What did you learn this year?

Teachers have the gift of a summer to renew ourselves after the exhaustion of the school year. It’s a time for rest, but it’s also a time for reflection. What did you teach this year? What did you learn? My top three are about balance–between work and family, teaching and teacher leadership, and teaching separate reading skills vs. giving kids time to actually read. I’d love to hear your own end-of-the-year reflections.


When the gong strikes three tomorrow, twenty-four marvelous 1st graders will be transformed into 2nd graders. I’ll be joining all of you (and 3.6 million other teachers) in reflecting on another school year as the roller coaster ratchets to a stop.

Here are my top three end-of-the-year reflections; I’d love to hear your own.

1. Real books matter. 

Learning to read without a book seems as absurd as learning to ride a bike without a bike. Yet books sometimes seem an endangered species in the primary classroom, their survival threatened by phonics worksheets and decodable text that makes Dick and Jane primers look positively Narnian by comparison.

Separating reading into its component parts makes sense, in theory. But when we go too far, kids can lose sight of why they’re clapping syllables or highlighting vowel teams, blends, and the “magic e.”

Imagine a bunch of kids who spend each day dissecting frogs. They know a lot about tiny lungs and gallbladders, but they have forgotten what a living, leaping frog looks like.

There’s a lot I wish I had done differently this year, but I’m proud of the number of actual books I have put into my students’ hands and homes. Every day of the week, the kids check out a book from the class library to take home. Our home library project enabled each child to choose 25 books to keep. Family literacy nights added another eight books chosen with their parents, many of them in Spanish, to their personal libraries at home.

For guided reading, I replaced the usual centers with time spent for every group to read a book on their level and respond in writing to a Literature Circle Role—making connections, writing summaries, asking questions, and so on. As a result, the kids’ comprehension is the strongest I’ve seen with a class, no matter a particular child’s reading level. Average growth on the Fountas Pinnell Benchmark Reading Assessment was above the annual expectation, 5.5 levels per child compared to the expectation of 4.

More importantly, the kids love to read. They have learned a lot about the world, and they’re more curious, creative, thoughtful people as a result.

2. For some kids, real books aren’t enough.

We all have hypotheses at the beginning of the year about what will work to help get our students to where they need to be. One of mine was that if I simply immersed the kids in language, reading, and a torrent of books, they would become strong readers.

It worked for my daughter, the same way it had worked for me when I was learning to read. Phonics were a nuisance for both of us, training wheels we didn’t need. Unfortunately, my “books are enough” theory worked great for 18 of my 1st graders but wasn’t enough for the other six.

The struggling readers in my class, including two children who speak Marshallese, turned out to need foundational skills in hearing the sounds in English and connecting them to print. I should have done more to provide that foundation.

You have to “love what you hate” as a teacher, and I’m planning to be a lot more systematic about those foundations of print when I loop with my class next year.

3. Know when to lean in. Know when to lean back.

The best commencement speech I have ever heard was delivered by Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary to President Clinton, at UC Berkeley’s Public Policy School graduation. The school’s motto is “Speak truth to power.” Robert Reich reminded the graduates that it can be even harder to “Speak truth to yourself.” He explained his decision to step down as Labor Secretary, walking away from work he loved that impacted millions of Americans, in order to be a more present father for his teenage sons.

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to lean back from several teacher leadership opportunities so I can lean in to teaching and fatherhood. I opted for a peripheral role on a state committee developing a strategic plan for education in my state, and I stepped down from the Board of an organization with colleagues I respect mightily and a mission I believe in to my core.

These decisions were hard, but they were also clear. I have grown plenty as a teacher leader this year while growing much less as a classroom teacher. I have spent nights on conference calls when I could have been planning more purposeful guided reading sessions. I have come to spend my weekends on my laptop instead of wandering parks and the Farmer’s Market with my 7-year old daughter and 4-year old son.

I had to speak truth to myself about the time I needed for my teaching and my family, or I would have ended up like Bilbo Baggins when he held on to the ring too long; he confessed to Gandalf, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Teaching is the most personal profession I know. It encompasses your entire self. If you’re not the kind of human being you want to be, it’s impossible to be the kind of teacher you need to be.

“When one door shuts, another opens.”

Teachers have the gift of a summer between this school year swinging shut and next year swinging open. It’s a time to rest (“recover” might be a better word) from the exhaustion of a year spent meeting so many needs of the 25 children no longer in our care. It’s also a time of reflection.

What did you teach this year? What did you learn?

I’d love to hear your own end-of-the-year reflections.

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  • BillIvey

    Thank you!

    Great piece. I’ve already shared it out, and written the first two paragraphs of a blog in response (both, sadly, introductory) in response. I’ve also brainstormed my own three learnings. They are (at least tonight):

    1. I am not kidding myself when I say I work hard to enable student voice and that I am willing to place the kind of trust in students that is necessary for that to take place.
    2. People who have never had, or worked with, middle school kids are perfectly capable of recognizing how wonderful they can be and that they are capable of much more than is (stereo)typically expected of them.
    3. Working toward the ideals of intersectional feminism means both falling short far more often than is remotely comfortable and understanding the importance of getting up, shaking your head, and continuing on.

    Hopefully, somewhere in the maelstrom of reports I have to write this week, I’ll finish this soon. Meanwhile, thanks again!

  • DeidraGammill

    Ditto what Bill said! Thank you!

    Justin, as always, I love your posts. Thank you for your transparency and willingness to help others grow in their craft. I spent a good deal of time reflecting on my choices and priorities this year and posted a blog just this morning. So this is the “what else did I learn” reflection:

    1. I learned a great deal about giving students charge of their own learning, and I was somewhat successful in translating that learning into action (letting go is scary).

    2. Sometimes the students you feel you’ve made the least impact on are the ones who come back and tell you that you made a difference. Never give up on students simply because they don’t respond. We don’t know what’s going on below the surface, no matter what their “attitude” seems to be.

    3. All that glitters is not gold. I went into this school year with the notion that a hybrid role was going to be amazing. While parts of it certainly were and my regrets are minimal, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to juggle all those balls in the air (and I quickly learned that being a good teacher doesn’t mean that teaching students “how to teach” is going to be a piece of cake!!). I think I was guilty of the same misconceptions that people often have about our “easy” profession 😉

    I look forward to having more time to read and respond to blogs, like yours, this summer. You’ve set the bar high and it’s appreciated.

  • tonireynolds

    what I learned this year

    Responding to the post by Deidre, responding to BIll’s post…etc..I too love reflecting on some of the former students I’ve had.  Those students whom you feel “you’ve made the least impact on come back and tell you that you’ve made a difference.” That’s especially poignant during this graduation season; looking on the faces of some of the students I’ve taught in earlier grades;–seeing their many accomplishments and how I’ve helped lay the groundwork for their future learning.  One of the lessons this year provided was the reminder that “we’re all in this together–fellow educators, young and old (inexperienced and more experienced); when we come together to share student work and reflect on what we do best–yes, many heads together is best. I’ve learned so much (again) from some of theyounger, less experienced teachers on our staff.  I’ve also been reminded (again) that my students often come from a very different world than I do– offering time to them to share their experiences, and really listening to what they had to say–is one of the most important ingredients in getting to really know my students.  Happy almost summer.

  • JustinMinkel

    “…dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.”

    Antoinette, Bill, and Deidra,

    I love your reflections. The line from the Joni Mitchell song came to mind for all four of us: “…though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.” That line has always been complex and bittersweet to me, and it’s true of so much of my life.

    There will always be that gap between what we dream and what we are able to actually do, between the reaching for a thing and the grasping of something just short of it. Reality is complicated and messy, and teaching is too complex to ever do perfectly in a given day, let alone an entire school year or career. But our dreams do come true, imagination becomes reality, and there’s a deep joy in that.

    • DeidraGammill

      There’s joy in the journey

      I’m reminded of a line from Robert Browning … Ah but a man’s grasp should exceed his reach, Or what’s a heaven for?

  • thomashoward

    I’ve learned so many things thankfully and superior papers was able to help me learn on much of those occasions, they were much simpler using than traditional books. Getting particular and more precise data’s important, something which they’ve helped me out on.