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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

When I think about the "best year" I ever had as a teacher, it was the one in which I learned the most, enjoyed my work the most, and made deep connections with students, parents, and colleagues. During that year, my students also learned a tremendous amount, they reported loving school, and they made deep connections with each other and with other adults.

My work is always driven by and focused on student learning (both academic and social-emotional) and I recognize that in order to reach those outcomes, I must start with myself.

Here are some suggestions for how to address your own needs so that you and your students might have the best year ever.

Dive Deep into Your Own Professional Learning

Learning can be an exhilarating experience, especially when we engage in it willingly. I recognize that teachers are asked to participate in a lot of professional development that doesn't feel helpful, meaningful, or relevant. I, too, have sat through many of those sessions. One of the ways I've dealt with that is to seek out opportunities to learn that I can self-select into, or that I direct. Find those for yourself, seek them out, immerse yourself in your own learning about instruction, or an area of your content, or a new curriculum, or whatever you might be drawn to within your professional field.

During my "best year ever" I conducted my own inquiry (action research) project in my classroom. I was fortunate to be guided by an expert coach in this area, and although it was an "extra" thing to do, it was what kept me going that year. Through using inquiry strategies, I learned so much about my students and what they needed in order to learn. I found ways to quickly meet those needs and seeing my practice change and my students learn, was thrilling.

There are many ways outside of mandated PD that teachers can develop the skills and knowledge of teaching. Online courses offer ways to develop knowledge of our content, or to refine skills. Local colleges might also offer courses or workshops. Even a simple practice like keeping a professional journal throughout the year can yield deep learning. Identify some area of your profession to explore, start asking around and looking on-line for ways to do so, and then dive in.

Enjoy Your Work

This is the most challenging suggestion I'm going to make. "Enjoying" your work is really about where you place your attention. One of my favorite books is Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson. I highly recommend this book for all educators. It's got some suggestions that might really help us transform our schools and our experiences in them.

In this book, Hanson explains how our brains are wired to cling onto negative experiences and remember them above others, and how our attention slides away from positive experiences. "Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones," (p. 41) writes Hanson. If you want to have the "best year ever," you're going to have to deal with your brain, to re-train it actually, because what we need to do is make our wild and amazing brains refocus on the positive, on what's working, and on what we enjoy in our work.

Try this: For four weeks, keep a daily log of what you enjoy about your work. At the end of the day list moments that you enjoyed or that felt good or rewarding -- even those that were short and quick. Perhaps you'll note something like, "When students were selecting books for silent reading, I noticed Marquisha offered Eduardo a novel she'd just finished saying that she thought he'd like it. I've never heard her talk about a book she likes." The trick is to train our brains to notice every moment that feels positive in some way -- we need to wake it up to those daily experiences that we aren't good at noticing.

Keep that daily log for a month and see what happens; see if you don't start enjoying your work more.

Connect with Others

We all know how important this is, so this year I challenge you to deepen your connections with students, their parents, and colleagues. Memories from my "best year ever" include taking students to an art gallery on the weekend and then eating burritos with them afterwards and talking about the Egyptian artifacts we'd just seen, learning how to make Mien food from Anthony's father during a fundraising activity, and playing board games with colleagues during our end of year retreat. The memories of celebration, collaboration, deep conversation, and connection come rushing back. I was a part of a multi-layered community that buoyed me through a challenging year. I returned to work in that community for six years because of these connections.

This year broaden and deepen your connections with others. Who would you like to know better? Identify a few folks, find a way to spend some time with them, and then listen. Ask questions that invite conversation to really learn about who they are, what their passions and commitments are, and where yours and theirs intersect.

When we connect with our students and their families better, we are more effective at meeting their needs. When we connect with our colleagues better, we can more effectively collaborate with them to serve children, and we can get personal and professional support.

To a great extent, your best year ever is within reach. I'm not going to deny that our education system is a difficult place these days. The amount of change is dizzying: threats of performance pay, school closure, and so on have created a hostile climate for teachers. We need to identify what is within our spheres of control, and then do everything we can to maximize that space.

We can take charge of a slice of our own learning, focus on what's going well and what we enjoy, and we can connect with others. Go forth into a fantastic year. Please share with us in the comment section below your plans for doing this.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

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