It's amazing how quickly the years fly by, and all the learning that can happen in 19 years. So in honor of this anniversary, I'd like to share here some of the things I've learned about teaching and learning. (Don't worry, there won't be 19 things!)
In going back to graduate school, and through some awesome professional development experiences I had, formally in staff development and informally through professional conversations with colleagues, I began to realize that there was so much more left to learn...that there was so much I didn't yet know. It's a humbling experience to be reminded that you really don't know everything, but you need this humility to be a true learner. This humility creates drive in us that somehow helps us translate that into our teaching work. When you teach with a learner's soul, it's just more exciting, and that can give you the energy that will help you sustain a long career.
You have to do this. Read a new professional text. Subscribe to a professional organization. Visit someone else's classroom. Write professionally. Talk shop with colleagues. Do something to maintain your own learning. Otherwise, it's too easy to get caught up in the minutia that is a part of our world right now! Just keep learning!
We have to hang on to the artfulness of knowing the avenue with which to bring learning to each and every student. However, there is a science to that as well. We have to be research-minded so that we can make those decisions wisely, knowing that there is an entire of field of research of the giants who have come before us or might be teaching alongside us today, that can scientifically inform our artfulness. We don't look at data, because we like data. We don't quote research just to do it. We don't work in teams and schools and districts, because it's some business model that's been imposed on us. We do these things, because collaboration improves what we do. Teaching is an art, and a science.
Face it. Teaching is lonely work. Although the company of children is wonderful, many teachers never have contact with their colleagues for most of the work day. Most teachers don't have phones in their rooms with which they can call a colleague to ask a question. However, we always tell our students that when something is difficult, it's best to work it out with a partner.
Today, the educational world is paying more attention to this. We try to build teams that can meet together often and have meaningful discussions with one another. I think as a field, we've come so far past the cooperative learning models that were so big in 1996 where everyone had one specific role to pay attention to. In the best schools, teachers are growing ideas together systemically, as one learning unit. Michael Fullan tells us in his 2014 book Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact that the key to improving schools is by improving teacher performance in groups rather than individuals. Teams of teachers can support each other individually, but we have to think in groups.
It's exciting to see teachers and principals working with colleagues across the hall, across town, and across districts to refine their practice! If you're not doing this yet, or you're not happy with the way it's going, make a concerted effort to reach out to some professional friends, and say, "I'd like to study something with you." Collaborate on something by talking about something that's perplexing to you. Visit each other's classrooms or schools, and talk about what you see or don't see, what you hear or don't hear, what you feel or don't feel. It will change the way you see your own work every day!
However, the more experienced teacher I am today sees that my work is really to find my students on a map, recognizing their approximation in whatever they are trying to learn, celebrate that with a specific compliment that forces me to name exactly where students are in their approximation, and then teach from there, meeting them at their strength. Just like in conferring, we compliment and teach, compliment and teach, honing in precisely with each compliment and lifting up with each piece of teaching. The trick of it is to lift just the right amount so as not to do too little or too much. Approximation and celebration go hand in hand in getting anyone to learn anything!
I remember debating with classmates in college, when interdisciplinary learning and thematic studies were so big, about how kids could or couldn't take an idea like explorers and apply it to the Age of Exploration, and then to space exploration, and then to their own explorations of characters in books or discovering a new rule in math or science through inquiry. Boy, was I wrong! If you build it, they will come! When we create classrooms that are rich in thinking, kids thrive!
When you create a classroom or school community in which children develop big ideas through conversation, through inquiry, and through courage that's created by taking away the fear of wrong answers, kids can do it. Sometimes, I joke with my wife that the 3rd and 4th Graders in my school carry on better book club conversations than the adult book club we really belong to, simply because we teach and believe in them. We give kids the tools, scaffolds, and the environment in which they are able to think their way through anything!
However, in 19 years of learning about learning, I'm so happy with the many advances our field has made. We know so much more about how to push kids to think more deeply, and we've become smarter about maintaining learning lives ourselves that help our students get there. It's been a long ride, filled with both smooth and bumpy parts...but that's just learning, isn't it?