A Leap of Faith – A Teacher’s Perspective

Unconditional Teaching

“Accepting students for who they are, rather than what they do, is integrally related to the teaching of a whole child”

– Alfie Kohn, The Whole Child

People often ask me why I am a teacher, they say things like “Well, you must have a really hard time with all the testing and standardized learning” or “That must require a lot of grading.” When I respond with “ No, the school I teach in does not believe in testing” or “ I really don’t grade, we write individual assessments on each child’s progress” they look at me with a sense of great confusion.

You see, I teach in a progressive education school. A large majority of people don’t really know what a progressive school is, or what it is all about. When I explain to them that it is very much about fostering self- directed learning, and being supportive of students finding what they are truly interested in, it becomes a question of the credentials, or validity that we as a school have. I often explain with great optimism that it is a place for kids to thrive in, a place that they can be who they are.  So many schools today focus on product rather than process, and don’t really allow students to be active participants in their own educational experience. Everything these days from schools to the workforce is about competition, and standardized outcomes. From my experience of teaching for seven years in this sort of environment I have realized a few things……..

Children require trust, humor, gentleness, encouragement. They need to be seen AND heard. Growing people need others to care about their interests, their personal hopes and aspirations, their strengths and weaknesses. Children need to be nurtured! Kohn states that “the best predictor of whether children will be able to accept themselves as valuable and capable is the extent to which they have been accepted unconditionally by others.” (TWC pg.21)  The environment I teach in is supportive of this theory. Because we have the wonderful opportunity to get to know our students, and our school is small, there are daily opportunities to learn from each other, within a community. Relationships are formed, lessons are learned. It’s quite a sight to see a child who has been told they are a failure start to grow wings and fly in our school. I have seen many transformations take place with children learning from other children, and being able to teach others.

While this might sound like utopia, or that I am a fluffy overly optimistic teacher, I believe this kind of approach to education is ultimately going to help make great people, not ‘sheeple’.  I realize that I am fortunate to have found the school I teach at, and that many children cannot afford a private school, let alone be able to go to a school like this. I have a large amount of gratitude, and I myself reflect on what my own interests are, and what I want to learn about when I am taught by my students. What is the recipe for our future generations? I’m not sure, but I believe I am in the right place.

I am a high school graduate, obtained two associates degrees from the local college, and graduated from The University of Arizona with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Art Education. I am K-12 certified, and proficient in my content area. I have attended many teacher development seminars, and am thinking of obtaining my Master’s degree, further pursuing my career and path in education.  I am a product of public school, and while I had many negative experiences attending them, I had a few teachers who cared and fostered my desire to learn. Today I write this by request of one of my student’s parents, and the more I sit here, the more I realize I want to learn…..perhaps I am a product of my environment, and maybe, just maybe, I practice what I teach.

I am delighted that Jennifer wrote this post for me – she’s been involved with my son’s education for 4 years; helping him hone the storyteller in his soul.  She is an excellent teacher and well loved by her students. Watching her ‘in action’ it’s easy to see why this is so. 

A Leap of Faith – A Series on Progressive Education

A Leap of Faith – A Student’s Perspective

A Leap of Faith – A Parent’s Prespective

A Leap of Faith – The Wrap Up

About Rutabaga the Mercenary Researcher

I'm a research librarian for Public Television, story teller, bike commuter, baker, music fiend, lover of reading & books, mother, wife, friend - and many more descriptive adjectives and nouns.
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49 Responses to A Leap of Faith – A Teacher’s Perspective

  1. Paul says:

    Well said and right on.

  2. havannah123 says:

    i wish you were my teacher! you seem quite open minded

  3. Reblogged this on The Mercenary Researcher and commented:

    Part two today – Teacher’s Perspective — enjoy

  4. Mrs. P says:

    I worked as a teacher for 17 years in a private school that had many progressive components to it. It was not a perfect system but it was quite effective in many ways. We didn’t have grades but had levels. Each level had a set of curriculum requirements which needed to be completed before advancing to the next level. Once the requirements were met, the student graduated on that day. This also allowed students to enroll in the school at any time of the year.

    We did do standardized testing but it was only for marketing purposes…the world outside the school measured success in terms of testing results, though we felt testing was not a good measure of academic achievement, all of our student’s scored well.

    In the beginning, we were an unknown small school. Within five years, we were the second most sought after school in the south Silicon Valley area, second only to a boarding school which offered everything under the sun, moon and stars.

    I’m glad to see more emphasis on progressive education.

    • Mrs P – thank you for sharing your story with us – It’s wonderful to hear about other teachers that have been involved and seen the value/benefits of a progressive model –

      I’m not surprised that your students did well and it’s interesting that you did some testing for marketing purposes – it’s not something I’ve considered or thought about. Our school is working hard on upping enrollment as we have struggled a bit since the economy tanked and the housing bubble burst all those years ago.

      I look forward to hearing more from you – take care!

      • Mrs. P says:

        A comment on the testing and how it was incorporated.

        Firstly, our educational emphasis was on comprehension and application and our students were expected to ask what a word means or to look it up, if they had developed that skill.

        Prior to testing we defined the word standardized and explained that everyone had to do it the same way. The standard on this test was that they couldn’t be helped with definitions or how to figure an answer, that we could only ask what they thought about it. (Of course we did not confirm or deny whatever they came up with but it allowed them the chance to originate to the teacher.) We told them that we could not define any words on the test while they were doing it, but they could write the words down and after the testing section was completed, we would be glad to clear up anything they didn’t understand.

        We also told them that the test would ask questions about information they had learned and even some they might not have learned. We encouraged them to try to answer and figure these out if they could but not to worry if they didn’t know. They could move on and come back to it later if they had time. We called these “challenge questions”. The kids had also become familiar with the term “logical reasoning” in their math class and we encouraged them to use logical reasoning to try to figure out the best answer for questions they did not know for sure. Example: I watched a child who had not yet learned multiplication, write out 3×5 as 5+5+5 in order to solve it. We promoted the test as an opportunity to show off how smart they were.

        The testing process is very difficult for some young children. I had assisted on the testing of second and third grade students. As soon as a testing section was done we would take a break, eat and do 15 minutes of something like four square, just to include an extroverting activity before resuming testing.

        Even doing all of this, there would be instances of a child getting overwhelmed and simply quitting or writing in random answers. My job as the proctor was to encourage the quitters to answer the next question and hopefully they would continue. With those that didn’t and those that wrote random answers, we simple noted who and what test. That section of the test then became invalid and was not used. We also educated the parents on our testing procedure, particularly in regards to nutrition and rest prior to testing.

        The most challenging part for the proctor was keeping the ones who finished the test quickly, quiet and keeping them from distracting those who were still working on it. We gave them paper to draw on. We played silent finger games…what ever we could think of to help maintain the testing environment. Sometimes that meant entertaining 90% of the class for 15 minutes while 10% finished up.

        We only gave out the testing results to those who inquired about it and in the case of a section of the test being thrown out, we explained why it was thrown out. There were never any surprises between student, parent and the school but in one instance the testing did show a weakness in the curriculum because many students score low on a particular section. This was addressed by fixing the curriculum.

        • What an excellent and USEFUL way to approach standardized testing – and that you only showed it to those that asked and you noted what was happening during the test. I hope other teachers get a chance to read this and ruminate on what you’ve said the procedure to approach these issues.

        • Mrs. P says:

          Having the backing of the school is key to being able to administer the test in this way. Also we only did it once a year, no need to do more than that.

          Interestingly, though we had the parents support in our testing procedure, almost all of them wanted to see test results before enrolling their child. Sadly, testing is a benchmark to school success. I would agree if everyone did testing the way we do, most do not.

        • We, as parents, don’t have much to go on for how we gauge a ‘good school’ – it’s hard to trust that ‘happiness’ of the child is a good indicator…but I’m slowly learning – it takes time and trust.

  5. Pingback: A Leap of Faith – The Week Wrap Up! | The Mercenary Researcher

  6. Pingback: A Leap of Faith – A Parent’s Prespective | The Mercenary Researcher

  7. Pingback: A Leap of Faith – A Series on Progressive Education | The Mercenary Researcher

  8. dentaleggs says:

    I’m learning so much about progressive schools. This piece taught me a plethora of information from the educator’s point of view in regards to the advantages to the progressive ed. model. I went so far as to look up any schools as such in our area and there is one. However, the cost of tuition is so much there’s no way my husband and I would be able to afford it. It’s a private school. Unfortunately, this school has ‘private school’ fees.

  9. Pingback: A Leap of Faith – A Student’s Perspective | The Mercenary Researcher

  10. Rohan 7 Things says:

    Thanks for sharing Jennifer’s post with us! It’s great to know that there are individuals and institutions that are interested in how young people actually learn and develop and are dedicated to supporting and fostering them as individuals 🙂


  11. Brenda says:

    I am stuck in a system that subscribes to the “standards based” and is moving towards “common core”. I do all I can to make my classroom more of a progressive model as I do very much believe it is better for students. I have my first class of students who were raised completely on standards-based education, and it breaks my heart every time they just want to know if they “have the right answer or not”. Exploration has been squashed as has analytic ability. Thankfully my school allows us a bit of flexibility otherwise I would run screaming. (And I tend to laugh as my scores are usually a good 5 to 10 points higher on average than the teachers who do spend all their time following the rules nicely.)

    Thank you for this post. I too long for a balance in education. There has been far too much emphasis on a specific knowledge bank and not nearly enough on making sure there are good well rounded adults when schooling has ended.

    • Brenda, I’m so excited to have a teacher respond and my heart to you for having to struggle against a system that you know is not working for your students. Yeah for not following the rules nicely! It’s hard to buck the system sometimes.

      I hope you come back often and give us the benefit of your experience. The more teachers that speak out – the better it is for all educators and kids.

  12. Jennie Saia says:

    I want to go to that school! Like, right now, This quote was my very favorite part: “The best predictor of whether children will be able to accept themselves as valuable and capable is the extent to which they have been accepted unconditionally by others.”

  13. Really interesting to hear that perspective, and how the teachers are called upon by others to justify what they do, as much as the parents are to justify why they send their kids to that school. It’s the same with those that choose to homeschool isn’t in. Any time people do things against the norm, it us judged and frowned upon. I know many teachers in traditional schools complain a lot about the constant conflict they face between how they would like to teach and how they are expected to teach.

  14. Thank you for your commitment to making education an excellent experience for children, no matter what that looks like!

  15. El Guapo says:

    Nice to meet you, Jennifer, and keep at it!

  16. Thank you, Jennifer, for writing this post! It must be really rewarding as a teacher to see your students thrive. A big factor of progressive education seems to be a child’s intrinsic motivation, doing something because they want to learn. I worry about my kids, who at such a young age, already don’t like school. There’s so much emphasis on completing a task and getting the right answer. I wish we had a school like this where we live.

  17. The Hook says:

    I have nothing but respect and admiration for teachers.
    That having been said, many of them have driven me to a murderous rage over the years when they travel, but that’s another story….

  18. Carrie Rubin says:

    Wonderful to read a teacher’s perspective. Great idea to include it in your series.

  19. It is interesting that people would question the validity of progressive teaching considering how successful standardized testing and government-led education reform has been (I hope you caught my sarcasm there). It sounds like a wonderful school. I hope that as a country we can find a better balance in our approach to education.

    • What I have seen is that a lot of parents are excited to bring their kids to a progressive setting until they start to compare ‘progress’ against traditional, and then the freaking out happens b/c in this atmosphere maturity seems to go first then academics follow – or we simply don’t know how to compare (which we shouldn’t) –

      Lots of people are not sure if a progressive school is ‘good enough’ to get a child into college or how kids can get all the ‘base’ knowledge they need etc.

      I saw what you did there with sarcasm!

      Most of us are used to traditional systems that have quantifiable ‘results’ and not much experience with qualitative data – and we have been taught that hard numbers are what we need to use to judge –

      I’ve found the hardest part of a progressive model is how we parents cope with it. Kids, for the most part, love it – parents are in the background wondering “are they learning their math?” we have to do some reworking of our though patterns.

  20. I love the term “Sheeple” – it made me smile when I read it!

    I especially wanted a teacher’s perspective in this series because as a parent, I have a ton of questions, concerns etc and being able to get assurance from an experienced teacher in the progressive ed model helps put my fears to rest. And now that we’ve been there a while, I see new kids come in and act exactly like my son did his first year – and parents of children that have been there longer than me have said the same to me about my son’s patterns…and I am looking at these amazing older kids and thinking “X was like my son? Phew – so this model does work!”…

  21. jaraedesire says:

    Great, great article. I had a bit of an “ah-ha” in reading Jennifer’s post this morning. As my son, is on his path in high school at a progressive school and dealing many of the same “issues” as he did in public school……..homework, resistance and time management……I forget that dealing with these in a nurturing environment will allow a new gift to emerge within him. Trusting this process and taking myself out of the picture is about me “learning” trust. ‘Tis a good thing!!!

    • I think you’re spot-on! The hardest thing about a child’s education in this environment is learning to trust. I, too, struggle with it and want to control things…
      I’ve told my son that as he gets older, he’ll have more responsibilities even at a progressive school – and even if there’s not ‘homework’ in the traditional sense, he still has papers to write, projects to work on etc…

      Jennifer will be delighted that there was an ‘ah-ha’ moment! Good luck and well wishes for your son during his high school years.

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