Three Ways I Will Keep Myself Learning in 2014

Over the vacation, I had the chance to spend a wonderful afternoon with my mentor, Madeleine Ray (of Bank Street College).  As often happens when I spend time with her, an important truth hit me.  Yes, 2013 has been a year of great accomplishment for me… I finished writing and saw the publication of my first book; I was featured in Teacherprenurs–Innovative Leaders Who Lead But Don’t Leave; and I finally reached my tenth year of classroom teaching–something I promised myself I’d do when I entered the profession. No doubt, it feels really good to reach some of my highest goals of the last decade, and it’s worth a pause to take it in. But, I also know that I’m no giant! To be a great teacher, I must keep learning, and, not coincedentally, being a learner is probably the most inspiring part of being a teacher anyway.

As I sat with Madeleine, it hit me that, while I’ve reached an important milestone with the publication of Whole Novels For the Whole Class and the new opportunities this creates to share the method, there is still so much to explore in teaching. Madeleine and I talked about ideas I had encountered years ago when she and I would meet weekly to discuss observations of my classroom, that remain questions for me to this day.  Yes, questions to explore… So my resolution for 2014 is to keep learning, keep exploring in my own classroom, and seeking out knowledge of others, along with everything else I might be doing.  That’s one of the reasons to stay in the classroom, right? To keep growing.

Here are three ways I will ensure I keep learning in 2014.

1. Give myself permission to be myself in the classroom and teach according to my principles.  If I’d succumbed to every external pressure I encountered in the last ten years to teach a certain way, I never would have been able to write about the whole novel method. That’s because I never would have tried it in the first place, and wouldn’t have been able to keep experimenting and learning from successes and challenges.  So even though I’m someone who’s worked hard to find my own voice as a teacher, I still find myself pulled in several different directions.  I have to remember, the external pressures come and go; teachers who stay have all seen ths happen. If we want to become great, we need to find ourselves and be ourselves in our own classrooms–and beyond.  That doesn’t mean I will be wearing blinders and ignoring what’s going on around me. It just means that I give myself permission to ask hard questions about teaching, determine my priorities and be my best teaching self–not a watered down crowd-pleaser.

2. Learn from students.  Madeleine reminds me that students can solve most of the problems of the classroom if we let them. I plan to listen to my students more, in formal and informal ways, and give them more time and space to make decisions that affect our class and their learning.  I know from experience that when I am truly open to what students have to say, I learn a great deal. Teaching is more interesting that way.  Listening to students sounds simpler than it is, though. Why is it difficult sometimes to truly hear students?  Because our attention is constantly being pulled in other directions. Students are at the bottom of the hierarchy of education, and we have to struggle if we want it to be any other way in our classrooms.

3. Be okay with my own vulnerability. Share it, in fact.  Just because I’ve taught ten years and have written a book about teaching, doesn’t mean I don’t have weaknesses in my teaching and a million unanswered questions.  I have some expertise and I’m not afraid to claim that, but I’m not an expert on everything; even the things I know best present new challenges every year. If I’m going to keep learning, I have to be okay with my own vulnerability (also called fear of failure). This includes sharing my challenges and hard questions with other teachers, including those in virtual networks, so we can have meaningful conversations that lead to new thoughts. Otherwise, I’m wearing a different kind of blinders–ones where I ignore anything that doesn’t fit into the schema I’ve already created.

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  • BriannaCrowley


    As I reflect on last year and look ahead, I am appreciating all of the reflections and goals from my community of educators and PLN mentors. Thanks for sharing your learning goals with us–#1 and #3 especially resonate with me as I’m seeking to understand what “being myself” looks like in the world of education.

    As your post is so timely, I cross-posted to CTQ’s profile.

  • ReneeMoore

    You ARE a Giant!

    Part of what makes you a great teacher is reflected in this post: the desire to keep learning. It’s just plain wonderful that you have a such a wise mentor and that you have maintained your relationship with her this far into your career. Both those accomplishments are far too rare in our field these days. That you see the need to not only keep learning, but are consciously building both your professional network and consider your classroom a community in which you are a learner is the essence of accomplished teaching. 

    I’ve been waging an uphill battle with my colleagues to get them to even acknowledge they need to be open to learning more about teaching. The frustrating circular argument goes like this: “The students I teach aren’t learning the way I’m teaching now, so why should I knock myself out to try and teach better?”   

    Keep that learner’s attitude, Ariel. Complacent, self-satisfaction is the death of a teacher’s career and a curse on her students. 

    P.S. – Something you might enjoy, if you’ve never read it–the book Students Teaching, Teachers Learning by Dixie Goswami, Jeffrey Schwartz, and N. Amanda Branscombe with foreward by James Britton and Nancy Martin. It’s a classic, first published in 1992 by Boynton/Cook/Heinemann, but it was prophetic in its contents and highly applicable to your resolutions for 2014. 

  • JulieHiltz

    Listening to my gut.

    I had some of the same reflections over winter break as you did. Ok, not really my gut but my intuition. I am in my 11th  year of teaching and as I’ve begun to see myself more as a professional and move through the stages of mastery, I question myself more frequently. It posts like these that remind me to trust my instincts, use them to drive my professional development and make my journey (struggles) public for others.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    On Learning…

    I second Renee’s comment and couldn’t agree more that the best teachers (including my own mentors in physical and virtual spaces) are constantly learning, reflecting and growing and that this is what makes them great!  Great models of risk-taking and learning for students AND great colleagues for fellow pracitioners who are early in their career, or afraid, or bogged down by the politics and negativity that are still pervasive in many day-to-day school cultures, or, or, or…

    As I work through the seond half of your book  (a thorougly enjoyable professional read!) I think the learning that you experienced over time as a practitioner refining the whole novels approach in your work with students, as well as the learning of students engaged in this approach, is palpable and a terrific model for teachers to take on in their own practice.

    So yes, please keep learning! But more importantly, please keep sharing your learning with others! 🙂

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