How I am Learning to Practice What I Preach

As teachers, we want our kids to value and enjoy learning, and challenge themselves in how they think and approach problems. Wouldn’t this conversation be more effective if we were able to invite students to see how we practice what we preach?

Over the past few years, I’ve pushed myself to become a student, again, by participating and presenting in conferences, fellowships, and doctoral coursework beyond my school. Alongside expanding my tools as a physical education teacher in Washington, D.C., these development opportunities have pushed my thinking and strengthened my focus on finding the best methods to reach my kids.

Truth is, after you’ve been teaching for a while and have found success in the classroom, it’s really easy to feel like you already know what students need and how to guide them to continued achievement; it’s much harder to challenge yourself to learn more and continue improving. In my experience, my students and I both benefit from this shift in attitude.

When I started teaching, my goal was for kids to leave my class saying, “I enjoy exercising and I know how to keep myself healthy and in shape.” I quickly learned that my goal did not properly match their immediate needs. In D.C., one in five kids ages 13 to 18 are obese. This problem is rooted in nutrition and other issues that, frankly, as a health teacher, I have the power to influence. Aiming for kids to simply have fun in my class didn’t help.

So a year ago, I was granted a fellowship with City Bridge to approach this problem through a different lens. I attended a design workshop at the Stanford, where I learned a simple, yet powerful principle: Before you design something, you must deeply understand the need. This meant talking to students and learning from them about the best way to sustain movement and make health awareness exciting. 

I came back to school prepared to implode my traditional way of engaging students, and made sure my students were part of this process. I asked them, “I want to keep you engaged. What is the best way to do this?” And they told me: They wanted more technology. They wanted more independence. They wanted more group work. And they wanted the freedom to try new things in different ways.

Together, we redesigned the way our classroom functioned with the goal that students can move independently throughout the classroom, collaborate on engaging activities and assignments, and in turn, partake in a more exciting learning experience. The days of teaching with one assignment and one outcome were over. I began to care more about my students’ work and their thoughts.

In the past, my class was set up in a traditional sense: teacher at the front, students in desks and focused on the teacher. If you walk into my classroom now, you’ll see students independently bouncing around learning stations, designed not only to allow them to learn about current health trends, habits to achieve physical wellbeing, and issues affecting their community, but also teach them to think critically about all of these things.

For instance, at one station, known as the Pentagon, students are presented with pressing health problems affecting the community and tasked with developing innovative solutions. In D.C., three to four people overdose on synthetic marijuana every day. A line of inquiry in our classroom became, “What could we do as a community to help reverse that trend? How could we use the tax dollars we currently spend on hospitalizations to provide some sort of outreach program?”

I didn’t expect kids to have the answers, but the point was getting students to think critically about a problem and design a solution. Students were grappling with these issues, arguing about solutions and spending time thinking about how a “user” would respond to the proposed solution. Cultivating this environment pushed their thinking, allowed them to enjoy the experience of designing, and engaged them in the hazardous health effects of a substance plaguing their community. 

As teachers, we are experts in our field. And experts in any field—like science or medicine—constantly seek knowledge and use the latest research to inform, revise, and improve their work. It’s critical for the 21st century teacher to do this, as well. Teachers today, more than ever before, are expected to prepare for everything and anything, differentiate coursework regardless of background or circumstance, and design ways to engage students who are juggling pressing issues at home.

Successful teachers cannot do all of these things without constantly fine-tuning their approach for individual students and building supportive, exciting classrooms in which students will thrive. To do so, we need challenging developmental experiences. And if our schools don’t offer that, we have to take it into our own hands by seeking outside opportunities to figure out what best practices really look like for our students. Doing so not only makes us more effective, but also proves to students we are willing to practice what we preach in the classroom—that we should be curious seekers of knowledge. And that lesson is invaluable. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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