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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

Comments (59)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Angie Cash's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is true. As educators we must continually learn. This is my third year teaching in early childhood. At first I thought, "Wow, I've got my degree and my classroom and now I can be a teacher." Little did I know that this would mean that I would still be continually learning my craft. As demanding as everything is for educators, we still have to stay on top of our curriculum, know our student's learning styles, and put forth strategies that will help them succeed in the classroom. Yes, that takes ongoing learning.

Christopher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks to Jim for an important wake up call for all educators. In the endless mire of standards, benchmarks, and guidelines it is easy to lose focus of the importance of loving your craft. I believe that students appreciate a teacher that is genuine about their love of learning, it is infectious. As an English teacher I stongly agree with the notion that, like all trades, I must stay involved with the ongoing changes in my profession. "Living" my job is a step in the right direction.

Jade D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great analogy, the carpenter apprentice and his masters. A simple idea, but one that we rarely take as far as the classroom. Why have we not pushed this concept before now? It only makes sense that to be effective in teaching, we must be able to model the craft.
In a recent course I took-the best course I have taken so far as a teacher-called Colorado Writing Project, the idea was that you need to be a writer in order to teach writing. Throughout the class, we learned to be writers, and then to use our experiences and our pieces to teach our students about writing.
Our text for this course was Katie Wood Ray's The Writing Workshop (2001). She talks about the importance of our students viewing us as writers. We want "our students [to] see us as people who think writing is a worthwhile thing to do, as people who believe in the effort it takes to write things that really matter" (p. 47). She makes a similar analogy to the art teacher, we would never take our children to a dance teacher who could not dance.
I have pushed myself to continue to be a writer, and then to take the risk of using my writing to model during the day's mini-lesson. It is not an easy thing to do, but the change I have seen in my writing workshop has given me the motivation to keep trying. "In the best writing workshops I have ever seen, the students can tell you all about their teacher as a writer...they know each other in that way" (Wood Ray, 2001, p. 47). I will continue to be a writer right along side my students, to give them that model.

Wood Ray, K. (2001). The Writing Workshop. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As they say, "Progress, not perfection." Just keep getting better every day. Or trying to improve - who knows, some days I know I slip backwards, but hey, I'm always trying!



Joelle Eiden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your statement about being a lifelong learner. I talk to my students openly about attending graduate school and the homework that I have to do. Talking to my students about learning myself helps them see that adults can learn and grow.

Of course, graduate school isn't the only way to learn as an adult. But, by becoming involved in professional development opportunities, school programs, committees and communicating with other colleagues, you can become a better teacher. I have found just by talking and listening to what other teachers are doing, I can transform or tweak what I'm doing to include something new that I heard about. It is important to not get stuck in the rut of just looking at last year's lesson plans and worksheets.

I appreciated what your blog had to say along with the questions you added at the end.

Jennifer Setterbo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree that we can not settle for what just works. We will have different 'clients' each year and we can not assume that what worked last year will work this year. It is tough and time consuming, but teachers must keep perfecting the profession. Although there is never a true end to completing this task, since we are dealing with human lives, it is unjust and cruel to teach without constant improvements.

Jesica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well said. The analogies that you used were perfect. It is a difficult task to teach a subject which you know very little about. Students are more apt to learn when they see that their teacher is enthusiastic and knowledgable about the subject being taught. They continuously ask questions and seek answers when they realize that almost anything they need to know can be answered. Robert J. Garmston (1998) states that when a teacher has a indepth knowledge of the materials being presented, he/she allows their students to learn in a less constricted environment. In contrast, when a teacher knows little about the subject matter, student discussions and work can't exceed the knowledge of the teacher. For instance, I teach writing every afternoon to my class of first graders. Also, I have a minor in English, and writing has always been a passion of mine. Therefore, it is easy for me to guide my students and to encourage their writing styles because this topic is part of my life. When teaching a writing lesson I have to do very little to prepare because I already have a very deep, conceptual knowledge of the subject. My students also enjoy hearing stories that I've written; and I've found that it motivates them as well.

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1).

Tamra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can now see the importance of becoming a life-long learner. I have recently embarked on a journey to receive my M.S. in Education. I have realized over the course of these last few weeks just how much I have missed being the student and not just the teacher. I feel a renewed sense of excitement. I can not wait to enter my classroom each day and try out the new techniques I have been learning about on my children. I really do see how vital it is to continue learning and never think that you are done with your education. We must continue to learn and grow and "step out of that box" that we so too often put ourselves in. It is so important to be a practioner of our craft and the only way to accomplish that is to be a life-long learner and a person who realizes that one will never stop learning from both their colleagues and the children they teach.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well put. I do have to stick up for elementary teachers. 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. Do not get me wrong, I believe that a good teacher must be a master at that craft. However, can a teacher be a master of all? It is funny because we can pick the students that are strong in math and weak in science. On the same hand, we can pick the teachers that are strong in language arts, but weak in math. It makes me think if I am in the right career if I know that I am not a master in all those areas.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I relate to what you said about teachers needing to develop the craft that we teach. I just began my Master's in Education and have found that I really enjoy learning about what I do for a living. Reflecting on what I read and learn has energized me and given me a new perspective on my profession. I find that I have a new outlook on what impact I have.

As a parent, I do not want my child to have a teacher who has finished learning. Learning should be a continuous practice. If one is "done" learning, how can one teach? As teachers, we must model what we teach.

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