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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

Eric Cole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How Timely!
I just posted how insightful your talks are and plugged your book on my blog and the next thing I see is another entry from you that strikes home.
I took the plunge into blogging as my resolution. For a few years now I have spent hours directing teachers to Wikis and Blogs to learn, share and grow. I have created wikis, but have shied away from blogging because I felt intimidated. So this year I took a new approach, I decided to start Blogging as my own student.
It's both liberating and refreshing to put your thoughts out there and offer it up, then not care if people read it or not because you are doing it as a student exercise.
I am sampling, learning and growing, Jim, I have to in order to grow as an educator. Getting past my "What if I fall flat on my face?" or worse "What if I just suck?" has given me new strength and attitude to press forward.
Without a doubt, I am forever a student.

Tonya Laliberte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am sampling, learning and growing, Jim, I have to in order to grow as an educator. Getting past my "What if I fall flat on my face?" or worse "What if I just suck?" has given me new strength and attitude to press forward.
Without a doubt, I am forever a student.--Eric Cole

As I read your posting, I wondered, "So what if you fall flat on your face, you get up and do it again." You don't quit trying because you were not successful. Every failure is an opportunity to find success. I think that sometimes we instill failure into the eyes of our students without even realizing it. I am analyzing some data from my school assessments we just gave and some of the kids who were predicted to "fall flat on their face" stood up and stood tall, meaning, they knocked the socks off of these assessments. I think when you stop learning you stop living. I think that it is important that we grow and foster as an individual and as an educator, you cannot be satisfied with what you have, you have to want more.

Kevin Schiele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Absolutely, the best teachers I work with are all striving to further not only their subject matter understanding but also their skills in the art of teaching. When I first started teaching, I thought that as soon as I had mastered some finite set of teaching skills that teaching would all of sudden become 'easy'. Well, now in my 20th year, I realize that this is not going to happen for me. A great deal of the excitement I get from teaching is exactly because I am continually learning both in my subject area and about the craft of teaching. Of course, I know some educators who have reached that end point where every school year is basically the same. That sounds dull to me and if I ever reach that point, I will know that it will be time for me to do something else - hmmm, maybe carpentry. This week my students and I are doing our first live video webcast. It is going to fun!

MelissaK's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I am taking on a student teacher for the first time, this was a great blog to read. I have started my masters degree in technology in my 13th year of teaching and I feel that I should be sharing what I am learning with someone new to our profession. I also feel that I can be a role model to my student teacher when it comes to continuing learning and staying abreast of the profession and the new ideas that it has to offer. I encourage my students to be life-long learners, but I would be a hypoctrite if I were not doing the same. I feel it is important to share that I have homework and I am learning new things while they are doing the same.

Brandon Q's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Modeling is so important in education. I constantly remind my students that I am actively pursuing my masters' degree. I hope my declaration as a student sparks an interest for them to continue their educational endeavors. If teachers model to the level Jim Moulton described, our students will find us a lot more interesting and respectable. The idea of being a model cuts deeper than just pursuing the area of your expertise. If we ask our students to show up to class on time we teachers need to be on time to school, class, meetings, and tutoring sessions.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Melissa -

What a wonderful way to look at hosting a student teacher - as an opportunity to continue your professional growth. To realize you need to be "on top of your game" if you are going to be "showing someone else the ropes."

And I agree that it is so important we not be hypocrites, that we teach in way that we would hope to be taught, to empower our students to learn in a way we would hope to learn.

Good luck!


Dave Ramage, Ph.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the thoughtful post, I agree with your comments and insights. I want to extend the conversation by proposing that your suggestion is one important part of a two-sided process. As lifelong learners we owe it to our students, colleagues, and ourselves to keep stretching and learning in our discipline - but those experiences will benefit students most if we also stretch ourselves as "students of practice".

We all have grade levels and subject areas of concentration, but what unites us is our common role as "teacher". What have I learned lately about my role as a facilitator of learning? Have I reflected on my instructional practices to increase my effectiveness with learners?

Stretch, risk, learn, but then dig into the skills and understanding needed to share your new knowledge, skills, insights, struggles, and questions with that novice who's watching you swing the hammer....

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dave -

I agree that being a student of practice is, as you suggest, totally worthwhile.

Perhaps you've already seen it, but you may want to take a look at this: where they describe the "three legs to the stool" of classroom teaching in 2009 as "Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge."

When I use this resource with leadership teams or classroom teachers, I condense this wonderful piece of valuable work to a simple - "To do the best by the most kids in today's classrooms, you have to be master of all three."

I guess I believe content is still Queen or King, but pedagogy and technology have to be there... The days of opening the kids' heads and pouring in the information are over - they have to be over. And as you suggest, I think pedagogy, practice, spans, or connects, between content and technology - Practice determines how one uses the latter to help diverse students master the former.

All kids need teachers (and parents) who are constantly improving their practice! We don't need to aim for perfect, just better.



Elijah Hester's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a student midway through embarking upon my Master's in Special Education I find myself in an educational philosophy class. I have to say you both have helped tremendously. This site in general shows me the importance of continuing to question ourselves and define our own philosophy as you have both done so elequently above. It seems I have the need to say Thank You for helping me define my role as an educator and helping me understand my professor's point of view with a clearer outlook.

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