Like every other existential twenty-something, the end of another year leaves me reflective and utterly in awe of how much has changed over the course of a year.  But with every year that passes, I become more and more excited for what’s to come.  Here are some of my take-aways from 2014:

1. Age doesn’t matter.

This applies to all who enter a classroom.  It doesn’t matter how old your children are, and it doesn’t matter how old or young you are.  The ability to teach well and the motivation to learn comes through relationship building comes through seeing one another as is.

2. Experience only becomes valuable through humility.  

Playing the “experience” card only reveals your insecurities.  Truly experienced teachers understand that the quality of our experience lies in the number of times we’ve had to synthesize new ideas — not the number of things we’ve created or the amount of children we’ve worked with.  In fact, some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned this year are from those who’ve been in the classroom “less” than me.

photo (40)3. Sometimes you need to turn your philosophy upside-down and inside-out to figure out what’s really important.

The truths and philosophies we construct as teachers are dependent on the experiences that have been laid before us.  For me, it was public school — a good public school, at that, but nonetheless, a public school.  What I believe to be true about teaching is radically different now, having been forced outside of my comfort zone and having to try something new.

4. “Best” practice is dependent on the values of the system in which you find yourself.

Due to the fact that quantitative standardized test scores scale, the public school, and our country, for that matter, value these above all else.  And this value, therefore, impacts the way we teach and the way we gauge mastery.  When test scores are truly viewed as only a small component of child-centered learning, some practices we thought of as “best” truly aren’t “best for kids.”  Instead, I’m seeing what they actually meant were that they were “best for test scores.”

5. Kids need structure.

I came to a new school this year, with no reputation, and with no siblings to tell their little siblings about me.  Instead, I just had to be me: I had to be firm, and I had to provide structure, even when I felt like I was being a “mean” teacher.  Good news is, the kids still like me anyway.  Kids find safety in structure, high expectations, and accountability — and they even respect you for it.

6. Being open to new ideas doesn’t mean throwing your core values away.

Fitzgerald once said that, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  It’s possible to adhere to your values and welcome in the values of others.  Likewise, it’s possible to try something new without compromising what you believe to be true about teaching.

7. Being a good teacher means following your intuition.

Certain parts of teaching cannot be measured or quantified.  Sometimes, when you’re teaching, you just “know,” and a result, you must simply “do.”  The only moments where I’m truly disappointed in myself in the classroom are not when I make a mistake; rather, those moments of disappointment only come when I’ve felt I haven’t been true to myself.

8. Being a teacher means growing a family.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll ever actually need to have kids.  When every year ends — when every chapter concludes — I leave feeling like I’ll never recreate what I’ve built.  While it’s true that it will never be recreated, every new school year, I’m reminded that teaching gives us countless experiences to grow — not recreate — ourselves and our network of those we care about.  Instead of certain years being “better” or “worse,” each of those years allow us opportunities to fill in pieces of ourselves that weren’t there before.

9. Co-teaching is the best thing that any teacher can do.

Being a bonafide control freak, I knew this was going to be challenging for me this year.  I was used to having my own classroom and being able to make my own decisions all the time.  Co-teaching has forced me to slow down, think more, and consider more alternatives when helping my kids.  A teaching career is incomplete without the opportunity to co-teach.

10. Your students don’t need you to be perfect.

I walked in my classroom in February, dark circles under my eyes, my eyelids red and puffy from a night of little to no sleep.

I turned to my students, “Guys, I’m having a really bad day, and I need all of us to just love reading right now.  Can you do that for me?”

They did.  And we loved reading that day.  We loved reading so much that I forgot about what was bothering me.  It was a small reminder that sometimes we need our students just as much as they need us.

11. It’s impossible to check your personal values at the door.

We enter the classroom biased individuals.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t teach social/emotional learning and we wouldn’t teach social justice.  Subjectivity dominates every word that comes out of our mouths.  That doesn’t mean to stop talking, though; it simply means to be cognizant of how you’re communicating your messages.  Instead of communicating absolutes, communicate logical arguments and constantly be open to discussion — so that kids can constantly be making decisions for themselves.

12. The best kind of teacher is an authentic one.

Kids can sense disingenuousness.  They may not be able to diagnose or name it, but they certainly can tell when you’re being phony.  Give them the true “you,” and they’ll love you for it.

13. Teaching is vulnerability.

Teaching means to constantly give of yourself, and to constantly allow yourself to be changed and modified by your environment.  Without opening yourself up and without letting yourself be seen, you create an environment where others feel like they cannot do the same.  Kids need to be open in order to learn, and they can only learn how to do that if the teacher is doing this first.

14. Teaching is love.

It’s a shame that society has tried to turn teaching into a benign practice.  Teachers fear giving students hugs nowadays, and teachers all over the country are constantly trying to protect themselves by keeping their distance.  But to learn with someone is to love them unconditionally.  It’s to accept them as is, let them in, and give of yourself without stipulation.

And that’s the way it should be.IMG_3496

4 thoughts

  1. I am heartened by each of your posts Paul. It has taken me so long to realize the power of being a thoughtful, authentic educator. I completely agree that some people, whatever their “years”, cannot touch a mindful, reflective practitioner even if they are coming straight out of the box. Ellen j Langer’s book ” the power of mindful learning” asks the question why are girls better at math in early grades and then fall behind later? One thought…they are good at following the rules, which benefits them only to the point where mathematics becomes a creative endeavor at which point they are held back by all of their positively percieved good classroom behavior. Rigidly following the rules could be their downfall. Arrgh!

    And so much for best practices, especially when researched by companies for whom the research supports using the products they sell!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Hi Paula! Sorry for the late reply. Thanks for always reading, and I agree with all you’ve said! I’ll check out The Power of Mindful Learning! Thanks for the rec!

  2. Hi Paul! I’m both a parent and an educator. I went to your talk in Beijing last month and found it very inspiring. Thank you!
    One question just came to my mind: How do you balance classroom-wide instruction and individual pace? For example, for math, when one student is at Grade 2 and another at Grade 4, etc., what content do you give for class-wide instruction? And does each subject have class-wide instruction each day? Would deeply appreciate to learn more about your personalized learning practices. Thanks!

    1. Hi Sandy,

      I apologize that it’s taken me so long to get back to you. It truly is difficult to balance class-wide instruction and individual pace. I try to use the information I gather from my class to determine what the daily lessons should be.

      In classes with a great skill divide, I try to focus more on thinking strategies in my minilessons and then focus my content more in small groups. In classes with a smaller skill divide, it may make more sense to provide longer lessons that are skill-focused.

      My general rule-of-thumb is to keep whole-group lessons as short as possible, and have them focus on collaboration and thinking. Most children benefit more from small-group instruction due to the educator’s ability to provide direct and timely feedback, so always err on the side of maximizing small groups!

      Thank you!

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