Published Online: May 23, 2012

What Teacher Leaders Learned This School Year

What is the most significant lesson you learned this year? I posed this question to members of the Teacher Leaders Network virtual community last week. Some common themes emerged:

Student-Centered Teaching

Learning can be messy. Once I released control of learning to students, I realized we'd go places I didn't anticipate. Even though we covered curriculum objectives, we also explored ideas, places, and concepts I would have never planned. Co-learning with students is wonderful. —Marsha, middle school, Kan.

I learned to talk less than my students. I'm evolving my classroom to a more student-centered environment. The students ask questions, answer questions, collaborate more, interact daily, and even help track and understand relevant data. I navigate while they sail the ship. —Rob, 8th grade ELA, Fla.

My schedule must fit into the schedule of my high school students, which means evenings and weekends are not off limits. I believe that I need to do all that I can do to help my students succeed and that potential for success doesn't always fit in the six and a half hour school day. They are not products or widgets. Their lives aren't restricted to 8:20 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. Their lives are 24 hours per day, seven days per week; therefore, I need to be available for them when they need me, which includes evenings and weekends. —Lee-Ann, high school, Minn.

Student discourse is essential at all levels. We have been promoting "accountable talk" for the past two years in our building. I have learned that listening to "student talk" is great for assessing what the kids are thinking. It's also become apparent that our kids are often more adept at "teaching" their peers than we are! Besides, the children are learning how to agree and disagree with their classmates with civility, a skill necessary for life. —Jon, elementary, Va.

Shifting Mindsets

Always be FOR something, not AGAINST something. In these times when everyone seems to be criticizing education and educators, it is easy to get cynical about the job that we do each day. Those few simple words have helped me to keep a positive attitude about what I do each day and why I do it. The philosophy goes something like this: It is easier to be FOR something because you will speak and act positively with a smile on your face. When you are AGAINST something your actions and words are negative and so is your attitude. It is a wonderful philosophy to live by. —Barbara, 8th grade science, R.I.

The most enduring power is empowering others. What I have accomplished matters much less than what my students and my colleagues accomplish. Or to paraphrase in family and consumer science terminology: "It is better to be yeast than the best thing since sliced bread." —Susan, retired teacher and current teacher mentor, Va.

Even with all the laws and mandates imposed on me, I still have a tremendous amount of control of what happens in my classroom. —Anthony, gifted enrichment, Fla.

You can't do it all. Being a division head, teaching six courses, advising student government, leading three afternoons a week of community service, blogging, doing online PD, and generally working 80-90 hour weeks are definitely wearing me out. At some point, you have to recognize you can't always do all you wish you could, accept that your best is all you can do, and reach out to your teammates for support. —Bill, middle school dean, Mass.

Rejuvenation! It's OK to miss some days of school if you have the opportunity for rich academic engagement elsewhere. Your students survive without you, and you return to the classroom refreshed and ready to go! —Nancy, senior English, N.C.

Persistence and Partnership

Love your students the most when they are the most unlovable. Teaching special ed, I often see kids who have given up on the system, themselves, and life in general. They feel that no matter how hard they try, they are going to fail anyway. It is often difficult to crack their steel exteriors, but when I push them to be persistent and convince them I care unconditionally about them, I've discovered I can make a difference more times than not. —Cossondra, special education, Mich.

Everyone is doing the best they can. With all educational stakeholders feeling increased pressure, it's easy to fall into a pattern of blaming others. My colleagues and I have worked together this year to remind each other that we must approach situations from a collaborative stance to move forward. Reminding ourselves that "everyone is doing the best they can" lessens feelings of resentment and animosity and provides room for support and understanding. —Sarah, 6th grade ELA, N.C.

Common Core lesson: it's not all going to happen at once. I was really pleased with the writing that my students produced the first time that I used the Literacy Design Collaborative template tasks, but I was still tied (and obligated) to traditional activities and assessments for learning and the students and I didn't allow time to revise their drafts. We've just begun working on our second round of reading and writing about history from a Common Core stance, and the gains in student effort and what they're learning is a step up from our first activities. —Ernie, 7th grade history, Nev.

Trust takes time, but trust among teachers can produce better professional development than any conference, seminar, or training. As part of a few professional learning communities at my school, I've learned that it takes time for teachers to build bridges among our islands. Like our students, we fear being inadequate and subsequently expect judgment from our colleagues. Instead, if we learn to trust each other, we can truly begin learning (and leaning on one another) in ways that are more invigorating and inspiring than anyone could anticipate! —Brianna, high school English, Pa.

Risking and Reflecting

Embrace failure, for it is a powerful teacher. If we never have failures, it means we are not trying anything new. We are not pushing ourselves to find new ways to meet the needs of our students. It is also a beautiful thing for our students to see us as willing to take these calculated risks in order to grow. —Megan, university educator-in-residence, Fla.

Continuous improvement requires honest reflection—preferably from a distance. It's very hard to see the good for all the good it is, and the bad for all the opportunity it presents in the moment. —Julie, media specialist, Fla.

True reflection invites vulnerability. It wasn't until this year that I became genuinely reflective, and to do so, I opened myself up to student feedback, administrative and peer feedback. I have made my teaching much more transparent, while modeling for my students how to use their feedback (and that of others) to make valuable—and sometimes risky—changes. —Wendi, ELL, N.C.

There is still more to learn. Along with many others here, I have imagined a new workplace for America's teachers. My current superintendent seems to be moving in the direction of many of those aspirations. What happens when your dreams start to come true? Now you have to act on your beliefs. The hardest part is yet to come. I have a lot left to learn. —Mary, high school English, Va.

This is just a sampling of teacher leaders' responses. What significant lesson have you learned this year?

—Braden Welborn

Braden Welborn is the Director of Communications for the Center for Teaching Quality.

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