Sixth-grade teacher John Arthur is training champions.
“I don’t just teach children,” says Arthur, who teaches at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City. “I train people who recognize the importance of service to others and don’t just study it — they go about doing it. They’ve been champions.”
Arthur is Utah’s 2021 Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. At the heart of his teaching philosophy is the idea of community and service — people coming together to provide support, wrestle with issues and solve problems.
SmartBrief spoke with Arthur about how he applies this philosophy in his instruction. Here are highlights of that conversation.
Fight for what matters
Arthur takes seriously the responsibility of teaching students about advocacy.
“My job is to teach them how to advocate for whatever matters to them,” he says. “That’s just an essential skill.”
Each year, Arthur’s students choose a cause to explore for individual and group study. “They get to pick whatever subject matter they want. My job is just to coach them as they craft their content, provide a platform for sharing their final products and just guide the process of creation,” Arthur explains.
One project the class produces is called 9th Evermore, a YouTube channel of music videos and short documentaries. Topics include the experiences of immigrants, befriending others, daughters without fathers and social justice, among others. Collaborating with their peers and diving deep into these issues build students’ awareness for other people’s experiences and drives home the importance of contributing to the world around them.
“Advocacy is just about uplifting other people who need to be uplifted — people who are demonstrating for whatever reason, people who are struggling,” Arthur explains. “And, more than anything, it shows the kids and everybody else that they’re part of something.”
Find your voice
Arthur’s students begin the day watching and talking about the major news stories of the day. The exercise — awkward at first because the students were not accustomed to being asked their opinion about world events — has prompted meaningful discussions.
“We just surface their opinions on what’s happening in the world,” Arthur says. “I remember really powerful conversations around tragedies in Syria, migrants coming to shore in Greece, things like that.” As students connect those events to their own experiences and other events happening in the US, they discover that they care about what’s happening in other parts of the world. And once they make this discovery, they begin to develop their opinion — their own voice — on matters.
“Their voice starts to come into play when they start to realize, ‘I actually believe something around this topic. Let me go ahead and work on that belief and try to take it from just this feeling,’ ” Arthur says. “I want them to develop their voices, so that they can put them to good use.”
“Turn down the temperature”
Collaborating with others and putting the “we” before “me” is another important skill students need, says Arthur.
“These are skills we need more of in our society,” he says. “[We need] people who can come together and say, ‘This is what is important to me,’ and somebody else says, ‘This is what’s important to me,’ and figure out what’s important to us and what’s gonna move us forward.”
School is an ideal place to learn this lesson, Arthur says. It offers a safe, structured environment where students can debate ideas, with an adult at the ready to help guide conversations. “[Someone] who has the ability to take a contentious moment and turn it into a teachable moment,” he explains. “[Someone] who knows how to turn the temperature down when the conversation is becoming too heated.”
The formula works. Students learn how to have productive discussions, identify good ideas and come to consensus on their goal. “That’s where the deepest learning takes place — the kind of learning that really takes root in the character,” Arthur says.
Gather the village
Keeping students out of the school-to-prison pipeline begins with relationship between school and families, according to Arthur.
“The old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ doesn’t go far enough when it comes to educating them,” he says. Arthur makes an effort to get to know students’ families so he understands the sensitive areas and issues in students’ lives. He knows this has an impact on students’ social-emotional and academic growth. The relationship-building also helps convey an important message to students. “Our kids need to see that their teachers and their parents are united in the common cause of educating and uplifting them — and that that we all want to provide them with the best educational outcomes and life outcomes that we possibly can,” he says.
Arthur considers community partnerships, nonprofit organizations and other services critical members of the school-family village. These supports have a direct impact on student wellness and performance.
“[They] deliver the services that our kids in our toughest settings need in order to not fall into the school-to-prison pipeline and not just become a statistic,” he says. “Kids who are well-fed learn better. Kids who are healthy, social-emotionally, learn better.”
Leverage the home-court advantage
When it comes to recruiting the next-generation teacher workforce, Arthur says efforts should begin close to home: in the classroom.
“We are squandering the greatest home-court advantage that any profession’s ever had when it comes to recruitment,” he says. Students should see that teachers enjoy what they do and see it as meaningful, important work.
“We have these kids in our classrooms all day long, for years,” Arthur says. “What they ought to be hearing all the time from us is how great children are, that teaching is the best job, and there’s no better way to spend a day than in a classroom with kids.”
Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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