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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Five Ways to Enrich Your Teaching Life

We, as teachers, can't do a lot about many of the factors that have a huge influence on student success, such as parental involvement, health care, and funding. But there are a few steps we as educators can make in protecting our professional reputation, advancing student achievement, and making our day-to-day lives a little less challenging.


We can't teach in isolation. It is not a pride issue to ask for help. It is a pride issue to not reach out to those who might be able to give you what you need to make your job better, easier, and more efficient. We can't keep up with everything by ourselves, but we can be good at different elements of content, and we can ask each other to help us with what we aren't experts at.

Have you seen the history seventh grade has to cover? It's something like 16 countries, from 400 AD to 1700 AD. I mean, come on. Nobody should have to create an entire great curriculum, but you do have a responsibility to hunt and gather teachers who will help you create a quilt of best practices.

Also, remember that collaboration doesn't just mean curriculum development. It also means seeking out teachers who share your drive and your philosophies such that you can turn to them about any school-related issue. Issues that require great friendships to help you through include a challenging kid, parent, or colleague, the politics of the job, and the sadness that accompanies some days.

Stand up for Your Profession

Be a vocal and positive representative for education. There is a small but loud percentage of our own out there who may be ready for a different profession. Perhaps their lessons have shown no evolution from year to year. Some show an indifference to teaching all students, accepting wide margins of failures as par for the course. Some treat their colleagues poorly, and there are those whose anger or bitterness in life is felt by an entire school community.

These are the teachers controlling public education's publicity. We need to take the publicity back and make sure the press, the public, your community, and your school know the quality of work that goes on in your classroom. I think every new teacher should take a class in publicity for just this purpose. (A blog post on this topic is soon to come.)

And don't be the audience for these teachers, for heaven's sake! When they heckle another teacher in the staff meeting, or speak badly about a student in the faculty lunchroom, we need to speak up. When they make lazy decisions that make your job harder, make sure you defend yourself and let them know it's unacceptable.

Mentor Other Teachers

While I was working at an urban public school in California, my mentor got me through what could have been a dark time for me, helping me harness the challenges of the school into victories and lessons of my own. When I became a more experienced teacher, I vowed to give back to my profession by helping new teachers in turn.

When it's your time to give back, help new teachers by taking things off their plate. Help them with long-range planning, and share your lessons on those panicked mornings that happen to us all when we ask ourselves, "What am I going to do today?" Give them tips for classroom management. Give them advice on handling parent meetings. When they are called out of class, slip some decent sub plans on their desk.

Just think back on how many things weren't covered by your teacher-education program. Be the person on the other end of the phone, an ear for their frustrations. The turnover in our profession -- about 20 percent -- is something we have a direct influence on improving through our mentorship and our camaraderie. Be a part of that improvement.

Be a Student

The best teachers are also students. Sure, they might still be taking classes, but what I really mean is that they are also lifelong learners. (Read a related Edutopia.org blog post of mine, "What I Love About Teaching.")

Find ways to increase your own content knowledge about the subjects you teach. Find ways for the students to teach you. Remember, those who do the teaching are the ones doing most of the learning. When you give students those opportunities, they learn much more than they would from a lecture.

And when you, the teacher, become the student -- neurons firing, brain bubbling -- just imagine how much you are growing as an educator.

Stand up for Yourself

I don't care that we are in an economic depression; you can still ask for what is fair. If you are asked to run a club, ask for a stipend. You don't have to be angry about it. You can decide for yourself whether you'd do it regardless of pay. But you should ask. If you're told you are needed to teach six different classes or work an extra class during your prep or attend meetings after school outside of your contract, call your union and make sure you aren't being taken advantage of.

But you must handle things professionally. Everyone's looking to run the best school they can, and if questions come your way that ask you to go above and beyond, make sure that later on, when you're trying to revert back to the more humane schedule, you don't get dinged for past practice. Make sure you aren't getting the short end of the stick just because you didn't ask to see the long end.

Make sure you are doing your best in everything that you do, but don't be a Florence Nightingale, willing to take on more for nothing. It won't help you, your students, your individual reputation, or the reputation of the profession in its entirety.

I wish I could say that these five suggestions are easy to follow, but they're not. Standing up for yourself takes bravery. Being a lifelong learner takes modesty. Mentoring other teachers takes charity. Standing up for your profession takes lungs. And collaboration takes transparency.

None of these things come easily, but they are sure to make your job easier. They are also sure to make teaching, as a profession, one worthy of greater respect. It's a ground-floor, grassroots operation -- and you can be a part of it.

Comments (137)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Leslie Pearson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also a Masters in Education (Special Education) student through Walden University. I teach a Life Skills classroom to both middle and high school aged students who are moderately to profoundly affected by their disabilities.
Heather, you are inspiring! I wish more teachers had strong voices like yours. It was comforting to hear you say what I have just realized as a second year teacher; teachers are meant to be life-long learners.
Your words inter-twined beautifully with my most recently viewed video lecture by Dr. Sonia Nieto. Dr. Nieto explained that teaching is about "who we are" as people and that there is a strong need for "self-reflection" amongst teachers (Laureate Education, Inc., 2007). I applaud your encouragement to stand up for myself, my students, and for what is right. Thank you for a well written article!

Laureate Education, Inc. 92007) The Teaching Professional (DVD). Teacher Expertise and Development. Baltimore. Sonia Nieto.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks so much for sharing your resource with the Edutopia blogging community. It always helps to create a living comment field (especially one with links) that is not just filled with wonderful words, but cites sources as well. I'm currently working on workbooks for teaching Internet Literacy as a Genre which should be out next winter (if I can actually make my deadlines), and have just covered the difference between commenting using living and dead documents. Walden is apparently on the move to prepping its students in the collaborative, global community to come. My colleague just finished their program and raves about it. Congrats on being a part of it and thanks for checking in to the blog. Hope to hear from you again!

Sarah Dunavant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love what you had to say about standing up for your profession. I am a graduate student at Walden University working on my Master's in Reading and Literacy. I teach 4th grade at a school in Covington, TN. Many of the teachers that I work with are proud to be teachers, but there are a few who love to complain about their jobs and students. I don't understand why if they are so miserable they can't go do something else. Why make the rest of us miserable with them? We also have a few teachers that have been teaching forever. (I mean this literally - My second grade teacher is still teaching second grade at my school.) Not to say that she isn't effective - I just think that she has not kept up with the times. She is constantly saying that children are not like they used to be. Well - duh!!! She still hangs the same posters on the walls that she used when I was in second grade (1987). I love my job. I believe that other than being a mommy to my own children, teaching is one of the most important careers out there. I just wish that all teachers felt this way. I am tired of hearing from people that want to be teachers because of the hours or the days off! If that is why you want to teach - you are in the wroing profession! Teaching isn't a profession that you can leave at the office at the end of they day. You take it everywhere you go (even to the grocery store!)

shiree's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello. My name is Shiree. I am also a student at Walden University. I too have never bloged before. Thank you so much for this blog. I love what you said about "harnessing the challenges of school into victories and life long lessons." We all have challenges we face each day. Thank you for your insight.

Katina Albanez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Nancy, thank you for your advise! I agree that I have put myself in the situation to be taken advantage of. I do enjoy helping and sharing ideas with other teachers. This is very rewarding to me and is not a problem. You called it exactly! It is about turning things in on time and planning in advance. This teacher waits until the last minute to do most things and then expects to just get it from me, or for me to spend extra time helping them make their deadline. I don't want them to think that I don't want to help, but if they always depend on me then they aren't ever going to learn to do these things on their own. I realize that I just need to explain this to them nicely. It all goes back to standing up for ourselves! Thanks again!
-Katina Albanez

Angela Arnold's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a student at Walden University in the Reading and Literacy program. I have really enjoyed reading everyones insights on enriching your teaching life. I would like to comment on being a mentor for new teachers. I beleive it is so important for all new teachers to have someone they can look up to and rely on when an issue appears. As a new teacher myself when graduating college you feel so confident walking in the classroom on the first day. After a few days of teaching I realized there are many things they do not teach you in college. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor and she was wonderful. She was so helpful in answering all my questions, and helping me when I had behavior issues. Now that I have been teaching a few years I try to mentor new teachers that enter my school. I do agree with Katina that we do not need to take advantage of our mentors. We need to realize it is our classroom, but mentors are there only to guide us.

Linda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You have really hit on a lot of major points in your "Five ways to enrich your teaching life." When I first started teaching it was not in the area which I lived or had grown up. I wish I had had a mentor teacher but I did not. I felt like I had been thrown to the wolves. This school was not anything like I had been in before, it was a real culture shock to me and I had no one to discuss it with. I was ready to get out of there and look for another job in an area I was more acustom to. But, of course there was not any new openings at that time. So, I stayed. I am still there and I have learned a lot. I enjoy my students and what I do. I am still learning and looking for ways to incorportate new ideas into the classroom.

Amanda Youngmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved reading about the ideas you have posted. I am just finishing my first year as a 5th grade math/science teacher in Ohio. One of the hardest things I experienced this year was hearing they way people talk about the education profession. It was hard for me to stand up for myself, but I tried to show my dedication and how much I care for my students and hoped that community members and other teachers could see that. All teachers need to do everything they can to show a passion for their job.
I also could not have made it through this year without my mentor. I was hired two days before school started, with this being my first year I was very stressed out. My mentor teacher helped me get through the first month that was very rough for me. I know each year I will learn more and move from novice to expert teacher, and I can't wait to share everything I learned with someone. I hope I can become a mentor to show my appreciation for everyone that has helped me and will help me along the way.

Rachael Weeman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that having a mentor your first year of teaching is a very important thing to have. Last year I taught in a public school and had a mentor. My mentor helpped me through many rough times. she supplied me with information that I could use to help me out with different areas that I did not feel so comfortable with as a new teacher. My second year teaching I have moved to a different school and do not have a mentor. I wish I would have had one through out the year because I didn't know much about the standards and requierments of the school. It would have been helpful to have had someone to talk to about this information.

Rachael Weeman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that having a mentor your first year of teaching is a very important thing to have. Last year I taught in a public school and had a mentor. My mentor helpped me through many rough times. she supplied me with information that I could use to help me out with different areas that I did not feel so comfortable with as a new teacher. My second year teaching I have moved to a different school and do not have a mentor. I wish I would have had one through out the year because I didn't know much about the standards and requierments of the school. It would have been helpful to have had someone to talk to about this information.

Rachael Weeman
Walden Student
Preschool teacher

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