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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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Mrs. Van Dyck's picture
Mrs. Van Dyck
Middle School Science Teacher

As a middle school teacher in Needs Improvement/low-performing schools I learned early on to find something positive about each student, especially the "naughty" ones! They need someone to be on their team, even if I'm the only one! Also, to make time for adjunct activities -start a club! It won't take time from class and you'll know your students on a deeper level!

Ashley's picture

I enjoyed reading your post. I am moving to 5th grade this year and I am looking to make it the best year ever. Thanks for the suggestion of creating a log and writing down things you enjoy. It is so easy to become stressed out and forget to enjoy those precious moments as a teacher. This log is going to help me keep a positive attitude. I am also going to look into the book recommendation. I taught my third graders all about Buddha last year and am looking forward to what insights this book may bring to my teaching experience.

THarlan's picture

Elana,
I love you thoughts on having the best year ever! It basically comes from within! A positive attitude and love to continue learning and adapting our teaching styles to that of our students is key! This year, I am the chairperson for my team and plan to really help many new teachers to develop relationships that are based on collaboration and shared learning. Thank you for your positive thoughts!

Whitney W's picture

I have enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for suggesting the book, will definitely be looking for it. I am a new teacher and have gotten to the point where negativity was present daily. It has not gotten to the point where it has effected my teaching but I need more positive energy around me. I really like the suggestion of finding something positive daily and keeping the responses in a journal. This would be something to keep me inspired when I do have bad days.

Jenny's picture

I loved reading your post!! I especially loved your advice on writing down the rewarding parts of the day to keep your mind full of the positives. I am just starting my second year of teaching this year and am already extremely nervous for my new inclusion classroom. Thank you for your positive message and I look forward to implementing some of your ideas into my daily schedule.

Krista P's picture

Thank you for the extra reminder on the influence of a positive attitude. I enjoyed reading your post and thinking of all the positive things I have to look forward to this school year. Your suggestion of journaling is already a goal I have in mind for this year, but I like the idea of adding a positive spin on my journaling and training my brain to pick positive over negative. Looking forward to my best school year ever!

JessC87's picture

Thank you for this awesome reminder as I prepare to begin my 5th year teaching. I had by all accounts a fantastic year last year, and I found myself nervous that this year won't be as great. This post was a great reminder that our attitude and the little practices we do can really make a huge difference.

dhines's picture

Elena,
This post just gave me that motivation that I needed to have my "best year ever". This is my second year teaching Kindergarten students, and last year I was learning the ropes of having my very own classroom. I focused my summer on making my classroom a better place to learn and explore for my little ones. I want to enjoy teaching and observing growth and achievements, this blog just made me want to push even harder to learn more about my field, interact with my colleagues and develop more personal relationships with my students and their families. I recently enrolled in an institution for my Master's degree, this in itself seems like a great way to increase my professional development, because we as a class are constantly communicating to one another about different strengths and opportunities within our school system and/or classroom.
I am excited to start the four week journal that you mentioned!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, ideas, and research with this learning community.

Renwil's picture

Elena,
I have never posted to a blog before. I had an assignment for grad school that included reading and posting to a blog. When I came across this blog, I couldn't read it fast enough! I had a difficult year teaching kindergarten last year and began to feel as if I needed a grade change. Your post was very refreshing for me. I feel like I became negative toward the end of last year dealing with a colleague. You are so right about connecting with others and my goal for next year is to make a positive connection with a particular colleague. I cannot wait to read the book "Buddha's Brain" and come in next year with a refreshed, positive attitude! I also like the idea of keeping a record of the positive moments in the classroom each day. What a great idea. In my college course, we were just discussing ways to reflect and how important it is to reflect as a teacher. I plan to add this "positive moment" portion to my daily journal entries. Thank you for posting something that truly spoke to me!

Faith's picture

Elena,
Thank you for the encouragement and motivation. I am starting this new year at a new school and I am so excited to meet new colleagues and become connected to a new group of professionals. I completely agree with you that it is very important to continue your learning through professional development. I have attended many workshops throughout my teaching career, but I usually only go to the ones that interest me the most, which are reading and language arts. This year I am going to broaden my learning by attending more math and science workshops.
This year I am planning on having a "Reflection" notebook, so I will definitely try your idea of writing down positive things for 4 weeks. I really like that idea. I am looking forward to a great year!
Thank you again! :-)

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

This is a great post, Elena. What helps me is taking time for gratefulness. It's a way for me to bypass the negativity velcro you mention and help nurture the positive. There's a great quote by Melody Beattie which I believe is true:

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend."

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Jamie Armin's picture
Jamie Armin
Health Science & Life Skills Middle School teacher from MA

My best year ever was last year, 29th yr teaching. I took a risk with implementing PBL, joining Twitter/ tweeting with PLN & co-moderating #CollabEd! I want to facilitate even more during my 30th! Oh yes...I also read "Teach Like a Pirate"by Dave Burgess. Great book edus! Definitely read this. You'll be re-energized! Have a great year & #tlap !!!

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