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The High School Experience that Shaped My Teaching Philosophy

The experience that provided my foundational philosophy of education came from an event that happened well before my official decision to go into education. Despite the fact that as a six year old I was “teaching” my Cabbage Patch Dolls using extra worksheet pages from the ditto machine my first-grade teacher gracefully bestowed upon me, about four changes in my college major separated me from that foundational experience and the day I began my teaching career.

Although my elementary and jr. high years presented challenges for my twice-exceptional brain, by freshman year of high school I had hit my stride. My executive functioning was…well, functioning. By this time, due to maturation mixed with quite of bit of adapting, I “got” the whole school thing. My binders and locker remained decently organized (while my room at home quite a different story) and my school assignments were completed with ease and on time. I had mastered taking notes without distraction, could balance homework with extra-curriculars, and knew how to work with peers in a group. Further, my love of theatre, ballet, and tap brought me out of my shell. My love for writing did not fail me as I was an odd duck who looked forward to writing assignments. Everything else? Easy peasy with barely a cracked book. Honor Roll every semester. Things were looking good.

That all came to a screeching halt the day I met chemistry my senior year in high school. I heard the rumors about the class but could not actually believe that a teacher would honestly think that she had made a test too easy if most of her class got A’s. That seemed too incredulous to me at the time, because, as a teacher, wouldn’t students doing well be a sign that you were a successful teacher?

It wasn’t long before I was sinking in this class, and fast. And I wasn’t the only one. By the middle of the year, when mid-terms were posted most of the class had received less than a C. Those who were taking the class as a Junior did the only logical thing if they were in that boat and dropped the class. As a senior, I did not have that option. For the first time in my school career, I did not understand an academic subject. And I tried so very hard. I read the text diligently, studied for hours before a test, went to Saturday labs, and my parents hired the tutor recommended by the teacher, a pharmacist. In the end, no matter how I tried, it was not enough. I graduated but lost my lifetime membership to CSF. Even though I had all first six semesters of high school as an honor student, and lifetime membership only required four semesters, the rules stated one of those semesters had to be in my Senior year and chemistry alone disqualified me from that. It seems much less significant now, but I can tell you that the sting on graduation day was real when I didn’t get to wear that stole with my robe. Things like that matter when you’re a teenager.

Years later as I navigated teaching, I realized that I walked away with something much more important than that stole ever was: an understanding that successful teachers have successful students. And I took that lesson with me into my earliest days in the classroom. I made it my mission to meet every student where they were at, identify specific areas to be addressed which led to designing a model of flexible differentiation that became the foundation of my doctoral research design. That led to some pretty amazing results, too! As a kindergarten teacher, I always took pride in having all my students proficient by the end of the school year. When students came to me, it was truly important to me that every student be given the chance to master their challenges and shine in their strengths. Although painful at the time, without that experience, I may have not understood this idea on such a personal level. This realization alone makes it worth it: to know that so many students received something from me that they may not have if I had not gone through that difficult experience.

Successful teachers have successful students.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t have students who struggle; it means that we target our instruction diligently and systematically to help them get where they need to be. When we teach a new concept, we do a “quick check” to see who has gotten it, challenge the ones who did and reteach a different way to those who didn’t until they do. Yes, education is up against a lot these days. Yes, students come to us all over the map academically and with their own learning fingerprint, as unique as our thumbprints. Focus on what you can control. Make the most of those precious minutes, reflect on your teaching practice when you see students not getting the concept, shine a light on their strengths, and teach beyond a test and not to it!

If you would like some guidance in helping your child be successful, reach out to me at deanna@deannawestedt.com . I offer 1:1 academic coaching sessions to help you navigate your child’s education.

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