Teaching & Learning: Becoming a Student Again

Spring 2024

By Michael Huntington

This article appeared as "Trading Places" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

Last year our school received a generous donation specifically focused on professional development for teachers. The criteria was that it must “grow logically out of and enhance the work [we] do in the classroom at Colorado Academy (CO). Go beyond the type of professional development work that excellent teachers do every year to enhance and deepen teaching. Provide evident benefit to the upper school, the department, and the individual.” The only caveat: It couldn’t be traditional professional development, like a conference or a school visit.

After briefly searching for an opportunity in Hawaii, I started to put some real thought into what was possible. The most intriguing and beneficial idea was simple: Become a student again and take AP Physics C. I hadn’t previously studied topics on electricity and magnetism but have seen these types of problems in various math texts. I had avoided them because I wasn’t comfortable with the world where these problems lived. I had other reasons for selecting this class—like seeing how students interact with math in a science class and watching another teacher teach. But mostly I wanted to learn about physics.

With the support of the school, last school year I embarked on a year-long journey that gave me a different view of the classroom and my students. I was added to the AP Physics C roster as an official student, with my own colleague as the teacher. My schedule shifted so that I was taking the class during my planning period, and I was compensated for the planning time that would now have to occur outside the regular workday. This experience met the professional development requirements and goals—and much more. As I put myself in the position of a learner, I saw anew the struggle students face in learning new material, and it was much different from my own student days.

Learning Anew 

It is an old and mostly true joke at many faculty meetings that teachers are the worst students. We’ve been trained to be professional multitaskers. It took all my willpower to not check my email during class, and eventually, I stopped taking my laptop altogether. The first few weeks were a lot of fun. I got into the material, asked good questions, and felt that I was truly learning. Then we took our first test. I had done most of the homework and studied during many free moments at school. I felt prepared. I did well enough on a curved AP scoring guideline. Then the material got harder, or at least my understanding was weaker.

It's hard to study at home with children, and it’s hard to go to the physics help time when you have your own math help time to run. I started to fall behind, and I stopped trying as hard. I didn’t ask questions when I was stuck, and I didn’t go back to material I knew I didn’t understand. I have seen my own students do this exact same thing, and here I was doing it, too. The result? I bombed the next test. In fact, it was so bad, I didn’t want to turn it in to the teacher.

I’m a teacher. I have a Ph.D. in math. I thought the material would come easy, and when it didn’t, I felt embarrassed—embarrassed that I didn’t understand, embarrassed that I needed to ask so many questions. I felt some shame that I didn’t study as much as I needed. I wasn’t willing to expose my misunderstandings and weaknesses. After all, I didn’t think I needed to do those things that students normally do. I was in a classroom with students, but I hadn’t become a student yet. I hadn’t placed myself in the mindset of a learner.

An interesting thing happened next. I shared these thoughts and feelings with my physics teacher, who simply listened with empathy—no reminders about growth mindset, no pep talk, and no judgments. I was able to express myself, be vulnerable, and to some extent unburden myself from the shame. That’s all it took to turn things around. I now trusted my teacher more fully with my inadequacies. I found myself more committed to the class, more willing to put in the hard work, more willing to ask questions. I even started going back to old tests to master the material I had previously missed. I started to get back to the place where I would do whatever it took to understand and let go of external expectations. I focused on the reality: I didn’t understand some concepts, and I needed to put in the work to master the content.

Being Vulnerable 

A couple of weeks went by, and I was reflecting on my change of heart. I came to realize that sharing my experience with my teacher and being heard actually built the relationship necessary to facilitate learning. Just as this key idea was crystalizing, I caught up with one of my students whom I had previously asked to come to help time. They had been avoiding coming to see me, and I had a feeling I knew why. They were experiencing a feeling of shame similar to what I had felt. We talked about my experience in physics class, and they opened up to me and described the struggles they were having. This simple exchange built the relationship between us. They were able to be vulnerable and see more clearly the steps they needed to take. They began the difficult and rewarding process of learning the material deeply by acknowledging misunderstandings and going back to fix them. Since then, the student has come multiple times after school and has asked more questions in class, and while they still struggle at times, their attitude and approach have greatly improved.

As teachers, how often have we thought that a student who needed help and didn’t come in was just lazy? Or if a student wasn’t asking questions or engaged in class, we assumed they were not interested and were not willing to do the work. I think it’s somehow easier to view a struggling student in a negative way, and I’m not sure why. Maybe when students don’t struggle, it is easier to feel that our teaching is going well. But what I’ve taken away from my own experience as a student is that I need to view every student with empathy and understanding. Every time a student asks a question or shows vulnerability, I remember how much courage it takes.

It took becoming a student again and being in that vulnerable space to fully realize the learning difficulties that our own students can face and the many aspects of their lives we can’t know. This experience reaffirmed the importance of relationship-building and also helped me see students in the most positive way possible. They want to learn, they want to improve. Sometimes, it’s just difficult to navigate the space of being a student.

Michael Huntington

Dr. Michael Huntington is an upper school math teacher at Colorado Academy in Denver, Colorado.