Monday, September 16, 2013

Continually Learning How to Teach

I often wonder, "How do educators learn how to teach?"  What are the elements that most
significantly motivate us?  What influences the decisions every teacher makes about how he/she is going to engage with students in the classroom -- about the type of teacher we are going to be?
Photo courtesy of Wesley Nitsckie -- CC

Without question, some of the practices of my very best teachers, and some of the teachings of my own parents, can be witnessed in my teaching style .  I'm certain this is true for most of educators.  For me, these are some of my best (and most valued) qualities as a teacher.

There are other influences, though, that have played a significant (albeit not necessarily a positive) role in shaping who I have become as a teacher.

In my first year of teaching I was determined to break the mold and get rid of desks altogether.  I wanted a classroom that felt FAR more comfortable, homey, and connected than any classroom I had ever experienced.  I remembered being a high school student and wondering why classrooms had to feel so formal and uncomfortable.  I laboriously shifted and stacked the desks off to one side of the classroom (because the janitor just didn't have time to move the desks in the first few days of school) and I moved the used couches and chairs I collected into my classroom in preparation for the first day of school.

As my colleagues walked in and welcomed me during those first few days back for teachers, person after person told me that I would regret the decision -- my kids would be out of control and "once control was lost, it was nearly impossible to get it back."  I respected their expertise and their experience (as I lacked both), and I decided to take their suggestions.  I removed the  couches from my classroom before the first day of school, and on day one rows of desks (complete with seating chart) greeted the students.  My classroom looked just like all of the others!

In my second year of teaching, I eagerly wanted to challenge some long-standing curricular "traditions" in the district.  Ultimately, I did voice my concern (timidly) to members of my department (of which several had been involved in developing that specific element of the curriculum fifteen years earlier).  Not only was I met with scoffing and disbelief at the concept of changing a tradition (from people on my own "team"), but I was also encouraged by my mentor to bite my tongue and teach the existing curriculum.  My principal said, "A day will come when you have earned your stripes and can ask these questions  -- people will listen then." In the interest of developing a positive, working relationship with my colleagues, I stood down and begrudgingly taught plays that weren't necessarily interesting or relevant to me or to my students.  I am certain I brought none of the passion or enthusiasm to those lessons.  Not surprisingly, I was consistently disappointed with the learning artifacts my students returned from those units of study.

What is most interesting, though, is the lasting impact of the decisions I made at those critical moments in my development as a teacher.  I continue to regret my decision to not focus more on purposefully developing the physical space my students learned in (a concept I was toying with in my comfortable, homey classroom approach).  Similarly, I never again revisited or officially challenged the curricular traditions in the department that I taught in (I never really felt like I had earned the "stripes" needed to challenge something so seasoned and important to my colleagues).

I can come up with any number of similar examples of moments that shaped who I was as a teacher (both positively and negatively).  Almost every teacher can.  It is in these moments that we define who we are as a teacher.  The larger point, though, is that each time we find ourselves in these moments, we decide how we will respond.

As teachers are increasingly encouraged to challenge the traditional models of teaching and learning (the same models that exist in many of our classrooms today), and as teachers are being given access to tools that make altering the traditional instructional paradigm possible, educators are given an opportunity to address how we teach and why we teach the way that we do.  Does our teaching style reflect the best of our own experiences, or does it reflect instructional practices, models, and decisions that we have accepted, but may not necessarily agree with?

The time is ripe for every teacher to think through his/her teaching practices, teaching style, and instructional choices.  Many people are asking, "What makes an effective educator?"  Parents and community members are seeing different models of instruction, or there are at least different instructional models to point to when they ask to see them.  Through the invent of social media, we can connect with and get insight from colleagues afar -- no longer a need to be solely influenced by those immediately around you.

It is an opportune moment for you to decide if the teacher you are today is the teacher you truly want to be.  And if not, today is an opportune day to do something about it.