WMAES Secondary Teacher Spotlight

Rob Barrett is a high school environmental science teacher at West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science.

What keeps your students aiming for success in the classroom?

“All students genuinely want to succeed; the trick is finding a way that you can bridge the gap between what you want them to be able to do and what they naturally want for themselves. I show them how to succeed. I make it clear what success looks like, model how to get there, and give them feedback as often as possible along the way.”

How do you remind your students of the expectations you have?

“We build a written and verbal contract and clarify expectations together at the beginning of the trimester, and we revisit it whenever we start to stray from expectations (behavior, academic, or otherwise). As the person in charge, you need to know your firm boundaries and communicate these clearly with students. I work from that point out to develop softer expectations for individual classes/students. It’s all about communicating those boundaries in everything you do, from the words you speak to the signs you post in the room to the behaviors you choose to reward, ignore, or redirect. Beyond that, you need to include students in the design so they have buy-in and understand what you expect and why.”

Your students seem to take an active part in the classroom. In what ways are they active in their learning?

“My students help shape the classroom climate each day. They have jobs and take charge when I’m gone. You have to know your kids too though; I’ve has some classes where I’ve literally sat in the back and had them run the room, and I’ve had other classes where an inch of unstructured space leads to a total collapse of the system. Approach your students like you are coaching somebody who is new to teaching – teach them how to regulate themselves!”

With such independent students, how do you incorporate teamwork into your classroom?

“I make the goal clear, make each student’s role in getting to that goal clear, and then prepare to coach them through conflict management. In any group situation, from the schoolyard to adulthood, there will be conflict. I listen, watch, and gather as much data as I can. You can quickly see who is acting like a bulldozer, a doormat, a bystander, a people-pleaser, a true leader, etc. I pay attention and then coach them through the situations –these interpersonal skills are invaluable so I don’t pass up an opportunity to address them.”

In what ways do you build a family-like atmosphere in your classroom?

“I have students share about their lives and I share about mine too. Every teacher has his/her own style when it comes to classroom presence and his / her own professional boundaries, but the excellent teachers I know are the ones who can walk a fine line between being too close/loose and being too unreachable/rigid. It’s an art, not a science. That being said, be comfortable being yourself, coach kids through conflict, and admit when you’re wrong. Show them that you care and that you can do so while holding them accountable.”

What’s the ‘secret ingredient’?

“There is no one “secret ingredient”, but I think there are some pretty solid “recipes” out there. Teachers have to be fluid, dynamic, smart, charismatic, compassionate, humorous, reflective, and strategic. The real secret to making any classroom work is to understand who your students are, where you need to take them, and how and when to apply your skill sets to keep the ship on course.”

How do you keep your students interested in learning?

“I try to make things relevant, funny, timely, and personal. I talk to students and figure out what they are interested in. After that I collaborate with my colleagues to plan the best course of action. Beyond that I’d say take chances and offer students any opportunity you can find to put them in charge of the plans. They need structure, freedom, and feedback. Give them those three things and then find a nice balance between control and chaos that keeps them engaged. Be ready to change too; it’s a lot more like surfing and a lot less like standing still (an analogy I borrowed from a strong mentor of mine)!”

How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?

“I give students the goal and have them work backward to develop their own means of getting there. Sometimes this means presenting a real world problem, and other times it means presenting a tool they need to learn how to use. It all depends on the goal. Figure out the goal and then give them just enough structure to move forward, but not so much you smother or handicap their abilities to flex and develop their own mental muscles. It’s a delicate balance.”