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Encouraging Voice and Choice in the Classroom

14 Oct 2021 by Colleen Schmit

It's not uncommon for teachers in early education to need to strike a balance between following children's leads and sticking to the classroom schedule. We know that intentional teachers are aware of their responsibility to assess student progress, understand skill mastery, and plan accordingly to provide opportunities for children to grow. However, many times, as teachers begin a specific teacher-directed activity, it is unsettling when students begin to veer from the step-by-step plans the teacher has worked hard to implement.

Teacher and coach, Colleen Schmit, will share how teachers can strike the balance between following the lesson plans and giving children freedom of choice and flexibility in the classroom.


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Colleen Schmit (00:02):
... but I think it's so important to just pause sometimes and say, what am I doing now that I am intentionally allowing my kids to be partners with me on their learning adventure? How am I giving them ownership of what their learning journey looks like?

Mamie Morrow (00:36):
Hello everyone. I'm your host, Mamie. Welcome to the Teaching with Class podcast, where we explore topics that help educators deepen their connections with children and enhance their social, emotional and cognitive growth and development. Today, we're talking about showing regard and value for our children's unique perspectives, thoughts, ideas and choices in the classroom. Our guest, Colleen Schmit, helps us understand why it is so important to show this type of regard and value and how to do it on a daily basis. And now, enjoy the conversation.

Mamie Morrow (01:20):
Today, I'm so excited to talk with Colleen Schmit, and we are going to be talking about regard for student perspectives and how it's not uncommon for teachers in early childhood education to need to strike that balance between following children's leads and sticking to the classroom schedule. So, Colleen, do you want to tell us a little bit about that, that tension?

Colleen Schmit (01:40):
Oh, I know that tension well. I can very much empathize with classroom teachers who feel the need to find the balance between being able to follow the lead of the kiddos, but still there are certain things that we must get done during the day. There's a schedule that sometimes the schedule is not flexible, maybe you have outdoor to time at a certain time or lunch is at a certain time. So when we're thinking about a regard for student perspective, I love how you mentioned Mamie, having balance. We need to be able-

Mamie Morrow (02:18):
All about balance.

Colleen Schmit (02:19):
Everything that you do in the classroom really is about balance. It's a balancing act. We're juggling many things all at once.

Colleen Schmit (02:25):
I know for me, when I was teaching kindergarten, when I was a classroom teacher, at the beginning of my career I was so much more in tune with following the desires and the interests of my little kindergartners versus as I had continued on and was in the classroom for eight years. I started losing some of that flexibility. And it's something that when I sit back and reflect and think, "Oh my gosh, what happened?" It's one of those hindsight is 2020 moments where you think back and you're like, "Gosh, if I would've just stayed on the right path of being able to be flexible and follow their interests and give them lots of opportunities to talk and to choose instead of being so focused on my teacher agenda, I do think things would've been different for me." I really truly do think I may even have stayed in the classroom longer if I would've stayed true to following that regard for student perspective or following the regard for child perspective.

Colleen Schmit (03:42):
So it really is one of my most favorite things to talk about now that I've had all this time to reflect. It's one of my biggest... I don't know if it's a regret, but it's one of my biggest things that now when I do interact with kids, I still get to work as a substitute teacher, it's my most favorite thing to do. And when I am subbing, I am so intentional about having regard for student perspective or really, really looking through everything we do through the lens or through the eyes of the kids. I'm just so much more into it. It's my favorite thing that I want to... It's almost like I feel like I need to do them right. I need to go back and do it right again.

Colleen Schmit (04:30):
So I'm really intentional anytime I'm in a classroom, interacting with kids, about having that balance. Like you're talking about, not every desire can be followed right at that moment but I'm really much more intentional about allowing choice and allowing a lot of opportunities for them to share their thoughts and ideas. And for me to elicit the little thoughts that are in their brains so I can understand their perspective.

Colleen Schmit (05:01):
It's just such a fun way to teach. It's almost like that's when the magic happens is when we can have that balance and step outside and think about, "Well, what's our why here?" I always find it funny, Mamie, like if I ask you, what's your why, why do you love what you do or why do you work in education? What's your why? What would you reply? What's your solid why?

Mamie Morrow (05:30):
That is such an important question. All of us should think about it. If you were to ask that question, you're like, "Hmm, I'm not sure." I encourage all of you to stop and think about that now. What is your why? What is that connection to your passion?

Mamie Morrow (05:42):
Mine would be I just love working with teachers and helping them to really understand, like you're saying, how to bring out the biggest potential in their students. When teachers do that, when they learn to really do that, it also increases their joy in the classroom. Just like you said, Colleen, it helps you to feel more connected in the classroom. You get more of those opportunities to really see the children shine and know that you had something to do with bringing that opportunity about. So I would just love to unpack all of these things you talked about, and let's start with me asking you, what is your why?

Colleen Schmit (06:18):
I know my why. My why is kids. And my how has changed over the years and it will still most likely change, I imagine my how will be different in five years even, I won't be doing the same things, but my why is solid. I'm all about the kids. And I know if I can help teachers, I help thousands of kids by extension, and that's the solid why.

Colleen Schmit (06:46):
If you ask any educator, any teacher, any professional in the field, what's your why, we're all here for the same purpose. We really are. When you break it down, it doesn't matter what your role is we're all here to serve kids, so.

Mamie Morrow (07:03):
Absolutely. And supporting our children and really growing to their highest potential. And oftentimes children don't even know what their highest potential is until they have someone who believes in them and sees that highest potential. That's why I just love working with teachers and helping them to be able to really see that and to know the steps to getting there.

Mamie Morrow (07:26):
So let's talk about the steps of supporting this balance in the classroom because it's easier to say than to do. I know that we have a lot of teachers on the call who might be feeling the same way with you, it's like when they first started they could just really dig in and follow the kids' leads but then there became a time when they felt there were so many other priorities and other pressures that were taking over that particular interest or opportunity. There's a little bit of a tension there of how do you create that balance [crosstalk 00:08:04] that balance.

Colleen Schmit (08:04):
Yeah, and it is almost like this dance. And I think in order to keep the balance, because teachers are faced with all sorts of additional pressures, it just is the world we're in right now, so being intentional about reflecting and thinking. That's the hardest part, I think, because when you are teaching and you are in the classroom, you're moving. You're constantly trying to keep your head just above that water line so it becomes difficult to find time while you're actually doing the work to reflect and say, is what I'm doing best for my kids right now? Am I intentionally exciting them about learning by providing opportunities for them to be partners with me, almost like I am facilitating this learning journey with them? It's not the teacher show where, "I am going to give you the information and here it is. And you need to sit still and quiet and give me five. Put a bubble in your mouth and crisscross apple sauce, hands in your lap," all of those things.

Colleen Schmit (09:23):
So I think if teachers, and I know this is a hard ask because I totally get what it's like to be in that moment, it doesn't lend a lot of opportunities for self-reflection. So maybe even during this podcast or after the podcast, just sit for a minute and think, what am I doing now that I am intentionally allowing my kids to be partners with me on their learning adventure? How am I giving them ownership of what their learning journey looks like? That's tricky to do, but I think it's so important to just pause sometimes and say, "Is this working? Am I meeting my why?" If my why is I'm here to serve and help kids, a big part of that has to be allowing them to have a lot of opportunities for choice and ownership of learning and be able to move and talk and all those fun things. So it's tricky.

Mamie Morrow (10:26):
Yeah, empowering them to make a contribution to their learning opportunity teaches them and gives them the opportunity, not just to learn for today, but to learn how to be a lifelong learner, to learn how to love learning.

Mamie Morrow (10:40):
My colleague, Mary Margaret Gardner has this wonderful saying that she says is, for teachers to consider what am I going to do on purpose because of what the children just did or said or even adding it into a reflection. Maybe start a pattern, a habit of reflecting just for one minute at the end of the day and then you can make it into two minutes and then three minutes. It doesn't have to start with this huge reflection. Maybe just saying, "When I'm driving home, I'm going to stop..." Don't put the music on for one minute and just reflect and ask myself, "What am I proud of that I did today because of what the children did?" What was a way that I responded to what the children said or did that I'm really proud of, that had this fun response from the children and I was able to take them further?"

Colleen Schmit (11:23):
Oh, I love that. I love that. And I'm all about focusing on what we're already doing right and I think that's-

Mamie Morrow (11:31):
Absolutely, right?

Colleen Schmit (11:32):
Yeah. Like in this moment, what am I already doing-

Mamie Morrow (11:36):
... already doing.

Colleen Schmit (11:37):
... and how can I maybe do a little bit more.

Mamie Morrow (11:40):
Yeah. It's those little steps. You have to understand what you're already doing and then you can refine it. But if you're only focusing on what you're not doing, that's going to lead you feeling defeated and a lot of blaming and a lot of excuses. But I want you to focus on, if the teachers hear one thing today, it's focus on what you're already doing to support your children and getting to make choices in your classroom, to have a voice in the classroom, to have some choice in the classroom, to be as independent as possible in the classroom. These are all things that we mean by showing regard or showing value for the children's unique thoughts, ideas and personal expression.

Mamie Morrow (12:18):
So think about what you're already doing and maybe what was one thing that you did today to support that. And then always consider how could I do that one thing I did today even better, or even more often? Or here's a big one, with even more students? Because for that equity. Sometimes maybe you do that with some of the students but you don't tend to show that same level of regard for other students in your classroom, how can I intentionally make sure that tomorrow I do it with that child?

Colleen Schmit (12:44):
I love how you brought that in about the equity piece and really thinking about all children in the lens of all the kiddos. Yep, I love that. And that is a part of regard for student perspective too, making sure that it-

Mamie Morrow (12:59):
Every child's perspective,

Colleen Schmit (13:01):
For every child's perspective, I love that. And when you have that paradigm shift and start looking through the eyes of the child or the children or the students, it changes your perspective in the classroom as the educator. When you can flip the script and say, "What does this look like for all of my kids? How am I intentionally interacting with them that allows them a lot of opportunities to be partners in learning?"

Mamie Morrow (13:34):
Partners in learning. I love that.

Mamie Morrow (13:37):
So I'm going to take you back, because you mentioned two different times in your teaching career, at the beginning, you were really following their perspective and then there was a little bit of a paradigm shift and you weren't doing that as much. So my question for those two different times is, how were your children reacting and how were you feeling during that time? So let's go back to the beginning.

Colleen Schmit (13:59):
Those are really good questions, and it takes me right on back into that classroom.

Mamie Morrow (14:05):
You're [inaudible 00:14:05]. "I'm there now."

Colleen Schmit (14:06):
I'm there now. So those first few years, when I feel I still was really grounded in best practice, I was fresh out of undergrad degree. I went to an awesome program that specialized in early childhood. And they really, really, truly focused on getting teachers prepared and understanding the what, the why and the how of teaching young children. So I engaged in a lot of developmentally appropriate practices with my young kiddos, with those kindergartners. I taught English language learners. 90% of my kids that first year were English language learners. Primarily their language at home was Spanish. And I knew right away, I was like, "Oh boy, do I need to intentionally promote opportunities for them to be able to talk to each other in either their native language or opportunities to acquire a new language?" So having a regard for student perspective, especially that first year, was crucial, vital, had to. I had to intentionally promote opportunities for them to talk and share.

Colleen Schmit (15:19):
I learned a lot of Spanish that year. I was not fluent. Now I can speak like a five-year-old, but I knew that was important so I wanted them talk. I allowed them to move on the carpet. If I was doing a whole group reading lesson or story time or whatever it was, and they were on their knees or they were wiggling or bouncing around and everyone could see, and it wasn't interfering with anyone's opportunity to learn, I allowed them to do that, and I knew-

Mamie Morrow (15:50):
And that's important to note, they move but yet they're not bothering or interfering with anybody else's ability to see or learn then let's be flexible with that.

Colleen Schmit (16:00):
Let's be why not? What's the problem?

Mamie Morrow (16:03):
Because these kids, they move to recharge their brain. They move to learn. They're active learners. So it actually keeps your kids more engaged than if they're complete still because they are disengaging.

Colleen Schmit (16:15):
110%. Even look at us Mamie on this, we can see each other right now and we move around and [crosstalk 00:16:21]. No one likes to sit like that. It's not comfortable. It's not natural. So I allowed them to talk. I allowed them to move. We had a lot of choice in what we did. I knew what our state standards were for kindergarten, but if there was something that the kids were interested in I veered off that curriculum guide. I was fortunate enough that I was working in a school where the leadership allowed us to do that. I know that is not the case everywhere so I truly do know that some listeners might be like, "Well, I can't do that." There's still other-

Mamie Morrow (16:58):

[crosstalk 00:16:58] have more of a scripted curriculum.

Colleen Schmit (17:00):
Totally. Or a pacing guide that everyone's supposed to be on the same guide.

Colleen Schmit (17:05):
I think a research-based curriculum is a good thing, I'm not saying that. But I would say that as a professional you can sometimes veer from the lesson that's in your plan book and understand that the lesson that's appearing in the classroom at that moment might be so much more beneficial than following along what's in that pacing guide. I know that's a hard one for educators. And when I talk that talk to teachers, they're like, "Well, that's not possible for me." And my suggestion always is maybe go to leadership and say, "Here is why I occasionally will veer from the lesson. Here's what we did. Here's my notes that I took on the learning and on what was happening in very special moments, those teachable moments."

Colleen Schmit (17:59):
When I was doing that at the beginning of my career, I was so fulfilled. It was hard. Teaching was always hard. It was always hard. It didn't matter if I was allowing a lot of regard or not, it still was hard, but it was so joyful. It was so much fun to teach that way and to be a partner with them.

Colleen Schmit (18:23):
So to answer your question on the opposite end, when I... I still was nice. You can be very rigid and nice. You really can. There was no negative interactions really happening in my classroom with me and the kids, but I was very, very strict in the expectations that I had for the children to the point where it would impede the learning.

Colleen Schmit (18:51):
So again, let's say you're eight and I'm sitting in the little rocking chair and we're going to have story time and I'm holding up the big book and we're doing a big book read aloud, and someone starts fidgeting with their shoes. "Op. Op. Check your body. Op. All my friends, check your body and give me five. I need your eyes, your ears, your mouths are closed and quiet, hands in your lap. Crisscross, apple sauce, bubble in your mouth," to the point where it would interfere with what they were able to intake.

Colleen Schmit (19:24):
Of course you have classroom expectations, let's not get it twisted-

Mamie Morrow (19:30):
Of course. Not chaos.

Colleen Schmit (19:31):
Not chaos.

Mamie Morrow (19:31):
It's not throwing the lesson out of the window or allowing chaos to ensue at all. That's not what we're talking about.

Colleen Schmit (19:38):
No, but allowing movement, allowing opportunities for them to share, allowing choice. And I had taken a lot of that away for a variety of reasons, all of which, when I reflect back on it I can point to say, "Well, I started getting feedback from the music teacher that my kids couldn't sit on the carpet," or I started getting feedback... Yes. I started getting-

Mamie Morrow (20:04):
I feel your pain [crosstalk 00:20:05].

Colleen Schmit (20:04):
Have you've been there?

Mamie Morrow (20:04):
Yeah, me too. I've been there.

Colleen Schmit (20:07):
I know. That really started to affect me where I thought, "Uh-oh the expectations that I'm having are getting my kids in trouble." Like if I'm allowing them to move and wiggle and talk because that's what I set up learning to be, when another adult or a teacher comes to our classroom to engage and interact with my kids it looks very different.

Colleen Schmit (20:34):
I so wish that as a 24-year-old girl I would've said, "Oh, excuse me, Mrs. Music, but maybe you don't know about developmentally appropriate practices and how young children learn." I was too afraid to share that voice. I'm not now. I'll share it now. But I completely conformed and changed, and that's on me. That's not on anyone else in that building. That truly was my responsibility. But when I began becoming so focused on what was in my plan book, on how much I needed to get done throughout the day, on making sure we were doing running records and getting our data and I needed to have everyone reading by first grade and a bunch of different demands that became very heavy, and I lost all of that regard for the kiddos. I was no longer looking through the lens of the child or through their eyes. Teaching still was hard but it was not joyful and it was-

Mamie Morrow (21:43):
Right, felt more like a regimented thing.

Colleen Schmit (21:45):
Oh, so dry.

Mamie Morrow (21:47):
For you and for them, I'm sure.

Colleen Schmit (21:48):
For them too. I reflect back, and your first year is special, that group that you have is like they're still my babies. They're old now, they have babies of their own, I feel like a grandma. But it's just when you have that first group and I think back on the relationships I had with those kids by allowing them to be partners, so strong. Versus in subsequent years, not as strong because I had lost some of that joy too. So that's why I'm just such a big believer in the power of really promoting intentional opportunities for kids to be learning partners with you as the teacher, no matter the age. Really, truly. That applies in the toddler room all the way up through secondary. It really does. Giving those opportunities for choice and for expression and to be independent and feel like this is for me and what do I need, what do I see, how do I view things?

Mamie Morrow (22:56):
To engage truly in the learning process, which is what we want children to be doing is to engage truly in the learning process. But we need to make learning something that they are doing instead of just something that's happening to them. So really engaging them in that. And I'm hearing a consistent theme through your conversation is the importance of relationship. And how, first of all, having a strong relationship is really important, but by supporting our children and having voice and choice and personal expression in our classroom, it develops a relationship. It's an emotional support for a reason because it's a way to enhance that emotional support and that connection and that relationship that we have with children that helps them ultimately to be able to take risks, academic risks in the classroom. That's where we want them to be because we want them engaging in that learning process.

Mamie Morrow (23:47):
Well, Colleen, this has been such a fabulous conversation, but I know that we probably need to wrap up and I'm really hoping that we'll be able to turn this into a part two or three or four or five because I feel like we have so much to want to talk about, and this topic is huge. Regard for student perspectives is so misunderstood and so important, and really achieving that balance. So I've got a question, what would you like our listening community to be walking away with at the end of this conversation now?

Colleen Schmit (24:16):
I would say if listeners could walk away with understanding that this is something that will continually take an effort on your part to be intentional about. You won't be perfect at all times during all parts of your day, but if you can start what Mamie suggested earlier about celebrating what you're already doing. Think of that small thing you're doing to already support choice and autonomy and ownership of learning for your kiddos and then think about something more you could do.

Colleen Schmit (24:54):
I also would say my biggest soapbox that I get on with teachers with regard, and I know it's so much more than this but this is where I really fell short when I started becoming so rigid, let them move. Please let them wiggle, let them move, let them talk. Again that, Mamie like you mentioned, it's not chaos. It's different. You still have your expectations, but it's okay for children to wiggle. It's okay for your students to be able to express their ideas, their thoughts, their feelings. Allow intentional opportunities through all formats of your day to allow kiddos to share, move, talk, express, choose. All those good things. So I think that would be my takeaway.

Mamie Morrow (25:46):
So basically ensure our children have voice and choice in the classroom.

Colleen Schmit (25:49):
Yep. That's right, voice and choice.

Mamie Morrow (25:51):
All right. Well, let's all start working on that and I encourage all of you to think about, reflect for just one moment, what is it that you're already doing and how could you continue to plan to do that again tomorrow and then the next day and the next day and the next day?

Mamie Morrow (26:06):
So thank you so much, Colleen. I look forward to talking with you again.

Colleen Schmit (26:09):
Thank you. Bye bye everybody.

Mamie Morrow (26:13):
And if you're interested in continuing this conversation with other educators, I'd encourage you to join our class learning community. You can share or learn more strategies with thousands of educators around the world. The link to join us is in the show notes available on your listening platform. Also in the show notes, we will be sure to link a few really helpful blog posts on this topic that I hope you'll check out. So thank you again everybody for joining us today and we will see you again next week. But until then be humble, be teachable and always keep learning.


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