I can’t teach without these 5 things. Period.

Just recently I heard a story. I love stories, especially stories that resonate with me and give me a swift kick in the learning pants. I’d love to share this story with you.

There was a man who owned sheep. I don’t know a lot about sheep, but I know you don’t want them wandering off or you’ll lose them. Therefore, I would think you’d need to keep them corralled somehow. Anyway, apparently this guy didn’t have many fences. His sheep were just toddling about in the fields – but they never went far from the man’s farm.

My friend, the storyteller, asked the man how he kept the sheep nearby. I mean, without the fences, wouldn’t they run away? Here was the shepherd’s response:

“When you dig deep wells of fresh water – good, deep, wells – the sheep stay near them. I don’t need all those fences to keep them here.”

Now, I’m sure you’re starting to wonder how the title of this blog even fits with this story. I assure you, it does. Because the five things I have learned (and am still learning) I can’t teach without are not rules or regulations, standards or management – although those are all necessary things.

The bottom line is, I think we focus too much on the fences, and not enough on digging deep wells of fresh water.

So what are my deep wells? What can’t I teach without?

1. Safety

About 10 years ago I sat in a Master’s level course with a quirky Irish professor. He wrote the word SAFETY on the chalkboard in big, white letters. He said it was the most essential component of ANY classroom. If I’m perfectly honest, I will admit to semi-quasi-rolling my eyes at that one. I mean, I taught HIGH SCHOOL kids, not elementary.

But the reality is, if kids don’t feel safe in the classroom, then they won’t share. If they won’t share, they won’t learn. If they won’t learn, well, I’ve failed. So everything I’ve chosen to try and do in my classroom starts with that foundation of safety. Safety to speak without fear of rejection or humiliation, safety to risk with encouragement, safety with other classmates as I attempt to advocate for ALL of them, the safety of a clean slate (the ability to start over brand new and not bring all the past baggage with them).

Safety is the cornerstone of educating lifelong learners.

2. Voice

That same, quirky Irish professor talked a lot about “sharing power” in the classroom. It’s easy, as a teacher – especially in the high school environment – to want to hold the power. It’s scary to realize that some kids might be smarter than us. We don’t want to feel like we don’t know the answers or that we aren’t in control.

But why? We don’t have to know everything. That’s what Google is for. We are their guides – pushing, prodding, inspiring, motivating them in the right direction. A wise mentor teacher of mine said she found freedom in being okay with being wrong sometimes. Let the kids know the answers. Be okay with saying, “I don’t know” or “You might be right.”

Students need to feel like their voices are valued. And when they can draw from that deep, fresh, well, they are more engaged. If we allow them to voice their thoughts about the content, the assignment, the classroom, the school, we won’t need all those fences to keep them corralled. They will hopefully feel valued and therefore respected. In turn, they will learn to respect the person shepherding them.

3. Choice

We ALL love choices. When we are forced to do the “same ole, same ole” all the time we begin to feel the weight of routine, the boring-ness of samedom. Even if it is small, I like to give my students choices. With an essay, perhaps it is just the choice between two prompts. When they are working, perhaps it is the choice between sitting at the table or sitting on the floor. When they have an assignment, perhaps it is the choice of working alone or with a partner. But those simple choices kill two birds with one stone – not only do they empower students to make choices, but it gives them the voice to do so.

4. Front loading, Brain Breaks, & Debriefing

Before every assignment, workday, or project, students need to know what is expected of them. So clear, concise, front loading is super important. They need to know how (or if) they’ll be graded and what the POINT is for the assignment. How does it fit with everything else we’re doing? Why are we doing it (we’ll get to this in #5)?

Then, I make sure we always “break” for our brains to reboot and re-energize. There’s a whole blog about that one here. I try to “change it up” every 15 minutes. We might just stretch, or we might completely move tables with new groups. We can only hold a capacity of so much information before we need to physically get the blood pumping. Check out my post of 50 Brain Breaks to Engage [all levels of] Students for more ideas!

Finally, we always debrief. We talk about what was good about the assignment or project and what definitely needed changing. This adds to the voice and choice. My students know they are crucial to my planning process. In the future, how will that assignment change because of their input? Most of the time – significantly. If my goal is to teach, then I should also be teachable (and trust me, I need help…a lot).

5. Relevancy

I teach English. But really, I teach life. We all do. We all long to know the WHY of what we’re doing. If it doesn’t apply to us, then we don’t see the purpose in learning it. So I have a rule in my room.

If I can’t answer the “why” to what we are doing, then we shouldn’t be doing it.

Wow. Talk about accountability. It keeps me on my toes, and it continually keeps me learning and growing. Everything we do and learn in my classroom better have real life relevancy. And really, everything does. We just have to think about it long enough to figure it out.

These five elements are my deepest wells. I work daily on these essential elements in order to provide a classroom environment that draws them to the waters of learning, giving me the freedom that I don’t have to build all these stilted, inhibiting fences. And let me tell you, I didn’t just “come up” with these on my own. I had amazing master mentor teachers along the way who led me to the wells and modeled how to build them, how to dig them super deep, how to maintain them, and certainly, how to drink from them myself and keep learning – never letting the waters become stagnant.

When we focus on the fences, we limit the possibilities. We live in a cramped space of all the “should nots” and “could nots” – “don’ts” and “won’ts”. But wells are deep and limitless. They are full of crisp, cold, refreshing water that says, “YES!!! And…”, opening the dialogue for learning together, allowing the students to have buy in for the learning process, and creating lifelong learners who understand that they are valued and loved.

We don’t need to build more fences. We need to dig deeper wells.

Thanks for visiting my blog! If you’d like some more teaching ideas you might check out my Play-Doh lessons for Junior High and High School Students, 50 Brain Breaks, or my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

For more high school related posts, check out my viral post, 10 Reasons you don’t need a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school, To the student considering suicide, A letter to students, or Let’s fight for our girls.

If you’re a teacher or parent (or student!) I’d love to hear your ideas about the most important things that should be happening in the classroom today. Let’s dig deeper wells together!