Teaching in the Dark: My Craft Before I Learned of Personalized Learning

Author: Ariel Margolis
Published Date: September 20, 2017

I teach the way I was taught.

When you read the above line, what feelings does it evoke in you? For me, curiosity and regret.

How Hard Can Teaching Be … Right?

During college, I taught at a local supplementary school to make extra money. It was fun, except for having to wake up early Sunday mornings when the rest of the campus was fast asleep. In addition, both my parents were—and are—educators. And I figured, “How hard can teaching be? My parents do it.” Remind me if I ever hear that phrase from someone to give him/her my grandmother’s curse, “You should have heartburn for a month … but only at night!”

With hopes of entering medical school dashed after receiving 18 rejection letters, I decided to enter what became my calling—teaching.

I taught a full course load of middle school science and math my first year. Being two years out of college, I was pumped. I felt I could relate to the students easily because I was young and cool (the truth is that I was only 10 years older than my students and “cool” meant that I was a Trekkie, had a makeshift distillery in my apartment before it was trendy, and went food shopping during the Superbowl because the supermarkets were empty).

I felt confident in my abilities to shape young minds as I had the content knowledge to teach chemical reactions, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and linear equations. Yet, I didn’t put much thought into how I was going to teach. I could just teach the way my teachers taught me.

Now, before you jump to conclusions, I am not bashing my teachers’ styles of teaching. I learned a lot from them. I liked most of them … honest! There were only a handful who I thought were my teacher because God liked a good laugh. For the most part, I related well to my in loco parentis. I respected how they taught and I learned how to learn from them. It took me a while, but I was able to do it.

The Sage on the Stage

I designed my class structure based on my teachers’ styles. Mine was frontal, with writing on the board and students taking notes, and information coming from yours truly—the “sage on stage.”

Discussions took place. Labs or math worksheets were completed. And students were assessed.

I graded everything.

I assigned everything.

Everyone received the same exact assignment, test, or activity. And we pushed through the curriculum and finished (yep, you read correctly, I finished the curriculum in a year).

Ok, don’t get me wrong; the students weren't in a dungeon. Though my classroom used to be the janitor’s supply room—it was tiny and smelled like Pine Sol™. But, we joked, we learned, and students demonstrated their skill sets.

It was the first time dissections had been done by students in the school with technology that was only used to teach math (can you guess what it was back in 1999? Yep! You’re right … an overhead projector! [5 points if you know what that is]).

The structure of my classes was the same as how I was taught all through my academic career.

Students Struggled Because I Taught the Way I was Taught

Looking back 18 years ago, I sometimes wonder had I taught the way I teach now, what would have the experience been like for my students (and for me)? I remind myself that the way I taught was not bad; no one was irreparably harmed (I never received a note from a student saying that his/her dream of becoming a ______ was dashed by my pedagogical methods). I even had colleagues throughout my years of teaching who taught as I did that year who were engaging and loved by their students.

Upon reminding myself of that first year, a combination of curiosity and regret comes over me.


Because the way I teach now (personalized, student driven, student paced, and student owned) I have a few students who struggle. All the moreso I must have had students—more students than now—who struggled because I taught the way I was taught.

So, this post is one of several depicting my journey of becoming a better teacher for my students. The hope is that you can glean from my experiences and become better at the art and science of teaching, too. After all, we are all human and all have the capacity to learn. I am happy to teach you how to use an overhead projector, too!

By the way, I did change my methodology the following year. I changed because… well, the next post will tell you.

For those of you who are wanting to take what I've learned and make it your own, below is an exercise that can help you do that.

Questions to think about after reading this post:

  • How did your teachers teach you?
  • How did you teach your first year as compared to how you teach now? Or, if this is your first year teaching, how is the year progressing for you?

An Activity to Complete

  • Picture in your mind your favorite teacher. He/she could be from any year, subject, setting (school, camp).
  • Describe his/her teaching style in 100 words or less.
  • Identify the traits that you feel made that teacher “your favorite” and traits that looking back, do not jive with your current teaching approach.
  • Explore what conclusions can you draw from this activity?

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