Be Better

31 Dec

In my last post I suggested that you should always try to improve your craft as a teacher or administrator. I do truly believe that if you aren’t actively working to be better at your job, then you aren’t actually doing your job. Part of it is just being a professional. Professionals work towards mastery — even if we never get there. Machines just do their jobs unthinkingly and without meaning or growth goals. I think most people want to be professionals and not machines, but many times we feel thwarted by a whole host of things ostensibly out of our control: feckless administrators, red tape, inconsistent policies, underpaid/overworked teachers and staff, unmotivated students, student poverty, testing…the list could go on.

But all too often teachers are afraid to admit or say that none of those, nor even all of them together, is an excuse for us to do sub-par work. We are professionals, and professionals do not allow _________________ to be the reason we can’t do our best in the classroom every week. Fill in the blank with the excuse of your choice. I know many of them well. I have often filled in that blank myself, raging in private over ________________ and why it means that the students are short changed, or why the talented faculty can’t actually do their jobs, or why I do double the work of a colleague who makes double the pay I do. I’ve moaned about “the administration,” about losing class time to testing or assemblies, about the culture of grade inflation. Believe me, I know your pain.

But your particular  pain does not give you the right to shrug your shoulders and say, “It’s impossible to teach because of _________________.

Picture your craft (and yes, I believe teaching is a craft — an art that requires both technical and creative skills, like carpentry or dance) the way you wish it were without any restrictions, impediments, or bureaucracy — what does it look like? What kind of work could you do if you could be free to do it to the best of your ability? Close your eyes and really imagine it. What kind of educator do you dream of being if only _________________ weren’t the problem?

Now go and be that educator in spite of the fill-in-the-blank. I’m serious. Please don’t think I’m being flip. I mean it sincerely and genuinely, and I speak from my own experience; I work as a full-time classroom teacher right now and come home daily with many headaches and grumbles about ____________________. But I never let it affect my craft. You see, they are independent of one another, even if they don’t seem that way. Yes, I’m beholden to certain rules and standards at each school I work in, but my classroom is like a laboratory in which I’m constantly testing modified or new approaches to see which ones cause learning better. I want my students to leave class every day feeling excited, wanting to continue our discussion out into the hallway. Do I let ____________________ stop me from that goal? Never. I work around it. I’m the educator I want to be in spite of it.

Because we don’t live in an ideal world and I don’t rule it, then of course I must work within the framework I have. but here are two insights I’ve learned that are like gold to me they’ve been so tried and true:

1. Creative, engaging, feedback-seeking educators are the ones that change lives and see broad gains in student achievement; teachers who focus solely on content and drill n’ kill often only reach the top students, who are already motivated.

2. It’s best to take bold, educational risks in the classroom that aim to cause greater learning without first asking for permission. I’ve often found that people say no to untested or new ideas, but they will congratulate you later on those same ideas put into action when they see excellent results. I have seen this firsthand with SPIDER Web Discussion and introducing new units.

These insights have really helped me be a better teacher in spite of __________________. I try to be that engaging, creative teacher looking for new and better ways to reach my kids, and I often try new things in my quest to do that (and announce success later, rather than ask permission first).

All of this is to say that we professionals, we educators who really do want to be better at our jobs, must cast off our _________________ excuse and take responsibility for our own time every day with students and colleagues. We may never be able to work in our ideal professional environment, but we have an opportunity every day to be the kind of educator we want to be in spite of that.

Let’s be better.

For my next series of posts, I’ll be suggesting several ways educators can “be better” at their jobs — be professionals and not machines. I’m a pragmatic girl when it comes to professional development, so I’ll have some very specific suggestions for how teachers and administrators can “be better” and create a ripple effect around them in their professional communities


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