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Lessons from my students: West Yas Academy Principal Casey Cosgray

 Thu, 12 Jul 2018   -   Thu, 12 Jul 2018
 Aldar Academies

Students aren't the only ones to learn in the classroom.

Ask any educator, and they'll tell you that some of the biggest career and life lessons are experienced behind the school gates. Aldar Academies West Yas Academy Principal Casey Cosgray shares three of the biggest lessons from her own career.

'Belonging' is an excellent motivator

The 'little ones' - kindergarten students - have an uncanny way of surprising me with the most profound lessons. One example happened early on in my career when I realised the motivating power of giving students a sense of belonging, especially at the youngest grades.

I've always allowed my students to call me Ms Casey or Ms Cosgray to demonstrate that everyone has an identity, even authority figures that children often see as playing a very specific role in their lives. It's only when I refer to them by their own first names in return that their eyes light up. They realise that we recognise them as individuals with a unique identity, even when they're among a class of many. This tells them they belong, they're accepted, and they're safe. This is extremely motivating, because learning becomes so much easier when students feel comfortable and confident.

Such a supportive environment is where deep learning can blossom, because the student is free to focus on the task at hand, rather than concerns over their surroundings. For a primary age student still figuring out the ways of school life, something as simple as friendly eye contact and a first name greeting are highly encouraging.

Storytelling is a formidable teaching tool

Back when I first started out at West Yas Academy I was greeted one morning by a Grade 2 student - we'll call her Emma, with tears rolling down her cheeks. She didn't want to go to her swimming lesson later that day, and when I enquired why, she told me she was tired (we can all relate here). To reassure and motivate her, I confided that just a couple of days before I felt exactly the same. I explained how I didn't want to go to the gym, but knew it was the right thing to do. So I told myself I'd feel energised the moment I began, and once finished, I'd feel accomplished and pleased that I had gone. I explained to Emma that I was right, and how she'd feel the same if she just took that first difficult step as I had done.

Sharing my own experience was a simple act of storytelling, and the next day, I saw just how influential stories are in guiding our students. Emma told me that I was right, because she felt the same after her swimming lesson.

It was a worthwhile reminder that as modern day teachers, we're also mentors. Students look to us not just for subject knowledge but also holistic guidance in life. This is especially true of our American Massachusetts curriculum, which emphasises sports and extra curricular activities to nurture the whole student. Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways we can do so, because the human mind is wired to solve problems as a narrative: identify the challenge, find the solution, learn from the outcome.

Teenagers want to be understood, not dictated to

Thanks to my past experiences, I'm confident declaring that one of the easiest ways to connect with a teenager is empathy. We all know how difficult this period of life is, and as educators, we must find a balance between being demanding and empowering.

I quickly learned early on that to empower our students, we need to show that we understand their challenges in life and in education. We also need to give them a voice to express these challenges, and hand ownership of learning over to them. Ultimately, as they navigate adolescence and begin to feel comfortable making decisions and mistakes, our students must feel like they're in control. This is because the opposites of understanding and empowerment - judgement and dictatorship, are extremely demotivating forces.

I was reminded of this recently after speaking with the parents of a student that faced a challenging start to the year, with difficulty forming relationships. Rather than dictate a solution and expect him to act on it, we presented him with multiple correct options to choose from. We didn't assume we knew the right answer to his problems, but simply said “we get it - have you considered the following?” and allowed him to choose the outcome he was most comfortable with. We simply listened, showed empathy, and empowered him with potential solutions, using a gentle guiding hand. The change in the student and his outlook since then, according to his parents, has been remarkable.

As a teacher, no two days are ever the same. But one thing is for certain - whenever we step into the classroom to teach, there's a lesson to be learned in return.