By Cassie Reding
I have based my entire approach to teaching on the premise that the success of my students must be my primary priority. All else is secondary. With so many different definitions of success and theories about how success ought to be measured, how, exactly, can I know when my students are succeeding?
I learned that my parents measured their own success according to their contentment. They weren’t ambitious; they didn’t ever seem to need to have more or do more or be more. Life was “good enough,” and they considered themselves successful.
I grew up the oldest child of parents who had dropped out of high school to farm tobacco. I worked with them in the fields from the time I was 6 years old. I understood at a very early age that the work my parents did was what put food on our table and clothes on our backs. I came to understand that the more work I did and the better I did it, the greater was my value to my family.
In my youth, I examined my father carefully. I observed his high and exacting standards for his own work and the work of the others he sometimes hired to help with the more strenuous aspects of harvesting the crops.
I did what my father did and the way he did it. I followed his example. When I set out to do something in the tobacco patch, no matter how difficult it was, I had one goal: Do it the right way.
My father didn’t tell me how to do things nearly as often as he showed me. That was his way. When he did give me instructions, I knew they were important, so I listened carefully. He once told me, “If you don’t have time to do it right, you will have to make time to do it over.” His words of wisdom have shaped the way I approach everything I do. On the farm, I was careful and methodical. I have tried to embody those principles in my classroom as well — I have strived to be a “mindful” educator.
In my classroom, next to the clock, I have a poster that reads, “If you don’t have time to do it right, you must have time to do it over.” On the first day of school each year, I teach my students the importance and value of those words just as I teach them the importance of our classroom rules and school-wide expectations.
Last school year, the classroom environment I created for my 5th-grade writing students at Stevenson Elementary in Russellville was built on my early learning on the family farm. From day one, my students knew that I expected great work from all of them — if not always on the first try. I showed them examples of what high-quality work looked like. I set high standards for them and held them accountable to those standards, gradually releasing my students to work independently.
When my father taught me a new skill on the farm, he didn’t hover over me every step of the way, ensuring perfection. He gave me freedom and opportunities to make mistakes. I did the same with my students in my classroom last year as I was cultivating their ability to be better writers. I allowed my students to make mistakes.
When their work is short of the mark, I help them understand why and what they must improve. I never penalize them for trying and falling short; I praise their effort. I provide very intentional and specific feedback. The cardinal sin, my students know, is not failure — it is being careless and not giving your best on every try.
At the close of the year, the writing test scores from that class were dramatically higher. The increase in my students’ achievement is significant; it is meaningful. But it does not define my teaching or my students. It is simply a way for me to measure the impact of my instruction and of the relationships I built with my students.
My students didn’t achieve at high levels on the end of year assessment because they wanted to score well on KPREP. They achieved because they wanted to prove to me and prove to themselves that they could be successful; that they were not going to back down from the “hard things” that others said were impossible for them.
My father never defined or measured his successes on the cash his crop produced. There were years when he barely made enough money to repay the loans he had borrowed. But he always knew that regardless of the end result, he had done everything he knew to do and in the best way he knew to achieve the task at hand. Success for my students is about embracing the process of growing as learners.
Cassie Reding teaches writing at Stevenson Elementary (Russellville Independent), is a building representative for and an active member of the Kentucky Education Association’s 3rd district, as well as a 2015-16 Hope Street Group Kentucky Teacher Fellow.