how to get good; or, 10 ways to boost your own teaching practice

My students come back from the long winter break and I marvel at how much they’ve grown.

They’re doing it all the time, of course, but I notice it more after days of not seeing them, when I compare them to their selves from the previous month, not fourteen hours prior.

In my first couple of years teaching, I felt like I could watch my own growth. I had a-ha! moments in my curriculum courses about math or social studies that I could turn around and use the next week, the next day. I also had regular debriefs with my grad school cohort and my advisor, to hash out ideas that remain foundational to how I teach now, like the balance between “freedom to” and “freedom from” in how I set up a lesson, and how I always want to stay aware of ways that structure can nurture other freedoms, not curb them.

If my growth is less obvious now, I have to ask myself what’s behind that. True, there are some basics that are now more familiar, the so-called toolbox starting to get some wear and tear as I make use of certain moves with regularity. Hopefully growth is still happening, but it’s like watching a kid grow from September to December — unnoticeable until you look back at our first day of school photo, and both ten year old and adult have to admit, “Wow, we look different!”

This is, I know, the part where it’s very easy to stagnate. I’m sure the same is true for runners, musicians, cooks, anyone on a long learning trajectory toward real mastery.

Now that I have my sea legs, the question I’ve been asking myself is, how do you get good? I challenged myself to come up with a list of tactics, even ones I might not have tried yet. Please feel free to share yours in the comments.

  1. Find a colleague you want to emulate, and watch her closely. Use a prep or ask for time from leadership to observe that teacher, especially if it’s during a subject area you’re trying to improve. (I’m very lucky in that my school has actually set a requirement and a deadline for me to opt in to do this.)
  2. Keep a journal. I’m of the back-pocket-notebook school of teacher journaling. For the first couple months of school I dated each half page a week ahead of time, to force myself to write down a minimum of one thing per day. Half a page in a pocket sized notebook is, if nothing else, room to write down a funny quote from a fourth grader. Those are always worth keeping.
  3. Read. Usually when I pick up teacher books it’s either an attempt to learn something new or to keep myself sane and fill the tank to keep getting back up on the horse. Here’s a few recent reads that have helped me grow as a teacher:
    • What Keeps Teachers Going? by Sonia Nieto / lots of hope and wisdom, especially if you’re having a hard year.
    • Practicing Freedom by Frank Pignatelli / so much here about dynamics of power in education, and why accountability should not be the same thing as surveillance.
    • For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Chris Emdin / should be required reading for white teachers, wherever you teach.
    • Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch / a get-your-facts-straight primer for the charter movement; eye-opening for me in terms of where the money actually comes from.
    • Feel Bad Education Alfie Kohn / great ideas and practices for cultivating a culture of challenge, debate, and democracy in the classroom (among many other essay topics).
    • Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby / a completely beautiful book studying individual children and “how trouble is made” within the culture of a classroom.
    • Sidebar: If you haven’t read any Parker Palmer, he’s utterly underused in teacher ed. He’ll make your heart grow three sizes.
  4. Keep learning. I’m poring over Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World so I’m up to speed for our New Amsterdam unit. Sometimes I wonder how we’re allowed to teach this stuff without a master’s in American Studies. Whatever your learning area is, go out there and conquer a little more of the content. Make this the year you finally aren’t scared of division anymore, or worried about a kid saying something about race and not knowing what to do. Find a workshop, working group, or online video (no muss! no fuss! no cost! no pants!) to add to your own knowledge.
  5. Reflect. It’s very easy to always catch your breath and move on to the next thing. But part of journaling can and should be writing one thing about a lesson that you’d revamp. That way, when the whirlwind brings that unit back again, you know what you liked and what you didn’t.
  6. Get observed. Ask a colleague you trust, and tell them what you’re looking for. How’s my language when I’m managing kids? How am I doing at providing multiple ways to encounter, respond to, and engage with content? (Gotta love UDL.) How am I doing when it comes to supporting kids of varying cultures, races, gender identities, language backgrounds, etc.?
  7. Get involved. If you’ve mostly got your head above water in your own curriculum and the flow of your own room, start putting out feelers to get involved in the larger school organism or in the community. I definitely hear veteran teachers complain about committees and other institutional responsibilities, but it can be validating to be part of a longer process like reaccreditation or a school’s strategic planning process. It lets you peek under the hood of how an institution works, which is a career asset if nothing else.
  8. Set goals – the kind that don’t make you groan out loud. Maybe the goal is to actually do spelling instruction twice a week. Maybe it’s to finish that read aloud book, even if it takes weeks. Maybe it’s to write an actual lesson plan if you’ve been cruising along without them for a while. One of my favorite goals when it comes to kids’ needs: step back and watch one kid for a day or two without giving any redirections or reminders. I’m always surprised by what I learn.
  9. Do your housekeeping. That means certification exams, licensing fees, employee benefits, sleep, other routines outside of school. If you’re an early career teacher, chances are you had to kiss your non-teacher life goodbye for a little while. As much as it feels like time to put on booster rockets and zoom forward, this is also a great chance to find balance after grad school madness. (Believe me, I have a hard time taking my own advice on this one. We’ll see if that changes in a year or two.)
  10. Nurture your networks. I’ve written before about the value of following teacher twitter, and my master’s thesis taught me how important it is to have trusted colleagues. But to be honest, this last one is also about your friends and loved ones. See your people. Be involved in their lives, and in the life of your community outside of school. Those are the people who will be there for the ups and downs and the long haul, so if we’re talking about how to get good, I know I need to honor the folks who (if I’m very lucky) will be along for the ride.

Speaking of communities, I’m gonna put myself out there and say: Please subscribe! Share a comment or reaction! Or email thoughts to necessarymess (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks for reading.


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