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How do you know?

Often when I’m working with teachers, I get the question: How do you know? This can be in response to a number of things: minilesson ideas, conference teaching points, share sessions, anchor charts, unit planning, blogging, tweeting. Truthfully, the answer is often I don’t know. I’m just trying things that make sense. I’m trying things that might work. And I’m learning from my mistakes.

In this culture of preparing students for high stakes tests, we feel this responsibility to teach as much as possible in a short amount of time. Take a deep breath, because it goes something like this: We think we need to get it right the first time because if we don’t then we’ll be behind, and if we’re behind then kids won’t be prepared, and if they’re not prepared then they won’t do well on THE test, and if they don’t do well on THE test, then there will be consequences, for the child and for the teacher and for the school, so we’d better get it right the first time because… (return to the beginning of the sentence and repeat over and over and over).

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. And stressed. And tired. We put so much pressure on ourselves to get every single thing right. But what if this is impossible?

No matter how much we know about instruction, no matter how thoughtful our lessons are, no matter how much time we take preparing, it is impossible to get it right every single time. This is because it is not about us. It is about the young writers gracing our classrooms. Sometimes they are having rough days. Sometimes, no matter how closely they are paying attention, they don’t understand. Sometimes there is something else, more pressing, they want or need to learn.

It is at this point we have a choice. We can listen to the students in our classrooms and respond to their needs. Or we can continue on the predetermined path, regardless of whether they are with us or not. Which brings us back to the original question: How do you know? How do I know where to go next? How do I know what to post on a classroom blog? How do I know who to follow on Twitter?

I don’t know.

What I do know is I can listen to students. I can feel their energy level. I can respond to their needs. And in doing these things, I come up with possibilities for what to do. Then I take a deep breath. Bravely I respond and boldly we blaze a trail of learning together. My eyes are on Common Core Standards. My guide is the curriculum.  But my responsealways usually sometimes when I get it right, is to the students. When I’m responding to them, I just know.

Ruth Ayres View All

Unhurried. Finding the magic in the middle of living. Capturing a life of ridiculous grace + raw stories.

11 thoughts on “How do you know? Leave a comment

  1. Wow —
    This was a post that I had to hold my breath and click “publish.” It was a risk for me to put it out here and I’m thankful for your feedback. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.


  2. I just printed this post to put in with my plans and on the bulletin board at home. (refrig works well, too). We are so consumed with the test and assessments that we don’t get the time to really know our kids (and that is the first thing they tell you when you become a teacher). Thank you, thank you.


  3. Coming from the parent perspective, I can honestly say I feel like I’m riding that vicious cycle with you. I can’t help but think that if my kid doesn’t jump through all the right hoops and get all the right scores, he’ll fall behind … and then what? Keep falling behind? I need to remember that the point of school is not to meet the marks, but to learn and find love in the learning.


  4. There are those who believe that a simple test of questions can tell the important things about students in school. As teachers, we know that it isn’t true. We know those important things, reflect about and respond to them each day when we teach. Thank you for the wise words, Ruth.


  5. Ruth, I remember you saying that you love the word “serendipity.” This word sums up your post for me today. Your sentiments couldn’t have crossed my path at a better moment. I just can’t say often enough what a meaningful role the blog and the book you and Stacey crafted play in my life and work. Your words inspire me, give me strength, and help me grow. Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to share yourselves with us!


  6. The overwhelming feeling over the last couple of years was that we had to do what we had to do to get the assessments done, stay on the path whether students were with us or not. This was not the way I had ever taught. It saddens me greatly to see this happening. It used to be possible to take a deep breath, listen, learn and react to students’ needs. I used to know just where they were in their learning by observing and interacting. With the advent of the assessments, I knew less about my students in reality. I think the assessments were for those who were always asking “How do you know?” You know because you are present. Assessments and the paperwork take you away from being present with your students. You then rely on the numbers and neglect a relationship with the student. I’ve retired now. I’m happy to have been able to teach the way I know is right. I am happy to leave the pressure to press on regardless, the pressure to do what everyone else is doing, and the pressure to just keep moving along quietly with the rest. Sad, but I’m glad that for most of my time teaching it was wonderful.


  7. I just sent this to my daughter-in-law Amanda at her school today. This is a wonderful post for teachers near and dear to us. Someone needs to be at our side on a daily basis. If we were ever in the trenches, it is now. Thank you, Ruth, for some daily bread.


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