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Five Ways to Enrich Your Teaching Life

| Heather Wolpert-G...

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.

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Jenn Collins (not verified)

Enrich Teaching

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Heather,
I am a Walden University student and, like many others who have already posted, am new to blogging. I wanted to respond to your blog because it addressed several issues that teachers need to deal with as professionals. I found myself connecting with your thoughts on standing up for education. It seems like too often in our society today, teachers are not respected or held to the same degree as those in other fields are. Many people that I talk to seem to think that teaching is easy since we are working with children and not adults. Others have noted how unfair it is that teachers are finished with their day during mid-afternoon and receive the summers off. While my school day technically ends at 3:10, I think I could count on one hand the number of days that I was actually able to leave at this time during my two years of teaching so far. This does not include the many hours spent on lesson plans, planning interventions, differentiating instruction, progress monitoring, writing IEPs (I am a special educator), communicating with parents, etc. There is so much more that goes into a school day than when the school is actually in session. It is frustrating when others do not see this and dismiss teaching as an easy profession.

I also agreed with the importance of continuing to be a student and keep up with the latest research. By being a lifelong learner as you noted, a teacher is constantly searching for new ways to improve one’s teaching and methods for his or her students. Each student is unique and has different needs. If a teacher keeps the same lesson plans for twenty years, she is probably not planning her instruction to best meet the needs of her students. By collaborating with other professionals through my university’s program or participating in discussions such as this, I can be more up-to-date about the latest ideas in education and communicate with others to find different ways to provide my students with a quality education.

Jalpa Patel (not verified)

I completely agree that

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I completely agree that collaborating with our colleagues is truly important in order for us to learn so that we can be better educators and in turn better educate our students. I can clearly remember my first year as a fifth grade teacher. It was a very difficult time for me. I was fortunate to have the assistance of some veteran teachers who were willing to teach me and help throughout the year. They would advise me on how to deal with behavior problems, with parent issues, and with just the day to day activities. I am so thankful to have such wonderful colleagues who were ready to share their knowledge with me. I believe I am a more successful educator in part because of them.

Sara (not verified)

First Grade

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Collaboration

Oh, how I can relate to this article! I just completed my first year of teaching at a Reading First school with a new principal. As part of the Reading First mandates, we were required to collaborate as a grade level team. Nothing wrong with that; in fact, teachers need to collaborate in order to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and sometimes, it is even necessary just to make it through the day. However, at my school many of the teachers were unhappy with the way the principal was running certain things and collaboration (when the principal was not present) became Complaint Central. A member of my grade level team was also bossy and tried to run the show. Whenever one of us would dare to speak up against her ideas (as this article says we should), she would give us the cold shoulder for an unspecified amount of time. This created a negative and sometimes hostile work environment.

In spite of all that, I still agree that collaboration is a necessary component of education. If teachers are willing to be open and professional in their communications, wonderful ideas and productive conversations can be the result.

Online Collaboration

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Hey Megan,
Good to hear from you, and thanks for checking in to my blog on Edutopia. I just wanted to let you know that there is an entire online educational community out there that collaborates, shares, rants, vents, and solves. Be a part of it. Get your voice out there. Find your professional development 24/7. Edutopia is a great way to start. Then find people and voices you want to follow outside its virtual walls for further discussion. Get to know their Google Reader (or other bookmarking tool), and see who the people you read are reading. Congrats on entering the blogging world, and thank for letting me be a part of it.
Take care, and check back into Edutopia,
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

What are your thoughts...?

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April,
Thanks for commenting. Something you said really struck me, and I wanted to ask you: after your two years of being mentored, do you feel you're ready to be left on your own? I'm assuming that in two years you've also found people to collaborate with, but I can't help but wonder if we shouldn't be mentoring beyond 2 years as well for those teachers who seek that support. Any thoughts?

Thanks again for reading, commenting, and making me think.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Lacey Williams (not verified)

Collaboration

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I think that collaboration is a must for enriching student learning. If all math, english, reading, science, and social studies teachers are not on the same page, then what are we teaching students?
I meet with my grade level every Thursday. We discuss student behaviors and discipline, standards, lesson plans, and after school tutoring. I love having a set day for meetings, because it gives time for the administration to attend and for us to ask any questions and inform the administration of upcoming field trips or competitions.

Lacey Williams (not verified)

Beth, I agree with you

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Beth,
I agree with you that having a mentor teacher the first year was incredibly helpful! My first year of teaching was in Lebanon, TN and I was assigned to a mentor teacher that was the 8th grade math teacher. She helped me in every crisis that I encountered and helped me in planning to teach my standards.
I have come across some students at Walden that have never had a mentor teacher. I feel so sorry for them and just wish that every school district could enforce this amazing technique.

Best regards,
Lacey Williams
Walden University Student

Lacey Williams (not verified)

Be a Mentor

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Heather,
I remember my first year of teaching in Lebanon, TN. I was handed so many pieces of paper by principal and I was so overwhelmed! However, one of the sheets contained some of the best information. It was a hand-written note from my mentor teacher. She had written some very motivational words and had added her home phone number and cell number, just in case I needed her outside of school. Later on that summer, she and I spent an entire day at school working on standards. She taught me how she went about teaching her standards and in what order she taught them. Even though she was the 8th grade math teacher and I was the 6th grade math teacher, she gave me the insight I needed to start my classroom and to keep my students on track. As the school year started, I was given a calendar of all the days she planned on staying after school and what days she wanted to make sure I met with her, such as: a few days before mid-terms and finals, TCAP, Math Competitions, etc. Even though she gave me a schedule, it did not limit the amount of times I was in her classroom before and after school asking questions. She was absolutely wonderful and I wish that every school could apply this type of program.
However, I have just completed my third year of teaching. I have not been able to be a mentor to a new teacher at this point, but I am ready when my principal decides to call upon me.

Jacqueline (not verified)

Interesting

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Danella,

You have posted some very interesting things! I know the importance of subtle body language and facial expressions, but I have never thought of them as an aide in peer-communication. Thanks for that insight!

ASK--That sounds so obvious, but you are correct . . . we assume, instead. Asking makes a great diffuser as the speaker can express their thoughts to a willing listener and have a positive feeling. Great comments!

Jacqueline (not verified)

Mentors

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I think providing mentors is a great idea! The first year was certainly very rough for me too! I am thankful that my co-teacher took on the role of mentor even though she was not required to do so.

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