Classroom Management,  Engagement

Summer Guest Post: Liberating Your Classroom with Student-Centered Learning

If you’re intrigued by the concept of student-centered learning but don’t know where to start, you sound like I used to.  My name is Jenn Breisacher and I am the CEO of Student-Centered World, your new favorite professional development website that helps teachers move to a 100% student-centered environment in their classroom (yes, even yours….and yes, even with your students!).  You can check out our website or follow us on Instagram!

When you ask someone why they became a teacher, many times the reasons are similar: they loved school themselves, they want to make a difference with children, they have an innate desire to teach, etc. As time has moved forward, we know the role of “teacher” has vastly changed and we now wear several hats each time we walk into our classrooms. We are expected to do more with less and this takes a toll on many people. If only there was a way to make our lives easier while still doing what we wish to do, right? What if I told you, there was?

three children in the classroom giving thumbs up with big smiles

Many times the outer influences in the universe of education have an effect on our psyche and how we speak to ourselves regarding our performance in the classroom. However we need to be sure to tell ourselves that we cannot control how other people act or react to a situation, we can only control how we act or react to a situation. Teaching isn’t easy and we certainly know in the past few years the landscape of what it means to be an educator has changed dramatically. We aren’t dealing with the same students that teachers were dealing with 30, 20, even 10 years ago. Though more and more is expected of us, at no time was the discussion prominent in asking what we needed to be able to accomplish all of those things. I think most teachers can attest to the fact that we do in fact want to do what we can to help every single one of our students achieve at their greatest abilities, but we have to take a step back to figure out how we could do all of those things.

While some may say things like “there’re simply not enough hours in the day” or “It isn’t a simple fix to make these changes”, they have the wrong frame of mind. While there is some truth in this, that’s the new normal for education: we are caregivers, social workers, parents, life coaches, and anything in-between. Along with those responsibilities, we also are tasked first and foremost with teaching our children knowledge. We need to change how we react and interact as teachers to be able to do it all….and do it all effectively.

smiling teacher holds binder while children work at desks in the classroom

We need to be organized, and I’m not talking about having your copies done a day ahead of time. We need to know our students on an individual level to figure out what is going to make him or her tick, what’s going to set them off, and what will make sure that they achieve at their greatest possible level. That level is not going to be the same for every single student, but we need to make sure that we’re lifting up our struggling students as well as challenging our more advanced ones. This is not easy to do, not by any means, especially with everything else we are being tasked with, but it’s the world that we live in and if we can find a way to balance this along with all of our other responsibilities, think about how much less stressed more productive and more satisfied we will all be.

The greatest change I ever made in the classroom to help alleviate some of the stress is by adapting the student-centered model. Our website, Student-Centered World, teaches teachers how to successfully execute that model in the classroom. When I was able to walk into a room knowing that everything was prepared for my students and was able to literally speak to every single one of them in a meaningful way during class, while I KNEW every other student at the same time was doing what they needed to do to achieve at THEIR personal highest level, created such a sense of accomplishment and a relaxed feeling on my part in the classroom. Is every single class perfect? No, of course not. Are there discipline issues that pop up? Of course there are…we’re teaching kids; it’s not going to be perfect, but knowing that most of the time it would be streamlined and that these interruptions were the exception and not the norm created an entirely different vibe in my room. Even my students would talk about how laid-back my classroom always felt and that they could do better there.

children working diligently with science materials around a common classroom table

It takes a little extra preparation out of class, but when you’re able to enjoy your craft with your students day in and day out, it changes everything.  No longer do you enter class flustered wondering if your lecture is going to be received well or in a way that your students understand. No longer is there that surprising moment when all students do poorly on an assessment when you thought they understood the information because of course nobody had any questions when prompted. By making your classroom learner-centered, you will be able to find out one-on-one what students were struggling with and can easily adapt the class every single day for what the students needed more of…and in some cases less of.

We know that teaching is a balance between being prepared and also winging it when the tide changes suddenly. Student-centered learning naturally does both and it also naturally differentiates for every single student in your room. What other method of instruction do you know that does this….every time? You’ve heard from your administrators before that they want to see more responsibility on the students in your classroom, but that itself becomes extremely stressful when you’re not sure how to do that. You may think that you understand student-led learning, but I know for a fact when I first started I didn’t. My boss told me to create a student-centered learning environment, but I didn’t know what that meant and there was nothing out there that actually explain how to do it. I saw the merit in it when I saw how engaged my students became in their work when I gave them a little bit of choice and what their activities were going to be. Due to this fact alone, I stuck with it.

Personally, it took me five years to figure it out. By the time I really nailed down a system that worked consistently in every grade and level I was teaching, I had students who were coming back into my class telling me how they had gotten more out of my class than any other that they had taken and that it was the best grade that they had ever had in the subject. They would come to me and tell me after they had moved on that they missed my class or I need to train their new teacher on my method of instruction because it was so amazing. Even students who resisted at first because they were complacent with traditional “expected” lecture came around once they bought in and saw their classmates buy into it. This takes away the stress of teaching and brings enjoyment into every class period.

Two children talking through a tin can and a string with caption "liberating your classroom with student centered learning"

Like I said, not every day is rainbows and butterflies. Sometimes I would come up with an activity for the kids to pick from and they didn’t like it, so it didn’t go so well. I’m going to go out on a limb though and say that you’ve tried things before that you didn’t like either. Our students are human and we need to remember that. It’s not a failure because you tried something and it didn’t work. It just didn’t work. You just have to find something different and give it a try.

All of education is a trickle-down effect. How you’re treated by your Superior is a direct correlation to how you perform and then treat others. If your students feel like they’re respected in your classroom and are given some autonomy, watch how your classroom management issues start to disappear. They start policing themselves and also just like don’t tolerate people being nasty to one another. One of my favorite days was in a low-level class that I was teaching. Two kids got into a HEATED argument over content. Over content! If you want to find a way to make yourself feel like what you’re doing matters, have an experience like this take place in your classroom and it will help you realize that it doesn’t matter what other people say…you are doing it right.

Change is scary, especially if you’ve been teaching the same way for a long time. One of the biggest backlashes I get from people about why they don’t want to switch to a student-centered classroom is because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. While I don’t disagree with that, are you sure it’s not broken? Is every single student in your class achieving at their absolute peak level for them? Are the proper kids being challenged in a way that they need and the kids that need a little extra help receiving it AS they need it? Are students actively engaged in every single class? All of them do when your classroom is truly student-centered.

four students with their school supplies sitting together and smiling

Another misconception is the irrelevance of the teacher with this model. Running a student-centered classroom doesn’t mean the teacher goes away. You certainly have conversations with students individually and can create, based off your plan for that lesson, small group instruction where you can have different groups of students come and talk to you through what could be considered a mini-lecture on topics where they need it, not where you’re just giving blanket information. You’re also there to make sure that every student is doing what they need and are getting what they need. There’s so much that goes into the teacher’s role in that student-centered classroom even though the students are the ones that are engaging in the information.

Sure, we still have the paperwork and the bureaucratic nonsense but if you can enjoy what you’re doing in the classroom every day and your students do too, and you’re also able to prove based off of data test scores and whatever that what you’re doing is making a difference for every single student, imagine the weight that it takes off your shoulders when you can look somebody in the eye and say “I fully love what I’m doing and look at this, it’s working”. There’s no better feeling in the world.

About Jenn Breisacher

Jenn Breisacher from Student-Centered World

After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a student-regulated one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction.  She realized that, even though there was a ton of information out there about why student-centered learning is beneficial in the classroom, there wasn’t a lot about how to go about making the transition to this method; thus Student-Centered World was born.

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