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Teacher essay: Getting students involved in the adult world

By Donell Willey

Special to The Tribune

First Published Jul 18 2014 01:04 pm • Last Updated Jul 18 2014 01:04 pm

Editor’s note: Lakeridge Junior High teacher Donell Willey was among 32 Utah educators who recently visited schools in Finland with Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Europe. Read the related story here.

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My philosophy of teaching stems from my belief that children generally want to contribute to the well-being of, and make a difference in, whatever situation they find themselves, whether in their family or broader community. But do our traditional classrooms provide our students with these service opportunities or instruct them in what you might call "make a difference" type of activities?

Too often, they do not.

I came into education at the ripe old age of 39, and I thought I was going to tear down the walls of the school and get kids involved in the adult world. I assumed that few teachers were trying to do this.

My first surprise was that 90-plus percent of the teachers I found at my school were just as committed to affecting positive change in students’ lives as I was, and were extremely dedicated and concerned for students on many levels, not just academic achievement. 

The weaknesses, from my perspective, were and are systemic in that we were (and still are) trying to force-fit human beings into predictable, measurable molds. This exhausts all of us — teachers and students — and in some cases it extinguishes the curiosity, emotion and passion that is available in their world. 

I have always looked for programs that reflect adult-scaled problems, stuff that is really happening. I figured that the reason kids knock themselves out to excel in sports, drama, music and other extracurricular activities is because they are the things that get recognized in the larger community, outside school.

I have been involved in Mock Trial and Model United Nations for over twenty years. In recent years, I have added Model European Union to our palette of activities. All these programs give kids a chance to try out adult roles, to negotiate, to problem-solve, to learn what it is like to succeed and to deal with defeat.

I immediately recognized the value of an opportunity to travel to Finland to learn about their school system and the philosophy behind it.

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Once Finnish students start school, their classes are generally smaller than American classes so that it is easier for teachers to get to know their students. Teachers also stay with the same students for three to five years in the early grades, and at-risk children receive extra individual help from both qualified teachers and gifted students in their classes.

I learned that Finns were surprised at their high international test scores because their system is not based on test taking. The concern and involvement of teachers and community in providing students with authentic, student-centered curriculum and activities were affirming as well as challenging.

My challenge is not to just involve my students in the community but to involve the community more with my students, communicate more with and involve all of the stakeholders in the education of the entire child, heart as well as mind.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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