October 2010 Issue
September 26, 2010

POV: Let's teach kids, not just subjects

Source: NYSUT United
Jeff Peneston

Jeff Peneston is a Liverpool High School earth science teacher. He made the following remarks to the Board of Regents in September, when he was named 2011 New York State Teacher of the Year.

For most of my life I have been the creative and wacky guy that thousands of children have known as "Jeff" when they spend their summers at the non-profit children's camp that my wife and I direct. At camp I get to work in an outdoor learning environment where we teach the whole child, and then we get to watch kids grow up over a series of years.

But today's announcement reflects the fact that I also have the greatest day job in the world — a job as a New York state teacher, where I have spent the last 25 years working to transfer the best teaching strategies from camp to the classroom.

I have trouble when people ask me what I teach. I know they want me to name a content area or age group, but the teachers who have inspired me the most have always seemed to go beyond that definition and I realized that what I really teach is ... young people, the ones in my classes and a growing number of people who don't appear on my attendance rosters.

As a teacher I help people to grow. The content and the exams are just the mortar and bricks and the weights we ask kids to lift so that their brains and their hearts will grow strong.

I can't get my students to pass the Earth Science Regents Exam in June because of any amount of passion I have for the subject. What I can do is to lead my students out of the classroom and ask them to solve problems and have authentic experiences in groups. I can create the setting in which they can teach themselves and discover their own strengths, interests and passions.

If I lead them out there and they find their own passion, strength and self confidence ... then the Regents Exams will turn out just fine.

Teaching is an art form that requires, skill, experience, courage, tenacity ... and a warm human heart. The foundation of the best learning environments can always be found in the respectful and humane ways that teachers build caring relationships with children.

In the long view, the measure of our success is not in the lessons taught and learned but in the experiences shared and remembered. Today, teachers across New York state feel unprecedented and growing pressures from a howling storm of simultaneous and often conflicting demands.

We respond to a global economic downturn, school budget cuts, staff reductions, high-stakes testing and the increasing use of technology inside and outside the classroom.

As the rate at which children are diagnosed and medicated for their special needs climbs, and virtually everyone communicates digitally, instantly and constantly, studies also point out that the current generation of children has less contact with and understanding of the natural world than any generation in the history of the species.

In this storm we need to remember that, at our core, each teacher and learner is a socially interactive, curious, caring being that desires to work and play in small groups. Teachers can reduce much of the noise created by this storm if we focus on certain basic ideas that are literally primal in their origin.

Show children that you care about them. Take kids outside into nature. Give them reason and time to play, experiment and explore. Challenge children to do difficult things, and when they succeed, they will create the wind under their own wings.