Teachers can make the difference

April 13, 2019

Monotonous. Mundane. Basic, and no more than that.

That is how student Malia Hunter once viewed English literature class. It was not until she attended the Santa Fe Girls’ School and met Gretchen Peck, then an English teacher at the school, that Hunter finally developed a passion for literary analysis.

It was Peck, working with a small class of just 15 students, who was able to change Hunter’s perspective on literature by tailoring her teaching style to each student individually, imbuing them with the joy of reading and a zest for learning more about what the words on the page meant. In Hunter’s words, “school became a story,” and that made all the difference.

For Hunter, she had found an “alternative learning style … where I had fun but still got to learn.” While the smaller classroom environment certainly helped, she credits a teacher who wanted to make a difference and who found a way to make the material exciting and engaging.

Hunter’s story is not unique. Every day, there are educators finding new ways to shape a student’s love of learning. But how?

Some students insist that easy is the way to go, while others prefer a teacher who maintains high expectations. Miquela Martinez, a senior at St. Michael’s High School, said students need a middle ground. “With my experience, I wouldn’t choose a teacher who is lax or a strict teacher,” she said. “I would prefer one who is balanced — a teacher who knows there’s a time and place for getting business done, knowing business is done and giving room for relief.”

According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the best teaching approach is the mixed method, where it is both student- and teacher-centered. The teacher and students must play key roles in meeting midway, wanting to teach and wanting to learn, and the teacher must conduct educational planning and be prepared for the lesson.

Vanessa Angel, a Santa Fe Public Schools instructional coach and teacher, says passion is key to having a good instructor. “A passionate teacher is one who puts students first,” she said. “[They are] genuine, prepared and love what they teach.”

Alternative learning styles can also provide an outlet for teenagers to learn from what one might call a “nonstereotypical” professor. Olivia Green, a freshman at the New Mexico School for the Arts, said she believes there are occasional consequences if an educator gets sidetracked with the art, instead of focusing on the subject matter at hand, but, overall, there is benefit from incorporating the arts into the regular curriculum. Some teachers do just that, tackling art projects — say, for example, the creation of a miniature globe to teach geography.

Dan Erpenbeck, a teacher at St. Michael’s for about 40 years, said there are three fundamental things to form a quality education: “One: a child that wants to learn; two: a teacher that wants to teach; and three: a parent that wants to be supportive and makes sure that the student completes his or her work.”

Forming a classroom that is balanced enough to enforce rigor on the students but not overwhelm them can be difficult, but it is necessary, Martinez said. “The curriculum is definitely challenging [at St. Michael’s], and the teachers that teach the AP classes … really do succeed in preparing students for either the AP exam or college courses with that criteria. The only thing that I think needs a tweaking[in education] is having all teachers on the same page. Whether it’s the pace of a class or the discipline, [they must be on the same level because] it is a challenge going from a lax class to a fast-track class.”

Of course, other elements play a role in how well an educator can teach a subject or how open a student is to learning. Too much homework or schoolwork, as well as an abundance of extracurricular programs, can make a student freak out. And, Angel said, “students fall behind for various reasons. Lack of motivation, personal issues and lack of relationships. Students can tell when teachers are sarcastic and mean-spirited. This puts students off and pushes them away from attending classes.”

To counter those challenges, Angel suggested educators work at “building a rapport, and relationships are very important [with students]. I believe that teenagers need to develop and learn organization, time management, concentration, prioritization and motivation. Some students do not learn this at home or have a job that teaches them some of these skills.”

And, Martinez said, “All students learn differently, period. Teachers may not necessarily have to change their ways of teaching … but they should be aware of the variety of students and create resources for those who maybe don’t necessarily learn the criteria right away from how the lesson is presented. I know from personal experience a whole classroom can be successful because a teacher has explained something for different perspective.”

Yet the question of whether or not teachers must cater to the needs of individual students — especially in larger classrooms of 20, 25, even 30 students — in their instruction or if they should form one-size-fits-all criteria is still subject to some debate.

“I believe that teaching should not be cookie-cutter, meaning that it is [not] all the same for everyone,” Angel said. “Teaching and learning have changed over the years just as students have evolved over the years. Teachers have to refine their skills to meet the needs of the ever-changing teen. … Teachers have to be savvy in technology, gender, sexuality, mental health, and on and on to try and always be a few steps ahead of their students.”

Sofia Ortiz is a junior at St. Michael’s High School. Contact her at sofiagoesgreen10@gmail.com.