My favorite number is 18.
It has had sentimental meaning since I played Little League softball and wanted to be just like my two close friends: Brenda and Jimmy. We all wore this number on our backs for as long as we played ball.
As I close out my 18th year of teaching, in the year 2018, I thought I would write a reflection of my career that included my favorite number. I decided to put the 8,000+ students I’ve taught into 18 categories. They are not listed in any order of importance (except the last, which I think is the most current trend/issue in education).
1. Grade Levels & Ages
I’ve taught many different grade levels over the years. I spent a few years teaching pubescent middle school students (6th-8th grade) in summer school. I have taught a freshman world history class, a sophomore government & economics class, and I’m currently teaching all electives, meaning my classes are predominantly filled with upperclassman (juniors and seniors). I have also been an adjunct instructor at local colleges and universities, where I’ve taught a population as young as 18 and as old as 72!
I have taught males, females, homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, transgenders, and more recently I have had a gender fluid student (a person who identifies as a boy and a girl). As a teacher I have to be very conscious of the pronouns I use now.
3. Racial & Ethnic Groups
I have taught students of various racial backgrounds: Caucasian, African American, Latino, Asian, etc. I am thankful to have such racially and ethnically diverse classes because of the nature of what I teach (the social sciences). We often discuss controversial issues pertaining to current events in politics, economics, and other societal news, so it is nice to have various perspectives.
I have taught students who live in trailers, foster homes, shelters, and luxury homes. They come from such different socioeconomic backgrounds, and often times you can tell by the clothes they are wearing or the cars they are driving (or not driving). I have had students whose parents write them a check for $4,000 to travel abroad, while others take on two part time jobs to pay for their own sneakers, prom tickets, and college applications.
5. Athletes, Artists, & Scholars
I have had athletic students, artistic students, and academic scholars in my classes. They play multiple sports and sing in the school musicals. They participate in extra curricular activities, such as the Latin Club, Chess Club, and Gaming Club. They spend hours after school preparing for Model Congress and volunteering with the non-profit organization called Paws for a Cause. They focus on maintaining a certain GPA so they can be a part of the National Honor Society. More of my students are involved than are not involved!
6. Religious Affiliations
The only reason I have knowledge about what religious affiliation most of my students are is because I teach a World Religions class. At the beginning of the semester I ask them to answer two questions (and share with the class):
What do you believe in? And………..Why?
Some of them simply say that they are Christians and they believe in God because that’s what their parents have instilled in them. I usually have a few agnostics and atheists in each class who share stories about events in their life that led them to have those beliefs. I have heard students refute the existence of God because they literally watched a parent die, while others say that they found God while praying for a loved one to overcome an illness. One student said she had a priest (in Catholic School) tell her that she would go to hell if she didn’t go to church. This comment pushed her away from Christianity altogether…and she replied with “well, can you UN-baptize me then?”
I have taught Muslim students who wore a hijab in class, and Hindu students who wore a bindi. I have had students who were Buddhist, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and a multitude of other affiliations. I love learning about the ideologies, customs, and practices of each one of them.
7. Intrinsically Motivated
As a teacher we can do our best to make lessons fun and engaging. However, not every lesson can be an interactive simulation or a review game. Sometimes we have to lecture, give notes, or assign research. Students are intrinsically motivated by different things. Some students love to open a book and answer questions, while others want to move around the room or use technology to enhance their learning. This is a challenge that all teachers face: how to differentiate instruction for all levels and learning styles.
8. Political Ideologies
At the beginning of most of my classes I have my students take a political spectrum quiz. Teaching in a liberal state I am never surprised when an overwhelming majority of my students find themselves on the left side of that spectrum. While this sometimes makes it difficult to have debates on topics such as immigration, civil unions, and gun control, it is good for me to know as a teacher where they stand on certain issues. I try my best to play devil’s advocate so that they can be well informed about both sides of any controversial topic.
9. Can’t Read/Ivy League Bound
Since my school does not have a tracking system, I have taught classes where a student who is reading on an elementary school level is sitting next to a student who is Ivy League bound. It is a struggle to differentiate instruction, but there are definitely effective ways to do so.
10. Elective Courses/Core Courses
I have taught core/required classes that include U.S. History, World History, Government, and Economics. I have also taught semester elective courses, such as World Religions and Media in Society. I tend to enjoy teaching the electives more because students usually opt to enroll, therefore making them figuratively invested.
11. Physical Disabilities
I have had students with physical disabilities that include, but are not limited to, being blind, deaf, and/or mute. I currently have a student who is in a wheel chair with cerebral palsy and has trouble verbally communicating, but with the help of his one-on-one para, he can fully participate in class!
12. Learning Disabilities
I have had a severely autistic student with a one-on-one para in my classroom. I have had numerous students with 504 plans and IEPs (individual education plans) that legally require teachers to provide accommodations to help the student succeed. While I have never taught in a fully special education classroom nor been in a TAM (team approach to mastery) environment, I have had to learn how to teach students with various learning disabilities over the years.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Some students come to my class because they are generally interested in the topic. However, I realize that most students are enrolled in my classes because they either need the credits for graduation, it’s the only class that fits their schedule, or they were arbitrarily placed there. I do my best to make my class as interesting and engaging as possible, but if a student doesn’t want to be there in the first place, then sometimes that is a difficult task.
In my Media in Society class I have students take a cyber bullying self assessment. Many of them are surprised to find that their results place them in a category that recommend they change their online behavior.
I also have students who willingly talk about how they have been bullied (face-to-face and/or online). Some of them have been harassed because of their race, sexual orientation, language barrier, and more often than not because of a boyfriend/girlfriend issue (jealousy and cheating). Bullying is a problem that has existed for a long time, but has been exacerbated more recently with the popularity of social media.
I’ve taught shy and reserved students, and it can be a challenge to encourage them to work collaboratively with others. I have also taught extroverts, and sometimes this can make the class more engaging. However, as the teacher I have to facilitate class discussions so that these extroverts don’t monopolize the conversations. The use of technology in my class has really helped to give the quiet student a voice.
16. ELL/Native English Speakers
Every year I have a few students whose native language is not English. These students receive support from teachers who can help them transition into our classrooms. Four years ago I had a student from Haiti who only spoke Creole. She often looked at me funny in class because she did not understand what I was saying. Just last week this same student wrote me a note (in English) saying how much she enjoyed taking my World Religions class, despite the language barrier. I could not even imagine what it must be like to sit in class full of foreigners and not understand a single word.
An overwhelming majority of my students are polite, respectful, and caring. Many of them say good morning when they enter the classroom, follow the school rules, and are good Samaritans. Some students even leave me cards, candy, and/or gifts during the holidays and when they graduate. However, all teachers come across students who are insubordinate at some point. Students who don’t follow the rules, also don’t like to be reprimanded for those behaviors. I have had students say that they hate me or hate my class. I had one student write profanities about me on a desk (in pen). But my favorite story occurred when I was on crutches and a student told a colleague of mine that she “should have pushed Ms. Briel’s crippled ass down.” I take all of these insults with a grain of salt. I know that it is not easy to please everyone, and so that will never be my goal.
18. Mental Health Issues
I saved this category for last because it is the most current issue in education, in light of the recent school shootings. Many of these active shooters have been labeled as mentally unstable because they were dealing with anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder at the time of the shooting. The question is: are we doing enough as teachers, parents, and peers to recognize these signs, report the concerns, and take action to get students help?
Some advocates of the 2nd Amendment propose that teachers should carry guns in school. No way in hell would I ever have a gun in my classroom.
Others are advocating for stricter gun control laws. I am not sure that will solve the problem either, although it could make it a little more difficult for these criminals to access a gun.
While I have never had a student with a firearm in my classroom, I have had students who have suffered from anxiety and severe depression. I certainly don’t know all of their stories, but when they do feel comfortable enough to share, the insight helps me to be a little more understanding and flexible.
I often have students who struggle with a parent being deployed, which can cause a lot of emotional stress and have huge impact on their performance in school.
I have had students who were verbally, emotionally, and physically abused. In even more extreme cases I once had a student who was being held in the basement, sexually abused by his father, and starved. I have had students who were victims of incest and other horrific acts that most of us cannot even fathom.
Every year I have several students who are on the McKinney-Vento List (they fall into the homeless category). This could mean that they are temporarily staying in a local shelter, living with a relative, or even living out of a car. These living situations can cause a lot of mental distress on a student.
This is not an exhaustive list of categories, nor can these be applied to all students everywhere. This is merely a reflection of the types of students I have encountered in my 18 year career. I know that as I continue to teach that I will create new categories for the next 8,000+ students who will walk through my classroom door!