Sunday, July 24, 2011

The different journeys we all take as educators

The New York Times this morning has an article about a new teacher training graduate program in New York City that was founded by three separate charter management organizations. The program prides itself on utilizing little to no reading or theorizing but instead an intense focus on practical classroom teaching strategies that raise student achievement. The founder is quoted as saying "if you think tests are evil... this is not the program for you." The program bases a lot of its pedagogy on the book, Teach like a Champion, whole class type teaching strategies.

When I was a beginning teacher in Baltimore in the early nineties, I struggled. My school noticed that pretty quickly and attached a master teacher to me for about three weeks. She modeled for me, co-taught with me, and finally just observed me teach. The strategies (a lot of positive reinforcement type stuff) she taught me brought order to my classroom and enabled me to start teaching the students. I used these strategies through my second year of teaching as well and got even better at them.

During my third, fourth, and fifth year of teaching though, I really started questioning myself:
  • Do I need to reward students with points for almost everything they do?
  • Shouldn't students have more choice in their daily life?
  • Shouldn't I be developing more of a supportive community of learners?
So, without much or any support, I struggled to implement some of these strategies and realized that kids I taught did not need points for everything they did and when they chose their own reading material they were infinitely more motivated to read. I would love to say that I became a master teacher but I did not, I struggled up until the last day of my teaching career. But I new there was something different that I could be doing in education and in my classroom.

The journey of an educator is hopefully more than just learning new strategies over the course of thirty years. The journey hopefully leads us to some semblance of what is real learning, what is truth, and what really prepared students for the real world out there.

This past year, I have stumbled upon two educators who have had some similar journeys. Marc Waxman, a former TFA teacher and KIPP teacher, is now heading up charter schools in Denver that utilize Responsive Classroom and a more constructivist teaching style. Eric Juli, a central office administrator in Massachusetts is taking on a new job of running a small, innovative high school in Cleveland. Both of their journey's appear to have taken place because of a great amount of reflection and thought. One aspect of Marc's journey that is interesting is that he started to question his teaching as he started to have his own children.

My own journey as I enter my 11th year of being an elementary school principal has me working with a staff that is embracing the core principles of Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. I have learned more about myself, about learning, about children, and about people the past three years of implementing these principles than I have during any other aspect of my career.

So, in thinking back about the new teacher training program in New York, I probably could have used some of those strategies to survive and in some regards thrive as a new teacher years ago. Some of the new teachers I have worked with over the years could have used some of those strategies as well. I don't disdain them at all. But I also realize that there is a richness of thought and reflection when you try to go past test scores and develop a true learning community that I hope, hope, hope that those teachers in the program get at some point in their career but worry in the current reform climate, they never will.

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