About Ruben Brosbe

Ruben Brosbe is a fourth grade teacher in Harlem, New York City. He is passionate about social justice oriented project based learning, and finds that young people make the best activists. When he is not teaching Ruben likes to explore new neighborhoods in NYC or cook.
When you are a new teacher, there are so many small parts of teaching you have to figure out. And you get bombarded by advice on what to do. You’ve got feedback from your principal, tips from veteran teachers, and “best practices” from professional development consultants. You have to sift through it all and somehow try to put it together into some sort of coherent educational philosophy.

In my eighth year of teaching, I feel like I have arrived at some clarity around my educational philosophy. I’m not quite yet how to articulate it without using a dozen different education buzzwords, but essentially I want to treat kids with respect, help kids treat others with respect, and help them learn as much as possible about content that’s meaningful to them.

In my eighth year of teaching, I feel like I have arrived at some clarity around my educational… Click To Tweet

Still, in the details, I’m working to figure some things out. At the end of the day, I try to ground my practice in my philosophy. But at the same time, I’m somewhat agnostic, because I want to do whatever will be best for my students. And sometimes if something’s not working (i.e. students aren’t learning) it’s easy to question if it’s the right thing to do.

I don’t think that a lot of these decisions are either/or. One of the frustrating things I’ve found in education is a tendency to break things down this way. I think the effective practice is mostly likely a balance between two extremes. I’m still working on finding that balance though in a few areas.

For example…

Should I sweat the small stuff or let it go?

Kids are kids, and I hate to stay on their case over little things. However, sometimes paying attention to little things sends a message that you’re paying attention, you care, and you expect better. It’s the beginning of the year, and my co-teacher and I are really trying to reinforce good listening skills. So if I see a kid slumping or otherwise not focused when someone is speaking I feel compelled to fix it. At the same time, with some kids and some situations, a slight redirect can turn into a full-blown power struggle. I suspect this is where discretion comes into play, and also knowing how to redirect a behavior as much as when. Still, it’s a work in progress.

Am I acknowledging the “whole child” or lowering my expectations?

Alfie Kohn recently had a blog post on a similar thread. He made a distinction between academic capabilities and intellectual capabilities. In other words, pushing children to meet state standards is not necessarily the same thing as having high expectations.

For me, I’m thinking about the social-emotional needs of my students who are dealing with the various traumas prevalent in high poverty communities. When I see a student who acts violently or refuses to do work, my first instinct after reflecting on the work I need to do on our relationship and my instruction, is to consider underlying causes from outside the school.

When I think about the barriers to what a student can do in the moment, I’m not trying to place limits on what a student can ultimately achieve. But it doesn’t always feel that way. As a teacher, I sometimes feel like I have to fix everything, and catch up students who are two or more years behind academically, overnight. But, that’s not realistic.

As a teacher, I sometimes feel like I have to fix everything Click To Tweet

So, here’s what I’m trying to do: Help my students feel cared for. Get them to care about doing work. Push them to make that work the best possible work they can do. Sometimes that means giving them a break, but in the long-term I think it pays off.

Am I Providing Support or Creating Dependency?

I’ve been thinking about this last one with regards to my more challenging students of the past few years. I usually end up having the closest relationship with these students by the end of the year, but I’m beginning to wonder what drawbacks come with this.

Besides the fact that the more energy I invest in a single student, takes away from what I can offer their classmates, I also wonder if I’m unconsciously incentivizing problematic behavior.

Elementary students who act out often are seeking attention. Keeping this in mind, I try not to get drawn into power struggles or other negative attempts for attention. At the same time, these behaviors sometimes stem from social-emotional needs, and so I tend to circle back to these students more often than others who can work more independently. I worry about the side effects of this support though.

I’ve resolved a lot of challenges in my first seven years of teaching. Some of them are small, like what to do about pencil sharpening and others larger, like how to cultivate a strong, positive classroom culture. But as I embark on my eighth year, I’m grateful and humbled to think about what’s left for me to figure out.