Learning is Uncomfortable

Recently my new principal, who is showing every sign of empowering teachers and students, showed us the following quote in a staff meeting.

“Teachers who truly understand what they want their students to accomplish will almost surely be more instructionally successful than teachers whose understanding of hoped-for student accomplishments are murky.” -W. James Popham

She then asked us how we could relate to this quote. It struck a chord for me. It is terrible to have irrelevant experiences like Renee Moore, but an entirely different tragedy to get wrong information that could prevent student learning. As a mid-career teacher, I know when I am learning, so I shared the following experience with my colleagues in our staff meeting.

At my recent election day professional development, we had an “expert” presenting to our Head Start program about our child-centered curriculum. In one activity she presented us with anecdotal observations of students and asked us to figure out how we might encourage the student to learn more. My colleague was provided the following:

A 4 year-old student sorted through a box of magnet letters to put on a magnet board. She picked out the letters, I, L, F, U and showed the teacher. She said, “Look! I made I love you!”

The ‘expert’ said, “See, this child doesn’t know how to spell. She is not even close. That is why we need to refer students early before they get to Kindergarten.”

I was stunned. As a teacher and a researcher of early childhood literacy I knew that this student was actually experimenting with invented spelling and obviously knew the names of the letters. She was figuring out how phonemes operate in English. Without thinking I argued the point and explained that the student was demonstrating invented spelling. I don’t blame my administrators, they weren’t providing faulty information, and most of what our expert said was correct and valuable if you hadn’t heard it before. I just knew I wasn’t learning. More importantly, our expert’s murky understanding of early childhood literacy could prevent learning if followed by my colleagues.

This experience is sadly repeated on a regular basis in our public schools. Luckily, something good came out of the experience. When I shared it in my staff meeting, I informed my principal’s PD and our schools’ understanding of what our principal was trying to get teach us. Murky understanding of what you are trying to accomplish can be damaging to student learning. Our principal went on to address learning targets as opposed to objectives as a method for empowering students. She later provided a link to a video so we could see this approach in action. I actually learned from this video because it was relevant and showed a real teacher doing real teaching that benefited students. I think this is the key to my learning as a mid-career teacher. Whether it is Twitter, my Professional Learning Community (PLC), my grade level meeting, or my school’s professional development I know when I am learning, and I can tell when it will benefit students.

I have several strategies to keep myself learning that revolve around making myself uncomfortable. My three main strategies are to find hard conversations, look deeply at my practice, and reflect publicly.

I know I learn more from engaging with other teachers than with “experts” so I try to visit Twitter and The Collaboratory often. Recently, I learned about the PLC #BFC53, a community that posts member questions at 5:30 am each morning. It makes for an engaging way to wake up. My recent question was selected and I learned a bunch from the discussion. My question was, “What would ‘Student Driven’ vs ‘Data Driven’ schools look like?” I met some new teachers (@mgrosstaylor @SenorG @brianrozinsky) who I added to my feed that are challenging me to learn.

It is hard work to grow as a teacher. Sometimes I even reconsider my basic assumptions about my teaching. Last year, I signed up to participate in a research project that challenged me to re-evaluate my teaching. I emerged secure in my practice but also strengthened in areas that I did not know I needed help. The project, Best-in-Class, is a Tier II behavioral intervention for students who are at-risk of school failure due to social emotional development. Last year, it helped me with an extremely difficult student, and, this year, it is strengthening my relationships with my class.

Every year, I film a few of my lessons and reflect on them. I am especially interested in capturing students’ experiences in my classroom, so I have started to hand my phone to my kids and ask them to record me teaching. It is a blast! I use these videos in my presentations at conferences like Teaching and Learning and National Association for the Education of Young Children. I love presenting at these conferences because I get to talk with teachers, spread my expertise, and learn from my peers.

I have found that any time I share my practice publicly, I learn something about my teaching. This is why I encourage teachers to blog about their experiences. Writing about about my practice helped me to find my true teacher voice, an almost unheard of goal for a district mandated professional development. The act of going public with my teaching often leads me to articulate something I didn’t know I knew or believed. I hope that by being vulnerable about my teaching I am able to provide others the strength to see themselves clearly. Seeing myself clearly is uncomfortable, but it is also a sure sign I am learning.

Image: A 3 year old student.