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It's Important to Practice What We Teach

| Jim Moulton

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!

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Comments (59)

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Kellie Shaughnessy (not verified)

This was a well written

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This was a well written article and I am an eager to be an educator that is taking initiative to master my craft. If I were to remain stagnant in my field then I fear I would be left in the dust, by both my colleagues and my students. I take pride in relating to my students and having the ability to use their interests to convey information. I also enjoying bringing new ideas to my teaching team, even if it means taking a risk.

I am in my third year of teaching yet I still feel like I novice. One prior post states "I do believe that you can be an expert at certain skills, but not as a whole." I would have to agree with this statement. I am always trying new lessons and it is difficult to be an expert at your first go around. While I do have strong skills in certain areas I believe that there is always room for improvement. I enjoy the challenge and the feeling of presenting new material to my class and see how it goes. Education can always be tweaked and I know students appreciate challenges.

It is true that many teachers who teach writing do not write themselves. I had the privilege of working with my mentor teacher who realized this flaw. We read daily to our students from published works but rarely to we read them pieces that we have written, I have take the time to not only write personal stories but to read them to my students. I have found that it ignites a spark in many of them to write like their teacher.

Thank you for pointing out that although we are classroom teachers we are also learners.

Stephanie R (not verified)

This was an interesting

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This was an interesting article, and I think some good points were brought up. To keep up with our growing and learning students, we should also be growing and learning. It is important for us to keep our curiosity about us.

Yet, isn't it possible to take this too far? As teachers, we have a lot on our plates, and to add guilt to this doesn't seem that it would be constructive. Of course, this isn't to say that we should sit back and be lazy, but can't I be a good writing teacher without writing the great American novel? Isn't it possible that I can teach mathematics well without being a treasurer? I think that good teachers are those who realize that living is learning, and the concepts and skills we teach our students are embedded in our lives; that's why we're teaching them to our students!

We can enjoy the poems that come to us as we're driving down the road, the math we use when figuring out how much firewood to get for the winter, and the "science experiments" that grow in the back of our refrigerators, and know that these experiences, if we recognize them as such, are helping us become better teachers.

Stephanie R (not verified)

This was an interesting

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This was an interesting article, and I think some good points were brought up. To keep up with our growing and learning students, we should also be growing and learning. It is important for us to keep our curiosity about us.

Yet, isn't it possible to take this too far? As teachers, we have a lot on our plates, and to add guilt to this doesn't seem that it would be constructive. Of course, this isn't to say that we should sit back and be lazy, but can't I be a good writing teacher without writing the great American novel? Isn't it possible that I can teach mathematics well without being a treasurer? I think that good teachers are those who realize that living is learning, and the concepts and skills we teach our students are embedded in our lives; that's why we're teaching them to our students!

We can enjoy the poems that come to us as we're driving down the road, the math we use when figuring out how much firewood to get for the winter, and the "science experiments" that grow in the back of our refrigerators, and know that these experiences, if we recognize them as such, are helping us become better teachers.

Tressa Vihinen (not verified)

expert-novice

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I agree with Catherine that there really isn't a line for novice and expert teachers. I don't believe anybody will reach the expert mark, we as teachers always need to learn new things and change from year to year. I do believe that you can be an expert at certain skills, but not as a whole. Example, I am very very organized with all my files at work and paper work, I believe I am an expert in that part of my job and could help others.

Catherine Ph (not verified)

I am in my fifth year of

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I am in my fifth year of teaching at a Charter School in Northern New Jersey. I am taking online Masters Classes because, as you wrote Jim, we need teachers who are lifelong learners. In my online class we had to discuss with other classmates our thoughts on the "novice-to-expert" teacher continuum. I commented that the idea is flawed, because "expert" implies there is nothing else to learn. As teachers, we must continue to stay abreast of current trends and research in order to provide our students with the education they are worthy of. Students need to see us teachers "practicing what we preach" in terms of school. I try to stress the importance of education all the time in my class, and I tell the children that I am STILL in school. They think that is fascinating, and before I know it they are asking me questions about what I'm learning and what my school responsiblities are. It subtly lets them know we ALL need to strive for life-long learning!

Beth (not verified)

Why am I learning this?

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Jim could not be more correct... we need to practice what we preach. I am a middle school Algebra teacher. Every year, never fail, I get the question from a student, "Why are we learning this?". They need to know how it connects to their own lives. I have at the ready a list of careers which require mathematical knowledge and specifically which branch is needed. I am ready with stories of my own of how I practice math all of the time. Outside of school, I do some volunteer book keeping for a church. Prior to becoming a teacher, I spent thirteen years working as a systems analyst on financial systems. I challenge my students to find a career which requires no mathematical training. We also talk about the math involved in running a household, balancing a budget, shopping, paying taxes, etc. By practicing what we preach we become experts in our subject matter.

Margaret (not verified)

I am also working on my

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I am also working on my Masters. I teach in a SEBD classroom. My students ask me everyday how school is going for me.I have been amazed a the level of enthusiasm my students have had about me going back to school. I have become a better teacher since becoming a student again.I have never been on a blog before . I am reading and participating for the first time due to an assignment for my class. I have truly enjoyed reading Jim's blog and I look forward to more postings.

Grace Wine (not verified)

Like you, I have shared my

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Like you, I have shared my recent educational journey with my students. While some of them think I am crazy, most of my students find some sense of plesure in knowing that I too am writing papers at home. In order to further model what I teach, I often will write along with my students and will use my own sample to show the process of revision and editing. I believe it is important to know that teachers revise and proofread their work too. What flows from my fingertips is not liquid gold. If I show that my own writing can always be improved upon, it demonstrates that their writing can also be improved. Thank you for your comments, this has bee a wonder post to read and reflect upon.

Sabrena Jewell, HMS, Maryville, TN (not verified)

The Unending Journey

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The Unending Journey
As stated by Jim, Dave, and many others, learning should be a lifelong journey that truly never ends. Can you recall a teacher that you once had that you knew was at the end of their proverbial rope? Their teaching was dry, repetitious, and at best, boring. I think we can all relate to this situation. Today’s educational leaders are privy to a multitude of new strategies, scientifically based research, and an increase in collegial interaction. The more we communicate, the more self knowledge, the transfer of pedagogy, and cognitive growth takes place, not only with us, but in our students as well. As for novice verses experienced teachers, no one is perfect. Everyone will fall on his/her face eventually. Failure is just another opportunity to succeed. Being a lifelong learner, and ultimately maturing into a model teacher, involves having a intimate knowledge of material, exploring and applying innovative teaching practices that incorporate multiple intelligences, having self-efficacy and belief in your students, and having the ability to be a great communicator with everyone around you.

SeanK (not verified)

Good points Jim. I am

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Good points Jim. I am airline pilot and also a substitute teacher--mostly secondary math. It is nice to not only be a lifelong learner but use the material that you teach in outside employment or hobbies. It helps to connect curriculum to real life need. I am also working on my Master's in Education right now so I am definitely staying out of trouble. My current program is online which is nice because it is a new medium for our district. As an online student, I will have special understanding of what it is like for my students when they are in turn learning from me in an online environment.

I do wish there was more support for conferences of teachers. An out of district, out of state, and even out of country medium would be fantastic. Thanks for the thread.

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Jim Moulton Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant