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Education Opinion

We’re More Than Just Teachers, We’re Experienced Beginners

By Cole Farnum — July 22, 2011 5 min read
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Note: Cole Farnum, a teacher in New York City, is guest-posting this week.

As a beginning educator embarking on a career in schools, I am constantly reflecting on how I can improve what I do and, more deeply, who I am. My series this week was about exploring why I’m at risk of failure as a beginning teacher, the challenges I faced with colleagues in schools, and a shared mindset between early career educators like myself and my more-experienced colleagues that will help us challenge and support one another. In the process, I’ve outlined the basic elements of my philosophy on teacher effectiveness: to continuously improve my practice and maximize student success, regardless of how many years I’ve taught, I must look deeper than student outcomes and actions that got them there. I need alternative knowledge, skills and perspectives to evaluate the impact of my decisions and beliefs as an educator. There are four essential understandings I’ve developed to help me advocate for reciprocity in my school-based relationships and, ultimately, they help me focus on how students learn and benefit from mutual exchange.

I am fully capable to relearn what I’ve internalized: I used to harbor the mindset that I needed to, in fact, defend my assumptions and theories about teaching and learning. That mindset led me to internalize teaching as a profession where everything could be figured out on my own and, if I were successful, others wouldn’t bother convincing me otherwise. After teaching students who have needs that couldn’t be met through my efforts alone, it was clear that I needed to re-learn my relationships with the other professionals in order to allow both our perspectives to inform and adapt my instruction. The process of re-learning takes time, consistent practice, and continuous reflection, all of which will depend on the risks my colleagues and I decide to take when questioning “how” and “why” of our decisions as teachers.

Taking risks productively means asking more questions: All educators, regardless of their teaching backgrounds or years of experience, have knowledge and skill gaps. Addressing them is difficult because beginning and experienced teachers are, by default, expected to fill certain roles. Raising your voice as a beginning teacher when you’re expected to learn by watching and hearing is a risk. Asking for feedback as an experienced teacher when you’re expected to be the one delivering it is a risk. I’ve learned that while these actions risk being perceived as disrespectful or unknowing, they are opportunities to actively shape how others, by default, perceive me. Instead of openly challenging or ignoring the default roles I sense myself to be in, I productively challenge them by simply asking a lot of questions about my place in a meeting, a review, as a mentor or a mentee, consistently and persistently. It’s important to me that I don’t have the answers I need: when I ask for guidance, I’m more inviting with colleagues and communicate that I believe they are a critical asset for my students to be successful.

Irrespective of their backgrounds, I need to assume they all teachers possess something I need to become a better teacher, and find it: The common ground that makes reciprocity a source of continuous improvement is the mindset that we’re always, directly or indirectly, known or unknown, an asset to the challenge we as teachers face. If the asset I am looking for, be it an answer to a specific question or long-term mentoring to develop a specific skill, isn’t readily found, I have to patiently assume that my colleagues have the ability to acquire it. Either way, in no way do my colleagues lose their value as a mentoring force and nor do I lose the willingness to mentor them through their own challenges.

Up until now, I’ve merely unpacked what type of teacher I aim to be: simply, an eager learner. These learners are confident in what they know yet continue to question their own expertise. They’ve mastered teaching as a process of planning, executing, and reflecting rather than re-using what’s been successful in the past. Their ways of understanding problems change frequently because the perspectives their colleagues hold also change. Importantly, they are only as effective as what their colleagues and they themselves offer to and cultivate within one another.

But trace all this back to students: why should this even matter to them? I believe if we expect students to be eager learners, we all have to be eager learners ourselves. If we model the skills of give and take when we face challenges, students are more likely to develop the academic and social skills required to do so successfully. Importantly, if we want students to be life-long learners who always strive to do their best, be respectful, and take care of one another, one teacher can’t hope to serve as the exemplar: all teachers, arguably every adult in their school environment, must do so together.

And the fourth essential understanding?

I should aim not to be an experienced teacher but an experienced beginner: Learning is a continuous mean to a never-ending series of ends. It’s incredibly important we understand that, because our school environments and their challenges change so frequently, we’re all continuously a new teacher in some way. We’re all a mix of incredibly useful background experiences and huge potential. And that’s an amazing mix to have: always in challenging situations, never fully knowing what to do on your own, and continually balancing the virtues of sharing what we knowing and engaging ourselves to find out.

As a brand new teacher or the school’s longest serving veteran, we all owe our students the best possible teaching each day, year after year. That’s certainly a default mindset that’s been around and should stay indefinitely. In my past three years in schools, I’ve failed my students and colleagues numerous times, for reasons known and unknown, and there’s so much I have yet to learn. But, I’m not just a beginning teacher. I’m committed to modeling a new default mindset: we owe it to ourselves to value, trust, and assume the best in our abilities to support our continuous improvement as educators. I am an experienced beginner and, to be the change agent our students deserve, I hope and depend on you to be one, too.

--Cole Farnum

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.