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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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It's Important to Practice What We Teach

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of being a constant learner, of never stopping. Recently, I have been reflecting on an important step in becoming a lifelong learner -- the opportunity to spend time with a committed learner.

A Real-Life Apprenticeship

Before I became a classroom teacher, but after I had spent two years working in early-childhood education, I went to work as a carpenter. Although I had been a builder of things for many years, I had only just embarked on the building of my own home and so was a bit reluctant to think of myself as a real carpenter. It was a great relief to find that the crew I hired on with included wonderfully skilled carpenters and masons who were willing to help me learn.

Two come to mind right away -- David, the leader of the group who was a college graduate, and Eddie, who had a high school diploma but, I assume, not a college degree. I do know that Eddie could lay out an eyebrow dormer using a framing square, and, in case you've never tried it, that is quite a feat.

I have to believe that the reason I learned so much about building houses from Eddie and David was because -- and I know this is going to sound pretty simple -- they were house builders who were constantly stretching and growing their own skills. House building is what they did, and they did it well. And that is what I was trying to learn. It was a synergistic thing, as are all good apprenticeships. They were validated as masters, and I gained through my role as apprentice.

Practice Makes Not So Perfect

I think good art teachers and their students have the same kind of relationship, and this is because those art teachers are practicing artists. They do not only create art with students during the school day, 5 days a week, nearly 200 days a year; they also live it outside those times. They have pieces they are working on at home, some of which they share with their students. Their students -- the ones who long to be artists, as I longed to be a house builder -- get to apprentice to a master. The same is true for many good music teachers and teachers in other curriculum areas.

But sadly, at a time when literacy is the big challenge in almost every school I visit, far too few language arts teachers are active practitioners of their craft. Although I am confident that the vast majority of the teachers who teach reading are consumers of text, I am also convinced that few teachers responsible for helping their students become better writers are themselves writers.

Committed to Lifelong Learning

Are you a practitioner of your craft? Can you serve not only as a teacher to a student but also as a master or guide to an apprentice?

  • If you are a mathematics teacher, are you an engineer or a treasurer in your out-of-school life?
  • If you teach science, do you have some of your own research projects going on in a backyard garden or in your refrigerator?
  • If you are a business teacher, are you an after-hours entrepreneur? Or do you follow the traditional business-class model and simply teach the Microsoft family of applications from the book?

And so, to come back around to learning, if we are serious about having classrooms that support the development of learners, doesn't it make sense that we must have teachers in our classrooms who are learners themselves? Do we want someone who has finished learning and reached his or her peak teaching our children, or do we want a currently practicing, card-carrying, ongoing, never-stopping, always-questioning learner working side-by-side with students? (Read this post by Bob Lenz, a fellow Spiral Notebook blogger.) I think it is the latter we want. And isn't that what true masters of any craft naturally do -- continually try to improve?

What do you think? I look forward to learning from you!


Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Comments (59)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nanette Lehman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a mother of four, I am so grateful for teachers as those I have been reading the inspiring comments and experiences from. As an educator, I want to be colleagues with each of you. I agree to be the most effective teachers we can be, we have to be life long learners. The dynamics change in our classrooms each year and we adjust curriculum and classroom managment to best meet those changes. We may get to a point where we know expertly the curriculum and content taught but then we have time to invest in knowing the students and how to differentiate the curriculum to meet their individual needs. Facilitating the learning in our classroom discussions is rarely the same from year to year as the engaged participants performing the learning and dialogue varies from year to year.
I am most knowledgable in teaching math and I get excited each day when it is time to do math. When you ask the students in my classroom what their favorite subject is, more often than not the response will be "math". I believe this is due to my enthusiasm and content knowledge in the subject matter. Having only taught two years, it is a personal goal of mine to portray the same enthusiasm for all subject matter as I gain further knowledge or better ways of teaching other subjects. Wouldn't it be great to be a "master" in all subject matter? Is it possible? Are we "masters" because we continually strive to get better at the trade? I would love to hear from those of you who have been in this glorious profession longer than I.

Jade D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to be very knowledgeable about what we are teaching. I think though, that sometimes it is just as beneficial for students to see us struggling with the same things that they are struggling through. For example, in writing, we all have writer's block sometimes, what do we do to get our ideas flowing again? It connects us all as learners. It is a good thing that usually we do have some ideas in mind for ways to solve these struggles. But the students realize that as writers, artists, learners, we are all working to figure things out.
Good for you, using your own writing with the students. It is a powerful teaching tool, but I don't think many teachers do it. I know I don't do it enough.
Jade D.

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that growing in all areas of life is important for the lifetime learner. I want to be a well-balanced teacher, so I don't just focus on the classroom issues for me, but also consider ways to improve at home, etc. Teaching takes so much energy and focus that this is hard to do sometimes. But when we are well-rounded individuals, we'll be better in the classroom as well.

Nanette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Jesica and the comments as to the importance of knowing our content area. As teachers, we often become the facilitators of classroom discussions. We never know where the learning is going to take us or the learning opportunities that may be missed if we do not know our content area. Of the various subject I teach, I would say I have a more indepth knowledge of mathematics and look forward to teaching it everyday. When the students in my classroom are asked what their favorite subject might be, the most common response is "math". Do you suppose there is a correlation? I believe there is, as I am more comfortable teaching math than any other subject matter. The professional development I have acquired in teaching mathematics is stronger and more inquiry-based. Knowing the content is imperitive to successful learning. I am inspired to develop my professional development opportunities in all subject matters so my students have to ponder what they like learning most in my classroom due to the fact all subjects are taught with a wealth of knowledge by the instructor.

Rebecca Swan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with all that is said about being a lifelong learner. We as teachers have to be. As was said, we get a new group of students each year and no two are ever alike. I teach special education 2nd and 3rd grade and I am constantly researching disabilities, how the brain works, alternative ways to teach reading and or math concepts. It is crazy sometimes but I love it. It is so exciting to tell a student "I think I can find a way to help you learn this". Then I go home to research in books, on the net and with colleagues and then come back to the student and say "let's try this.." It is exciting when you have worked out a problem together. The student also sees that it does take work and I don't automatically have all the answers, but we can learn together to solve the problems. There is so much to learn about learning. I feel grateful to be in a field in which I am forced to continue asking questions.

Amy Calley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was intrigued to read the mention of art teachers and their students having the apprentice-to-master type of relationship. As an elementary art teacher, although I do not practice my skills outside of class as much as I would like, I think that is one thing that creates a positive learning relationship between myself and my students- they know that I practice what I teach. I am enrolled in a masters' program and my current class is called the Teacher as a Professional. Much of what we are focused on is the teacher as a lifelong learner. Not only do we have to be willing to continue learning more about our content areas, but we also have to be willing to learn more about different teaching methods in order to become more effective in the classroom. Although my undergrad degree is in art education, my masters program is in elementary math and reading. We are asked to incorporate so much math and reading into our curriculum, and math is already intertwined with art. I feel I need to practice what I am teaching, whether it be math, art, or reading.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kelly -

Thanks for your candor! You have made me think.

You ask, "Does this mean that we have to be masters in math, language arts, social studies, health, science, social skills, etc.? If so, this person must be a supernatural being."

Masters? No. But, that said, I guess I do feel that strong elementary teacher will be active users of math, involved citizens who think about social structures and take action to make their communities a better place, writers, and able and willing to look at the world through a scientific eye.

But isn't a large part of the job of an elementary school teacher to fan the fires of curiosity to a point where they are burning so hot they will never be extinguished, to provide experiences and inspiration so that a child goes forth both wanting to keep on learning and able to do same?

Jack of all curriculum, master of one, perhaps? And that one is helping children grow.

And because of that, a master of all these; learning, thinking, asking good questions, playing with language, numbers, and watercolors...

Don't we all, as both teachers and parents, hope to be able to help our schools send forth students who love to think, and because of that love, carry a need to learn.



Jenna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we as teachers should practice what we preach. I am a first grade teacher and I feel that what I do and how I act, has a profound impact on my students. Why should students practice their best penmanship, if the teacher doesn't take pride in theirs? Or how are students going to learn to be a kind and helpful citizen, if they are not seeing it valued and reflected by others. And one of the most important lessons we should teach our students through example, is how to be a life-long learner. I teach my students that even adults make mistakes, and that people, no matter how old, continue to learn and grow through the discovery of new knowledge.

Chad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Interesting idea... As an American History teacher, I find my that my class is more lively and focused when I relate current events to past events. I often find similiarties in the local history, contemporary events of the community, and student government as motivating factors for my students. Unfortunately, with the recent economic downturn, there is just too much information to compare to the shaky begininngs of our country. I find that students need to have history be relevant to them. What other ideas do you have as a social sciences teacher?

karen t.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like this idea. There is so much corruption in present day politics (I'm from Chicago), one could easily relate it to the era of stalwarts and patronage. Yes, history just keeps repeating itself. You could also prove this by looking at fashion! Every thing old is new again!

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