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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.

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Kristin Newnam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,
I really enjoyed reading your blog. I agree with the importance of collaboration. I tried to do everything my first year of teaching and found it very difficult. Talking to your peers really does help with lesson planning and just surviving the year. I also agree that mentors can be very helpful. The county I work for provides mentors to new teachers. I worked with a retired teacher whom had not been in a classroom for 10 years and taught 4th and 5th grade. I taught Pre-K. I found that the more experienced Pre-k teacher became my mentor and still is. I still go to her when I need help with a student or parent. I look forward to visiting your blog again.
Kristin

Helena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your blog on stand up against "lazy decisions" and those who speak bably about other teachers or students. Unfortunately, I have done these very things because of frustration and conformity, but I would like to make specific goals this next school year to speak up more during decision making processes etc. Next year will be my third year teaching, and I now feel I have the right to speak up for myself. Prior it seemed that first year teachers were seen and not heard. I am looking forward to mentoring other beginning teachers to not feel that way and to make my voice heard in this up-coming year. Thank you for the inspiration.

Walden Student
8th Language Arts

Danielle N. Dunn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,
I couldn't agree more with the sentiments that you expressed. They are not only 5 ways to make a better teacher but 5 ways to make a better person. Wouldn't all the people we encounter be better people if they collaborated (shared) with others, continued to learn and enrich their lives, stood up for themselves and others and mentored people in need.
Teachers, good teachers that is, look at the world through entirely different eyes. The world sees people with a job they only work 180 days a year and we see a world that we could teach. I appreciate your insight and which that more people would see teaching and teachers in the same way that you do.

Ann Elliott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather, I appreciate your honesty in your blog. I am a Walden University student, and this is my first experience with blogging. I found that I connected with your opinions when standing up for your profession. I am a special educator, and I currently co-teach with a few of these professionals who make very little effort to change their plans from year to year, and make "lazy decisions" that end up causing me to do extraordinary amounts of work to make up for their laziness in the classroom. I have worked with them for four or five years, and have only recently begun standing up for myself, and communicating with them my need for them to work on making changes in their classroom. I am finding it difficult to express my opinions without offending them. Knowing that I have to work with them for weeks and years to come, it is difficult to be honest with them about my feeling that they need to change how they teach.
In your blog, you also talked about the need for collaboration. I agree with you completely, and actually find that collaboration helps to encourage "lazy" teachers to change their ways with confronting them head-on. With collaboration we share ideas with each other, and offer suggestions to each other in an open format. When we meet together with other teachers, we feel more open to ask questions about how we teach a certain subject or concept. I feel more open in admitting that my students are struggling and I need advice on how to help them.
Thanks for your blog!

April's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for posting this. I'm new to blogging, and fairly new to teaching (2 years) and it's great to read practical advice. I have had a mentor the past two years, and it has been wonderful to have someone to offer advice; I plan to be a mentor when I have taught for several more years.

I would consider myself a life-long learner, because I am always trying to learn more about teaching methods and engaging my students. In fact, there are some days when my students teach me more than I teach them. I have learned which methods and projects work and which do not. Students have also helped suggest project ideas and helped select music for our concerts. I do not think it's possible for a teacher to be effective unless she accepts the role of life-long learner.

I also appreciated your advice on standing up for myself and for education. I have difficulty with this, as the youngest and newest teacher in my school, but I think I need to be more outspoken about what I think is best for our students. I need to stand up for the rights of our students; if they're not getting the best education possible, we are doing something wrong.

Again, thanks for posting. I appreciate your advice.

April
Middle School Music

Anna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,
This is a great subject for discussion. I really liked your point on the importance of being a student. I think education is such a rapidly changing filed that it is imperative that teachers learn new techniques, educational theories, and philosophies. I think this is especially important with regards to technology. If teachers do not use and teach cutting edge technologies, our students will not be able to compete in a global market.

Sheri Walker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,

I am also a Walden University student and joined your blog for a class assignment. You bring up some excellent points. One that really spoke to me was how teachers need to represent education and their schools. You did mention that the negative and lazy teachers are the ones controlling public education publicity, and I just wanted to add that private schools have the same problems. I have taught in private schools for the past 2 years and there was gossip about teachers,parents, and students, as well as negative attitudes from teachers toward their students. Some teachers only taught a certain way and did nothing to help students with math or reading comprehension, just assigned them poor grades. You are so right that teachers must be lifelong learners or our teaching will become stagnant like I have seen with several teachers who had been teaching for 10 years or longer. Another point you made about standing up for yourself, in my opinion is probably the most difficult. I'm a person who does not like confrontation and doesn't like to bother administrators, but I also don't want to be taken advantage of. I have been taken advantage of by not asking for a stipend to be the elementary cheerleading coach of the private school I taught at, I put in many extra hours and received nothing for my time. I agree that we must be courteous and professional in the way we stand up for ourselves. Thanks for the post and I look foward to reading future blogs.

Sheri Walker
Walden University student
2nd grade Teacher

Diana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your insight. I truly believe one of the greatest resources we have is our own colleagues. I think collaboration is so important to maximize learning for both ourselves and our students. As I reflect over the 20 years I've taught and the varied grade levels and teams I've been a part of ...the years I enjoyed my job the most and made the most difference in the lives of children were the years I worked with other "professionals" where teaching is their passion and not just a profession. Therefore, if teaching is your passion you are always looking to others for help and support to make the most difference with EVERY child not just the easy ones. Kuddos to passionate professionals!

Jacqueline Maronic's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,

Thank you for your insight. Your clearly delineated points tackle common issues for many teachers. I do not teach in a public school. I teach in a non-profit private school in the Chicago area, but the issues are the same . . . the disgruntled colleague, the stretching schedule, ane the pressure to take on more. Your advice is sound in these areas! Thanks for putting it out there for the rest of us.

I had to take on the role of mentor during the past couple of years. I learned a lot of ways to help and some things I should have thought of sooner. One way that I plan on helping new teachers in the future is to create a jump-drive with letters, plans, and other necessary documents. This way, the new teacher has easy access to some great samples that she can modify as necessary. Thankfully, the price of jump-drives is going down!

Jacqueline 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather,

I teach in non-profit private school in the Chicago area and the issues are the same. . .disgruntled colleagues, stretching schedules and the pressure to take on more. Your advice is sound in these areas. Thanks for putting it out there for the rest of us.

You have obvious mentoring skills! I just spent two years mentoring a new teacher. I learned many ways to help as well as some I wish I had thought of sooner. One way I plan on assisting a new teacher in the future is to load a jump-drive with all of my evaluations, plans, parental communications and any other valuable documents. The new teacher will have easy access to necessary materials and she can modify them to suit her needs. At the very least, she'll have an idea of what is expected of her early on in her career.

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