies, skills, colors, and so forth. While I was interviewing individual students, I had the other kids complete a very lengthy form that asked the same questions. When they were finished (it took about 30 minutes and counted for a grade), they could voluntarily exchange their sheets and talk about their biographies one-on-one. Almost 95 percent of the kids shared their stories with at least two other kids. We had established ground rules beforehand so that no one ridiculed anyone else. This allowed the more isolated kids to be appreciated and be known by the leaders and "popular" kids. I'm convinced that this lessened the effect of prejudices and deterred bullying in the long run.
In turn, I also completed the survey; and at the end of the class, I shared it with the students. They particularly loved this part and laughed endlessly at my outdated, antiquated ideas of fun things to do. For example, when I told them about my wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin hat as a kid, they were rolling in the aisles. I promised to bring them a picture, which I did. That stunned them and ended up creating a great debate about fads and fundamental principles. They also found my passion for the music of Nat King Cole both mysterious and amusing until I played his greatest hits; then they said I had good taste.
At the Heart of Teaching
Children of any age benefit from individualized instruction, and teachers—given the training, time, and support—can create a differentiated classroom with relative ease. Effective teaching and, thus, learning is, by its very nature, "differentiating." Each child has a unique way of learning things, and in the process of helping every child achieve maximum potential, an individualized educational approach is crucial. In teaching a group, we must, as far as possible, fine-tune our pedagogical approaches to respond to kids' differences and unique needs.
Don McMahon, a 40-year veteran in education and business, heads the college and career counseling program and the upper grade tutorial services at the International School in Stuttgart, Germany.