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Struggling to Progress: Why the Students Are the Teachers

“Without struggle, there can be no progress.” These words, uttered by one of my favorite thinkers, Frederick Douglass serves as the mantra for my life story. I have struggled for as long as I can remember, but, I am convinced through these struggles, I have grown both personally and professionally.

I am currently in my fourth year of teaching at Bayan and my tenth year overall. My journey as an educator began on the west-side of Chicago at a now defunct school called Austin Polytechnic Academy. At Austin Polytech the words of Douglass rung ever true. I struggled both in managing my classroom and developing a course that provided meaningful learning experiences.

Teaching young adults is a challenge in itself, and this particular demographic had added obstacles. Austin Polytech was situated in one of the most deprived communities in Chicago. At the time, the Austin community had the highest juvenile offender and violent crime rate of the 77 neighborhoods in Chicago. In the midst of this stark reality, I recognized that I was the pupil more so than the students. In my first weeks of teaching, I very much felt like a new student, walking nervously through the hallways, unsure of myself and whether or not I belonged there. Students are VERY perceptive, and they are keen at identifying any and all weaknesses in an instructor. They pinpointed my limitations with surgical precision. Needless to say, I struggled daily. But, in these challenges, I realized that most of my obstacles were rooted in my action and inaction, not the students’.

With this realization, I began to regularly self-assess in order to identify my deficits. This struggle lent itself to progress; as I realized my limitations, I began to work daily to transform my weaknesses into strengths. From then onward, I worked on making routines and sticking to them. I found mentors and observed them in order to gain new ideas and see the students in different environments. I spent time on weekends learning content so that I could deliver lessons with more clarity and comfort. I worked with my more challenging students instead of avoiding them, and these attempts paid dividends. In hindsight, I see that I grew as an educator primarily because of my struggles.

When I transitioned to Bayan and had my first international teaching experience I had the same trepidation in Kuwait as I did in Chicago. The reasons differed, but the anxiety was identical. Whereas I struggled before to manage classrooms, I now struggled with making lessons that challenged students intellectually and enhanced extant core skills. My best lessons at Austin were often times not as challenging at Bayan, as my students’ competencies differed vastly. My struggles lent itself to self-reflection and a realization that I had to continue to grow as a teacher so that I could further develop my students.

In my four years at Bayan, I have worked continuously to improve my teaching craft. I can now see clear results in my students’ performance. Each year I see the growth curve being heightened and I correlate the gains directly to the time invested addressing challenges. In my experience I see that Douglass’ quote has credence. Progress cannot and will not occur without challenges and obstacles, but through these challenges, we become a better form of ourselves.

As we all seek to improve ourselves as educators, I have found the following lessons apply irrespective of our years of experience:

Always consider yourself the student.

Always look for the teachable moments for both yourself and the students.

Always blame yourself first…If it didn’t work, ask: “What could I have done differently or better to achieve a more desirable outcome?”

Allow yourself to be the subject of analysis…invite coworkers in to your classroom and allow them to assess you and provide you feedback on what you do well and how you can improve.

Allow yourself to be the subject of analysis…invite your students to provide you feedback on what you do well and what you can do to improve.

Acknowledge your weaknesses and then work to transform them into strengths.

Remember that people are resistant to change…and by people, I mean: YOU and I.

Don’t be resistant to change if that change will make you become a better you.

Lastly, do remember: Our world and by extension our students are ever evolving…we too need evolve.


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