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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

Nikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your blog. I am currently working on my Masters Degree and we just read and discussed how teachers need to be lifelong learners. We need to be up on new ideas and findings in the world of education and in our own particular craft. I teach kindergarten and I am constantly looking for ways to help my students learn and succeed.

Nikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand what you are saying. I think helping students see the value of math, science, etc. in everyday events like the experiment growing in the fridge is very helpful. You always hear people saying that students need to have personal connections to what you are teaching. Using the exepriences like you mentioned help you become better teachers and sharing them with students makes them better learners.

Yvonne Brooks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Jim.If we practice what we preach, we get better result from our students.When teachers portray the qualities that they want their students to emulate, it gives the students a chance to see the work in action. Teachers become in Kottler, Zehn, & Kottler, (2005), words "living example" (Pg 23). Modeling the qualities is the most significant way to motivate the students to put forth the same effort. Students get to see us as learners too.

Michael Callahan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your post on teachers practicing what they preach. As a Spanish teacher, I am always learning new things related to the Spanish language as well as the Spanish-speaking countries. There is no end to how much one can learn about twenty different nations and a language that a very large percentage of people speak. I try to watch as much Spanish television as I can. I also listen to Spanish radio and read Spanish newspapers - both online and in print.

I also need to keep abreast of the latest teaching strategies and learning styles. This is one area where I have been somewhat lax. However, like many of the teachers who are posting on edutopia, I am currently working on my Master's degree. So far I have already learned a lot about the latest developments regarding educational research and learning. There is much more for me to learn and implement into my classroom.

Yes, teachers definitely need to develop their craft. Teachers who stop learning are teachers that become stagnant and do a great disservice to their students.

Jenifer Bielby's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hated school. I was one of those children who passed by the skin of my teeth and never gave my all in anything that I did not want to do. I was one of those rebellious children who clowned around in class, passed notes, cheated by writing my answers on a ruler before an exam and just was generally not into school. Many teachers compared me to my older sister and I can remember the words from quite a few teachers of "why can't you be more like your sister?" or "what happened to the little sister?"...this, of course really wanted me to put my best foot forward and be the best that I could be, right? WRONG!!! I did just the opposite! I could care less and struggled mostly all the way through primary and high school and even took that attitude into college.
Today, I am a teacher in a nursery school - I started working with children when I was 18 and fell in love with the profession. I started teaching right away when I graduated from University and have never looked back since. Well, kind of. I look back to remember what I went through during my early years and have no intent on bringing those memories into my habits and ways of teaching. This is what keeps me going!
Yes, I see children who have siblings either who have come through my class or will be coming into my class. I cannot pass judgement and I try to pass this message on to the other teachers...even the parents. The compare and contrast bit does not work for me as I went through it and know how it feels. I want to pass the message on that it is okay to be different and that every child has a unique way of learning.
I have just started my Master's degree and even within the few short weeks of starting, various 'words of wisdoms' have definitely opened up my eyes to how I am as a teacher and how I can improve. I have learned that I can still be a friend while disciplining at the same time. I have learned that confidence within myself will help me to lead by example and show others different ways to approach children to help them find their strengths. When I see new teachers coming in, I welcome their ideas as I expect the same in return. This is a learning process that will never end. Ideas merge with each other and I learn something new every time. I have faith in knowing that when teachers work together and have a strong connection, the children learn to treat their friends in the same manner. The children are the ones who matter and if we as teachers can show them the right way, then all is well and in the end, we know that we have done a little something to make a child's world a better place.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Tressa in that there is no such thing as ever reaching the "expert" point as a teacher. As a new teacher, I have had the pleasure working with colleagues who have been in the field for 20+ years. I am often surprised when they ask me for my opinion or input on an issue, because I have so little experience compared to them. From their point of view, I may have fresh ideas or strategies to share because I am a recent college graduate and am "up to date" with current issues in education This goes to show how important it is for teachers to always keep in the learning state of mind, whether it be through research and study, professional development or learning from another colleague. I also believe that each teacher has their own strength within the classroom when it comes to teaching, and that these strengths can be shared and celebrated.

bf's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to stress the importance of education to our students. I am in the same graduate program as you and I feel that keeping abreast of current teaching techniques is crucial to our profession. I don't know that I agree with your statement that one cannot be deemed an expert in a field. There are many who would be considered "experts" in their respective fields even though they are still learning. Doctors, economists, coaches, and teachers can attain the level of expert. This however does not imply that they have nothing left to learn.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that life-long learning is necessary not only for improving one's skill, but also for self-satisfaction. I recently began working on my MS in Education and since I have started class I have felt a renewed sense of what teaching is all about: learning. I can not expect my students to value education and learning if I am not constantly learning either. Therefor, I have made a point in telling my students that I am also in school and that I do homework too because it will make me a better teacher. It is especially important for those students who do not positive role models at home to see that even teachers go to school and learn. Additionally, I tell my students that the things they are learning in school now will help later on in life, but how do I really help them realize that?

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed your posting. I found your analogy to be inspiring. I am currently enrolled in an online program towards my master degree. We have been talking about becoming a professional and the cycle between novice and expert teachers. Robert Garmston claims that teachers begin their first year of teaching as a novice teacher and become experts (Garmston, 2007).I have to disagree with his theory. I do not think you are ever truly an expert at teaching. I simply think that you become an experienced professional through life-long learning. To me, a novice and experienced professional are similar. They are both searching for new innovative ways to help their students and themselves succeed. An experienced teacher simply knows how to organize and utilize this information quickly and easily (Garmston, 2007). Currently, I am in my second year of teaching. I am still a novice teacher. I believe strongly in being a life-long learner and instilling that dedication into my students.

To relate back to your idea, teaching first grade requires knowledge in all content areas. The students are also just starting out on their journey of learning. Therefore, instead of practicing any particular subject area, I feel it is my duty to show students how to be a learner by being one myself. These students are very impressionable and need modeling. In What Keeps Teachers Going?, Stephen Gordon states, "I teach who I am" (Nieto, 2003, p.30). I think this sums it all up. I am one of the most influential role models my students have. It is my duty to model the positive characteristics that are vital for successful students. If I am not learning, then I am teaching students who are not learning. I must be willing to move forward on the novice to expert continuum and take risks so that my students will feel secure in taking risks themselves.
To support Mr. Moulton's idea, I only have to look at my students' responses to my professional development. An example of this is when I had to get a substitute for a day so that I could attend Dr. Jean Feldman's conference. The students were concerned and wanted to know where I was. When I told them I went to a conference to learn new ways to help us read, write, spell, and do math, they were amazed. They did not realize that I still had things to learn too. I talked positively about Dr. Jean and how she taught me so many fun things. Then, I shared those fun things with the students so we learned them together. To this day, they will ask me to teach them something else that I learned from Dr. Jean. They made a connection with me and saw me in a more personable way.

In closing, not only do I think teachers need to actively participate in what they are teaching, but we need to show students we are real people. I believe my students need to see that teachers are regular people and we still need to learn just like them. After all, some of my first graders think that I live at the school (granted, sometimes I wonder that too!). A fun example of this happened to me my first year of teaching. Thank goodness my students are so innocent, understanding, and forgiving. I had put my shoes on in the dark one day and ended up with mismatches! Of course, my observant students were the first to notice. After we all had a good laugh, I explained that I had stuck my feet in my shoes while they were still in the closet and it was dark. I will never forget that moment, not only because it was a humbling experience for me, but that it shed light on something very important. One of my students raised her hand and said, "Which closet?" and pointed to the ones behind my desk! First graders take things very literally and need concrete examples. This is true for learning. Again, if I expect my students to become successful learners, I first have to model this for them.


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

Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

Lisa Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I didn't hate school but being an athlete I don't beleive that my teacher pushed me to my ability. They always told me that I was needed on the court so I got away with cheating or turning in late work. It didn't hit me until I went to college that it finally hit me that I did not know how to study big wake up call. When I became a teacher I reminded myself that I would never let the athletes in my classes not work just as hard as everyone else.
I had a football player in my class last year that thought he could get away with anything because of who he was. There was this one week that he got in trouble in my class everyday I think. I talked to him one on one after class, sent him to the office with a referral, and even had a conference with his parents but I was bound and determined that I was not going to give up on the guy. The begining of this year he came to me and started talking to me about what he was going to do after graduation and what he really wanted out of life. Even though I did not have him in class he came by everyday to talk. He came by one day and told me that he was soon to be a dad and from that day forward we had many heart to heart talks. I talked to him about being a parent and he saw through me how much I adore my own children. The day his son was born he called me and asked if I would come and enjoy this wonderful experience with him. I immediately went to his side and with his son in his arms he told me that I had made a difference in his life. By the time that I left the hospital I knew that by my experiences and how I had taught in my classroom that I was making a difference.

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