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The Art of Proactivity

The other day, I glanced at the kitchen floor and noticed that someone had dropped a piece of chocolate. It was late in the evening and I was tired, but I knew that if I didn’t hurry up and grab that piece of chocolate, the dog would beat me to it and then throw up, and I would have a much bigger mess to clean up. That moment of looking ahead to an eventual outcome reflects proactive thinking processes, and it can actually become more of an art form in certain situations. In teaching, for instance, anticipating what might happen before it occurs saves us an awful lot of time and trouble.

Opening Communication

I once worked with a principal who taught me that whenever I call home as a teacher, the first thing to do is allay any alarm by saying that everything is okay. The problem is that when teachers call home, parents automatically (and usually correctly) assume that something is wrong. Maybe a child is bodily okay, but teachers don’t pick up a phone to issue praise often. Instead of saving communications for times of trial, build a better relationship with students’ families. Frame the process as we would a routine visit to see the doctor, even when we’re not sick. Make one contact each semester just to highlight some positives of classroom performance; that way, if we have to make another contact for something concerning, the association will be far pleasanter, and people will be more willing to work with us. If that proves too overwhelming, another possible practice is to collect family email addresses on Back to School Night, and then send a monthly update with what is happening in class. By keeping just a portion of our communication open and friendly, we can make strides when we need to push a little harder.

Anticipating the Lesson

I once had an idea for a writing lesson that began, as many of my ideas do, in a kind of whacko place. Students were working on memoirs, and I had them imagine recurring life themes as rooms in a house and then asked them to diagram the house. Without getting too specific, my lesson crashed and blew up into a million pieces. All kinds of barriers existed, from students struggling with identifying their themes to feeling uncomfortable with the drawing portion. If I had just thought ahead a little bit instead of getting wrapped up in my own idea, I would have come up with some options that allowed students to work in a more comfortable space. Instead, I reacted by scrapping the entire plan for the day and going back to square one, which seemed like a better option than getting angry. After all, it was my fault. When we plan lessons, it is not enough to just figure out what we want to do; we have to think about why students need to learn the lesson, and how we will manage if our creativity does not translate the way we want it to. Above all, we cannot take it personally if students do not react as we anticipate; they are human beings, just like us, and our proactive approach to lesson planning only works if we acknowledge that everyone truly learns differently by providing choices for students who are doing their best, but who might need another approach.

Prioritizing Inductive Reasoning

In a now legendary scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the history teacher at the front of the room drones on and on while occasionally pausing so that students can fill in the blanks. The problem is that the students are not in his head (and they are completely bored), so he winds up finishing his own sentences. When we teach as though our thoughts matter the most, we create a reactive learning environment that takes away student critical thinking processes. Instead, let students do more of the work, allowing for the proactive approach of inductive reasoning. For instance, if the plan involves learning the names of United States capital cities, start with pulling out knowledge by asking students where they have travelled, or where relatives live, or by forming small groups and making a list of as many capital cities they can think of. In other words, let students show what they know and work through their own learning; then, the way the lesson continues will be based on the control we let students have of their learning, and not a reaction to what they do not show us.

By thinking ahead, we can solve so many problems before they occur. Imagine all of the fights, the power struggles, and the accidents that could be avoided just by anticipating needs and outcomes proactively. Being at least one step ahead may be an art form, but it can be mastered by anyone and become habitual. When it comes to working with kids, we need to have all of the possibilities at our fingertips and keep options open for learning so that we can reach all kids, one day at a time.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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