Teaching With Self-Reliance

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What does it take for teachers to improve as teachers? Who usually answers this question? Outside experts--members of study commissions, professors, researchers, staff developers, state education department personnel, superintendents, even politicians--everybody, it seems, but teachers themselves. When there's concern about the adequacy of teachers--and there almost always is--ideas for their improvement seem to come from those outside the classroom.

Yet shouldn't we be interested in teachers' ideas on the subject? After all, no one knows the classroom like teachers and, if given a chance, teachers might be able to do for themselves what the experts never seem quite able to do: move teachers toward greater self-reliance in improving their performance. Self-reliance, a concept as old as teaching itself, could be an important key to enduring teacher progress.

The elements of self-reliance are all around teachers, ready and waiting to be brought into a workable pattern. Collegiality, one of three components of self-reliance, occurs each time teachers talk together, observe one another, or extend help in any form. Reflection, a second component, takes place whenever a teacher thinks about his or her professional priorities or tries to solve a teaching problem. The third component of self-reliance, life experience, is continuously scripting lessons which can be carried forward into the classroom.

How does this reflective, collegial, life-based model emerge? As teachers are given the time and resources to explore teaching independently and as they have opportunities to both give to and take from the exploratory experiences of other teachers. Teachers investigating questions of individual relevance and teachers sharing with one another what their explorations and experimentations have produced--such are the origins of teacher self-reliance. Combine this with a view that the life of the teacher and the process of teaching are somehow interrelated, merge these, and the mixture starts to jell.

  • Reflection. A beginning point in the quest for self-reliance is the dedication of a regular time for reflection--the end of the day, the early morning, or a single period during the week. This time will enable teachers to focus on critical actions, specific feelings, and guiding ideals as a teacher. As a part of the reflective process, teachers can maintain informal journals which include brief notes, sentences, or phrases describing events and feelings from the classroom. The impact of reflection can be maximized by pairing with a partner to discuss journal contents.

Teachers also benefit from thinking about what they most enjoy in teaching. Some teachers, for example, value the service aspect of teaching, helping students who have few resources beyond the school. Other teachers see their work as an opportunity to bring forward personal creativity, as, for example, through drama and storytelling. When teachers are in touch with those aspects of teaching that most motivate and energize them, and when they are connected with other teachers who have the same interest base, they then are positioned to make a very personal and significant statement through their teaching. When teaching becomes personal for the practitioner, the seeds of self-reliance are nurtured.

  • Collegiality. Self-reliance is promoted as teachers communicate frequently with one another. Opportunities as simple as scheduled but informal "teacher talk" sessions inform and encourage. Responding to a "problem of the week" through single-sentence responses posted in the lounge can generate interesting discussion, new ideas, and camaraderie.

Teachers also grow independently through informal study of self-selected topics--expanding the benefits of their study by sharing their expertise with interested colleagues. When teachers specialize in topics of personal interest, they boost their own classroom performance, promote personal strength, and build a foundation for helping other teachers.

Teacher book clubs focusing on professional reading also foster self-reliance. As teachers read selected writers discussing topics of interest, and as they process this information with colleagues, new insights into the realities of and the possibilities for the classroom emerge.

Community among teachers is indeed an important aspect of teacher self-reliance, for it is as teachers give to and take from one another that they as individuals are strengthened.

  • Life experience. Life teaches lessons helpful in resolving the problems of teaching. Perhaps no lessons are more important than those developing the skills of endurance and those creating an attitude of adventure toward adversity and change. Also helpful are the lessons that build greater compassion and humanity.

Carry-over learning can occur as teachers engage in direct and specific activities in their outside lives. The learning and doing of a major house renovation, for example, could lead a teacher to take a fresh look at the role of motivation and direct assistance in the process of learning. Likewise, learning about gardening through association with other gardeners could cause a teacher to understand anew the value of social support in learning.

Much of the self-reliance teachers need to thrive in the classroom comes from activities and experiences beyond it. As school leaders find ways to know and acknowledge the personal lives of teachers--to give deference to those involvements most responsible for who teachers are--the life of the classroom will be enriched.

Sometimes it is all too easy to forget that teachers can do much for themselves. Even the concepts that would remind us--concepts like empowerment and site-based management--become so structured as to deny the message they bring. As always, it is the simple, understated acts that work the magic; acts like the ongoing process of thinking about teaching, of pursuing one's passions in the classroom and in life, and of finding a peer community within the profession of natural affinity. These acts of self-reliance bring a message of hope, for it is through their practice that teachers are made strong, free, and ultimately successful.

Carolyn Bunting is a former university professor and school administrator. She is now an independent educational writer and consultant in Durham, N.C.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 26

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Teaching With Self-Reliance
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