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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

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.

Collaborate

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

Rachael Weeman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Nancy,
I understand your point about how a new teacher could take advantage of a mentor, but what about the new teachers that don't take advantage of their mentor? Last year I had a mentor and the only time I sat down and talked to her about things that were going on was when we had scheduled a meeting time. I did everything else on my own. I did ask my grade level teachers questions. My mentor gave me information that she thought could help me out.

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

Not only is providing the same lesson plan on the same day, year after year, doing a disservice to the current group of students you have, it makes teaching so DARN BORING! Yes, I have those plans that I return to because they are fun, and work, and hit what needs to be hit...but if I recycled everything my own creativity and enthusiasm would shrink. In addition, being able to communicate well takes remembering what it was like to fumble and see things new. I try to shake up even my best recycled lessons, supplementing and adding and deleting, so that I don't forget what it feels like to learn it for the first time. Teachers lose sight of that feeling when they've taught the same thing over and over. Thanks for your comment and for blogging for the first time here. I'm honored.
Take care,
Heather Wolpert-Gawron

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

...is to model collaboration. Thanks for your comment, and check back in to my blog and to Edutopia.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

carey halnier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lacey, I agree with you and want to add that working as a team is condusive to a climate of collabortion. I work in a 5 person team including Reading, Language Arts, Science, Math and Social Studies. We share a "pod" and are like a family. We meet to discuss professional and non-professional topics,(which feed our teacher souls),discuss student issues, behavior, academics, duties and sometimes feed each other chocolate or bagels. Our principal is very supportive of this relationship, so that helps too. I can say, while I've worked in many different teaching environments, this stucture has been the most supportive yet. I can't stress enough the value of this kind of support. It gives us that boost when one of us is down, and the encouragement we need to go back in there and give the students everything they need.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am planning on teaching to retirement. I love what I do and I love being in the classroom working directly with students. So I know I will need to make sure I keep my teaching life current and enriched. Your thoughts hit home with me, especially your thoughts on mentoring new teachers. I only survived my first year of teaching because a veteran teacher stepped up with advice, lesson plans, and support.

I have often thought about how helpful she was, and I have thanked her profusely.

It is now time for me to step up and offer help- even when they do not ask. I was so overwhelmed my first year of teaching, I didn't even know what I needed to ask!

Laura Via's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree as well that it is important to collaborate with colleagues. I had the fortunate experience of working with a team that was very efficient and collaborated constantly. As a result, our teaching was better, and our students were better off.

Carlee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Heather that teaching the same lesson gets to be so boring. I really feel that when teachers stick to the same lessons year after year they lose interest in teaching because they are so bored. What works for students one year may not work for students the following year. I think it is important to change lessons as needed to make it work for the kids you have. It is also important to me that I keep up with new technology and ideas to improve my lessons especially recycled lessons.

Timary Barga's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,
My name is Timary Barga and I teach 3rd grade in Gobles, Michigan. It is a smaller rural district in the southwest region of the state. When I did my student teaching I was in a district that did not collaborate much at all! I just thought teaching in isolation was what most schools did. My mentor teacher and I worked great together, but we never met with others in our grade level to discuss and share lessons. When I started working in my current position two years ago, I was taken aback by the openness and push to work together. I was not accustomed to this and it took me awhile to warm up to the idea and to be a willing participant. I am now so lucky to be working in a place where we all believe in one thing, we need to do what is best for kids! I meet on a regular basis with the other two third grade teachers. We share ideas, work out problems together, and try to teach the same material (we may teach it differntly, but we stay together to help eachother!) It is wonderful and I prefer it to working in isolation any day!

Suzie Stambek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a third year teacher, who unfortunately has had to change school districts twice in the past three years due to downsizing and budget cuts. I am so thankful for collaboration and mentors. Without them I would have been lost.

I recently read an article, entitled "Becoming Expert Teachers" by Robert J. Garmston (Journal of Staff Development, Winter 1998), for my Walden University Master Program. It discussed how teachers move from novice to expert teachers and what expert teachers have. I believe that your blog also discusses what is needed to become the "expert" teacher. You are so right about what we, as teachers, are capable of controlling. In today's society with economic issues, I am unable to control if I will be at the same school district in the future or if I will even have a job. While I am teaching, I must make the BEST of it. I must collaborate, stand up for my profession, mentor other teacher, continue to educate myself and stand up for myself. I must work towards becoming the "expert" teacher.

Marshalee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach at a Middle School in the Cayman Islands and a major thrust over the past 3 years has been colloborative teaching and learning. As part of this move we engage in peer observations which are geared towards building team morale and gaining insights on the different strategies used in our department.

What I enjoy most from this enrichment process is the part of being a student. I liaise daily with my students and from them I gain ideas about how they learn and their interests. I have recently enrolled at Walden University where i am completing the Master's programme in Education. So I am on my way to enhancing the quality of my teaching life which takes up 95% of my time. Might as well make the best of it!

I have other areas to work on and I will take the other recommendations into consideration and share these with my colleagues as well.

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