Over the past 13 years, I have had the unique honor of serving as a full-time educator in elementary, middle, and high schools from “high-performing” suburban to turnaround urban, charter to non-charter, gifted to SpEd, ELL and Newcomer. In these roles I have learned from students in STEM, technology, math, language arts, science, and social studies. In this post I’d like to share some insights on best practices gained from this lens.
If I had to identify the biggest factor in impacting student success, it would be setting high expectations and BELIEVING ALL STUDENTS are capable of achieving them! In my third year of teaching I served as a targeted math specialist working with the most underperforming students in the school–all of whom performed below proficiency on the state tests. By the end of the year, 95% reached proficiency or higher because I first believed they could do it!
Sometimes relationships need to be built OUTSIDE OF class time. When I accepted a position at a newcomer middle school mid-year, very quickly I realized I wasn’t making progress inside the classroom walls. It was only after some of my most challenging students saw me smile at them ON THE BASKETBALL COURT that they began to listen to my teaching of math. The recess yard, lunchroom, before school, after school, and even Saturdays are wonderful opportunities for essential connections to begin!
An easy and essential way to connect with learners is to be authentic: transparent and relevant. As recent as two weeks ago when my classroom received 3D printers, I informed my students how a week prior I knew nothing about 3D printing; we were going to CO-LEARN together! Authenticity also refers to pedagogy. While working with struggling learners especially, students have the right to learn content that is relevant and meaningful TO THEM. Current events provide easy entry points to meaningful instruction: from statistics in sports to writing in music to international pen pals in social studies.
When working at a turnaround high school in the Denver Public Schools I was introduced to Restorative Justice, which significantly altered my approach to discipline. I fell in love with the belief that kids should be kept IN THE CLASSROOM reflecting on their choices and the effect their choices have on themselves and others! Creating a space for heartfelt, non judgemental feedback from both student and teacher in an RA was a game changer, and so simple! By simply taking turns expressing our intentions and how we felt, my students AND I quickly got past our misconceptions and instantly developed mutual respect.
I’d like to close with the power of incorporating daily circles at your place of learning. With the mental health crisis in our schools, specifically the alarming increase in the rates of self-harm and suicides, students need a safe space with a supportive community to process their developing thoughts. I was introduced to circles at a high school in North Philadelphia. Listening to my students discuss their realities was both heartbreaking AND INSPIRING, and my students looked forward to our time every day. Please find time in your schedule to incorporate circles. You can start with a simple check-in for just 5 minutes a day where students, if they choose, have an opportunity to express what is on their mind. Thanks for reading!
Jon Markowich is an upper elementary and middle school STEM teacher at Avon Grove Charter School outside of Philadelphia, PA USA. Stemming from a diverse set of classroom teaching experiences over the past 13 years, he has learned experientially the fact that ALL students are capable of success academically, socially, and emotionally so long as he does his job! Jon is always looking to collaborate with passionate partners in education including speaking engagements, teaching workshops, partner classrooms, and guest speakers in person and virtually!