Five Lessons Learned in 2015

The end of one year and start of the next prompts reflections and resolutions. Even though the change in calendar year comes about mid-year in the school-year calendar, it’s still worth taking a few moments to think about the past year and what we’ve learned from it. Here are my top five lessons from 2015. What are your top five?

This week marks the end of one year and the beginning of another. As a teacher, this point is a secondary point for me; my “true new year” usually begins in August. Still, this is a good chance to pause, reflect, and consider how I might make changes in the remainder of the school year. Since “Top Ten” lists are often a popular way to reflect on the year, I decided to go with my own list, but keep it limited to five lessons learned and the actions I will take in the coming year.

5. There is always something more to do, so it is critical to make the conscious decision to take a break when one is needed. In teaching and learning, there is always something more that can be done. If I hit that rare point where all lessons are planned and prepared, all assessments have been designed, all student work has been assessed, feedback given, and recorded, there is still more I can do: delve into my stack of professional reading, file the growing stack of papers on the corner of my desk, refine materials for an upcoming unit. It doesn’t end.

The ongoing demands of teaching mean that I must make those conscious decisions to take a break. Sometimes that means taking a weekend to do nothing related to school. At other times, when I feel most stressed and anxious, it’s taking an evening to step away, even though I feel like I can least afford the time away at that point. In 2016, I intend to be even more deliberate and consistent in taking those much-needed breaks.

4. Taking time for professional development isn’t just a good idea; it’s a necessity. My state’s ed chat on Twitter is at 9:00 PM on Wednesdays. To be perfectly honest, that’s not the time I would choose. Since the alarm goes off daily at 4:30 AM, I really should be in bed by 9:00 PM, but even if I decide to stay up until 10:00, I would rather pursue relaxing activities at that point, things like reading or a little quilting to wind down for the night. However, my state’s ed chat is worth it. Through my time on ed chat, I’ve met some amazing educators involved in many aspects of education, from classroom teachers like me to media specialists to curriculum directors and superintendents. It’s an hour that challenges my thinking, inspires me, and motivates me to keep stretching, learning, growing, and doing my best for the sake and benefit of my students. More often than not, I head to bed with my mind churning over some new ideas, and it may take an extra cup of coffee to get me going on Thursday morning, but it is all worth it.

Professional development isn’t limited to Twitter, either. Taking the time to pursue learning through my district’s offerings and attending state and national conferences all inspires me. I am a better teacher because of the time I spend in professional development. In 2016, I am going to continue pursuing professional development.

3. Teacher voices are valuable and important, and we need to use them. When I started teaching, I never wanted to get involved with anything political. I simply wanted to work with kids, to help them become strong, lifelong readers and powerful writers. That was it. I resisted getting involved in anything remotely political. When legislation was proposed nearly five years ago that was going to drastically change teaching in my state, I couldn’t remain quiet. The bill was ultimately signed into law, but with the voices of all those impacted speaking up, a repeal was placed on the ballot and passed. Although much of the legislation aimed at teachers has since been enacted, teachers are still speaking up. If we don’t speak up, we’re letting those who don’t have the intimate knowledge of learning and teaching make decisions for us. We need to be part of the discussion. In 2016, I will continue to be an advocate for my students and for learning and teaching in general.

2. When we listen to our students, we can learn so much. I’ve blogged about this quite a bit over the past year. Last school year, I tried out 20Time (also known as Genius Hour), and by listening to what my students were saying directly, as well as watching them, I saw that my students really craved and treasured that time pursuing what they wanted to learn and do. By using Socratic Seminars in all three of my classes, I’m gaining insights into how students are understanding the literature and articles we read, and often it’s at a much deeper level than I had thought. Listening to my students gives me the kind of information I need to plan and prepare meaningful, challenging lessons. In 2016, I am going to continue to listen to them, reflect on what they’re telling me, and plan our learning together accordingly.

1. Kids still inspire and energize me; there is no other field I would rather pursue. Twenty-five years ago this month, I had finished my student teaching experience and had one semester of traditional college courses left. I knew I loved teaching and couldn’t wait to get my first teaching job. I still get so excited the night before students arrive that I have a hard time sleeping; I’m still eager to see them after long breaks like this one. Something I don’t always do well is tell the kids that; they don’t always realize how important they are to me. In 2016, I don’t want to lose sight of what really keeps me motivated to do what I do, and I’m also going to make sure my students know just how important they are to me. I not only care about their language arts skills and their strengths and needs as gifted learners, but I also care about them as people, as individuals.

What are your “Top Five” for 2015? What lessons have you learned throughout the past year, and how will you use those lessons to continue refining your practice?