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.