Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Teacher is First and Foremost a Learner


Back in January 2006, I walked in to my first college class that would help me become a future teacher.  The professor, standing in front of the class, told us that if we thought that after our four years of college it'd be the last time we had to worry about "learning", we were very highly mistaken.  That effective teachers NEVER stop learning.  In fact, lifelong learning was the ultimate foundation to lifelong teaching.

And that's so true.

Just because I've put in my time in school and graduated from college with a Bachelor's Degree doesn't mean that I've barely even skimmed the surface of being done with what I need to know in order to continue my teaching career.  

That couldn't have been more true for me, being that the first three years of my college life was all about learning the "standards" of teaching, and then finding out that the curriculum model would be changing over to Common Core and that pretty much all the standards we'd learned were now totally different.  So, the last year of college was a mash-up of learning how schools were making the transition from one curriculum model to another.

The education world is ever changing.  It's just not possible for a person who became a teacher because of how they learned in school to mimic that same approach in the classroom this many years later.  

The kids that are in school right now, and may want to be a teacher because of how things are done in their classroom, probably won't get that option by the time they enter in to the education field.  By the time they finish high school, go to college, and then secure a teaching job, it's highly likely that the "model" for teaching would have changed about 50 times over.

And I'm a firm believer that to be an EFFECTIVE teacher, you just have to be flexible.  You have to understand that new ideas will come and go, new ways of teaching will come and go, new models for the classroom environment will come and go.  It's just how it is.

Which is why it's so crazy for me to understand why there are so many teachers out there that basically refuse to accept change.

I can't think of another profession that changes AS MUCH as the education profession does.

When I was in primary school, I remember a lot of playing.  I remember a lot of listening.  I remember a lot of watching my teacher at the blackboard showing us examples and having us copy along.  Now, my daughter in kindergarten, spends her day learning, doing math, reading, and writing. The only "play" typically happens at recess.

In elementary school, I remember spending a lot of time listening, watching examples, and then doing work alone.  I don't ever remember being given a project to complete with a group.  I remember reading books and then answering questions about it in a book review format.  I was told what to do, how to do it, and then asked to show my understanding by completing a few problems that were given to us.

Moving in to jr. high and high school, I remember sitting in rows, listening to lectures, taking notes, and completing assignments out of a textbook.  Again, not much collaborative work.  We just did what we were told to do, and we did it.

And, to be honest, it was that style of teaching that somehow persuaded me to become a teacher.  I guess the teachers I was inspired by did what they needed to do to help me understand that teaching was a great profession, because deciding I wanted to be a teacher at 5 years old and keeping that desire my entire life was a pretty astounding feat.

But being in a classroom now is nothing like it was back then.

In college, we were taught that students should no longer sit in rows.  They should no longer sit in silence all day.  They are encouraged to think for themselves, work in groups, and discover answers to problems with a little guidance.  A teacher is a facilitator of learning.  Someone there to show them the ropes, give them as much information as they need, but to allow them to basically think for themselves and figure stuff out for themselves.  It's also promoted that students have choice in their learning.  They  should have some control over their learning.  

I hear, quite often, that people just don't understand why the education world changes so much.  Someone will make the comment "I turned out OK learning the way I did".  Which, is true for myself.  I was reading chapter books in 4th grade, I was able to make straight A's my entire school life, I succeeded in college because I had a strong foundation to jump off of.

But, what about the people that can't read, can't do math, are totally lost when asked to think for themselves, and complete simple tasks?  Why, if the education system was so good back then, are there so many people that graduated high school but have no real skills passed a 5th or 6th grade level?

Because, the cold hard truth is, no matter what education system is at play, there will always be problems.  There will always be kids that fall through the cracks.  Which means there's ALWAYS room for improvement.

Some teachers may adopt the "if it's not broken, why fix it" mentality... but those teachers are really doing a disservice to their students.

I'm not saying that I agree with all the changes that happen in the education field.  I am not really qualified to make such statements, I suppose.  I've only been a teacher for a little over a year and a half.  I've listened to veteran teachers share their stories of the MANY changes that have taken place over their teaching careers.  I have listened to them explain how the "new way" doesn't get near the results as the "old way" used to get.  That changing everything leads to nothing but problems.

But, could some of those problems be caused from the resistance?

I know that, in my classroom, I embrace change.  In fact, I am a big proponent of change.  I'm always changing things up, doing new things, and challenging my students in different ways.  They've learned to accept this.  I'm quick to understand when something's not working and requires a different approach.  I'm quick to realize that my students aren't learning because I'm not effectively teaching.  If my students are making bad grades, it's MY FAULT.  

That's probably one of the most important lessons I've learned while being a teacher.  If my class, as a whole, are having problems... it may not be the students.  No.  It's not the students.  It's the teacher.

Which is why I'm always up for learning new ideas, new strategies, trying new projects and having a go at whatever ideas pop in to my head.

Take the Minecraft project for example.  To some, it's a waste of time.  Why on earth would I allow my students to play games instead of reading and learning from the textbooks provided?  Why?  Because reading and learning from the textbook isn't working.  We read, we discuss, we answer questions... and then two weeks later, I may ask a question about the topic we covered two weeks prior and be met with completely oblivious faces.  Like they've never heard a single thing on that topic in their lives.

They read.  They listened.  They answered questions.  And then?  It was gone.  

I want my kids to have meaning in their learning.  For it to mean SOMETHING to them, so that they remember it.  By collaborating through a virtual world, it means something to them.  They are at the controls.  They are exploring and discovering with the help of their peers.  I'm just there to facilitate and guide them.  And, I guarantee they'll be talking about their learning for a LONG time.

I changed the way I teach reading.  I now use a layered curriculum that has the students choosing the activities they want to complete in order to show their understanding of their books/stories/passages.  What I've discovered since doing it that way is that their learning has gone much deeper than what it did before.  They can apply their learning to different scenarios.  Now, during science, they relate what we're talking about to something they did during their reading project and vice-versa.  They are discussing their books.  They are discussing the skills they use to understand their books.  

But, even after saying all of that, it doesn't mean that MY way is the right way.  It may work for this group of kids, but might not work for another group.  I've taken time to get to know them, understand their interests, and apply that information in order to create what I think is the best approach.

Next year, I may have to completely redesign my teaching model once again.  

And, I'm OK with that.  I have to keep learning, keep experimenting, keep applying.

I learn just as much, if not more, than I teach.

That's really why I think that wanting to become a teacher stayed with me my entire life.  Since 5 years old, I've had LOTS of teachers.  Each with their own styles, their own way of doing things.  And each one offered their own little sprinkle of motivation to my future career.  I'm a teacher because of all the change, the differences.

I hope to NEVER become a teacher that's stuck in her ways.  Not moldable, flexible, willing to try new approaches and new tactics.  Some my fail, some may win.  Each year is a new learning foundation.  And I'm OK with that.

I want to be challenged for the rest of my life.  A lifelong learner.  I refuse to believe that one size fits all in a classroom, and I am yearning to continue learning new ways to change things up.  

My title may be "teacher", but in order for that title to mean anything to me... it has to also include "learner".

As long as I'm teaching, I refuse to stop learning.


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