‘Beating the Odds’ with Student-Focused Instruction

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May 15, 2018

As a child, I grew up in a low-income, single-parent apartment, which sometimes made learning difficult. My father lived an hour away, and my mother worked evenings. I rode my bike to the local library when an assignment required a computer, and during the week, I worked many hours washing dishes after school so that my paycheck could contribute to our household income. I was often tired at school and would skip classes to catch up on sleep.
Under these circumstances, one might expect that my academic success would be limited.
Fortunately, school provided the necessary supports to get me past these obstacles to my learning. Mrs. Zidell, my geometry teacher, got to know my whole story, allowed me to construct my own understanding of the content and held me accountable with high expectations. She taught me the importance of collaboration and communication in the context of geometry proofs. When I skipped class, she would find me later in the school day to give me the work that I had missed.
With inspiration and motivation from Mrs. Zidell and many others, I graduated valedictorian of my class. My school experiences provided me the drive to later become the successful public educator that I am today. With the additional generosity and support from these dedicated teachers, I was able to “Beat the Odds.”
The odds for me were defined by my perception of my own potential. I always thought that I would finish school and get a decent job, but I never considered myself exceptional or thought about how I could have a significant positive impact on people. My educational experience challenged me to examine my odds, provided me with a new view of what was possible, and supported me towards new goals. I provide this same individualized support for my students and have committed my career to this goal. “Beating the Odds” has become my mantra for helping all students be successful.
Every student enters school with their own individual odds – a real or perceived ceiling on what they might accomplish in school and in the world. These odds are defined by environmental factors, such as race, gender and socioeconomic situation, as well as individual life and school experiences.
Our role as educators is to inspire and support every student to push past these odds. To accomplish this goal, we must first recognize and celebrate students as individuals. Then we can carefully craft the educational experience to be tailored for each student, helping each individual to redefine their own potential.
Moving towards individualized, student-focused instruction is one of the greatest challenges that we face in education today. The current high stakes accountability for teachers and schools often forces teachers to a narrow focus on standards in an attempt to prepare students for standardized tests. We must evolve from one-size-fits-all curriculum and regimented instruction if we are going to help every student to beat the odds.
To support this goal, we can provide students with choice in their learning, allowing them to use their curiosity to discover their own individual passions. When students identify their interests, commitment to learning grows. They begin to rethink their own capabilities. Utilizing teaching strategies that encourage students to collaborate and construct their own knowledge opens their minds to a new definition of learning. Students then begin to consider that learning is an active process in which they are ultimately responsible for new understanding.
My teachers acknowledged me as an individual and crafted my education specifically for what I needed to raise the ceiling on my potential. We can do this in our classrooms today by empowering our students to take ownership of their learning by providing them with choices and encouraging them to actively engage in their learning. Ultimately, I strive to support teachers as they elevate their students’ perception of what they can accomplish, so every individual in their classroom is “Beating the Odds.”

Luke Wilcox is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2017-18, and Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education for the program. He’s the mathematics department chairperson at East Kentwood High School in Kentwood Public Schools, where he’s spent his entire 16-year career.
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