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It's Important to Practice What We Teach

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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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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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

Comments (59) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

karen t.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

They need to learn math so that in the future more possibilities will be open to them.
Everyone needs an array of skills. You don't want your choices limited in the future because you lack math skills. I never advanced in math beyond a certain level and it has come back to haunt me a few times.

angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the statement that we need to continue to learn and set an example for our students. As an elementary teacher, I sometimes see students pretending to be the teacher. It is amazing how they can mimic a teacher in expressions and mannerisms.
I think it is important to show students that we read books, write stories, and use our math skills. I try to check out books in the library with my students, write stories as they write stories, and I always have a story about why the math lesson is important.
Since I am working on obtaining my Master's degree, I have shared how I need to do homework at night. This has helped make a connection with my students. I feel it is so important to continue to learn new techniques and strategies to use in the class.

Angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your statement. I am working on my Masters and it has really been a topic in my classroom. My first graders want to know if I will have homework. They love it when I tell them I have homework each night and on the weekends. I think returning to school and becoming a teacher is helping me. Do you find yourself being more patient and trying to make the lessons interesting? I feel that I am.

J. Murphy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently have begun my Master's Degree, and have read a great deal of literature on the characteristics of an effective teacher. One that is repeated frequently is that of being a continual learner. It seems so obvious, especially since most of us would say that one of our goals is for our students to be life-long learners. However, as much as I have said that myself, the past 2 years of my teaching career, I have found myself in a stagnant place as far as learning. One thing you mentioned particularly struck me. You said that few language arts teachers are writers themselves. This has been so true for me. Though I still am a reader, I haven't written much since I graduated from college. Now, as I've begun my graduate program, I'm having to "get back into the habit" of writing. It hasn't come naturally. I've realized that this has probably had a negative impact of my ability to teach writing. Thanks for sharing and pointing out this area of weakness for so many teachers.

Janet Hoffman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a certified school nurse who teaches health education, I agree strongly with your analysis of being committed to being a lifelong learner. I work full time in a middle school teaching health, and I also work per-diem as a registered nurse on a surgical unit in a local hospital. In the medical world, learning has always taken place for me because of rapidly changing medical technology, changing methods of patient care, and the need to review practice techniques frequently. I have also begun my Masters in Education with a specialization in Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Working as a nurse and as a teacher, I have always recognized the need to continually learn to keep my skills and my content base current. By broadening my content base in health education, I can share lively antidotal stories with my middle school students. This makes our discussions more informative and descriptive when I relate them to real live situations, and I find that students make better connections to these stories as they learn about health.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

J. Murphy -

Thanks for your candor. I wrote a 1000 word weekly column, called the Web Wanderer, for a local newspaper in Maine for about 6 years. Over the course of those years, my writing got better - proven by this story:

One of my colleagues from the Maine Learning Technology Initiative asked me where I got my ideas. I replied that I simply kept my eyes open. He gave me a challenge, and asked me to write a column on weeds. I did - I wrote about the resilience of weeds and spoke of resilient children. That column generated many responses from readers.

Practice may not make perfect, but it will definitely make for better!

Write on!


shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't know of a single classroom that benefits from a teacher that sits around doing nothing. An active mind produces active teachings and regardless of the type of activity we demand of our children, we owe it to them to be well rounded and well educated.

shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also have had to get back into the saddle where writing is concerned. I recently have begun picking out classics for reading purposes to get my language skills and vocabulary back into check. I pay particular attention to the emails I send, the conversations I have, and to what I am hearing in common language in hopes that the "scholar" in me will emerge once again. If I can get the right frame of mind in using my spoken word with conscious effort, then I can set a better example as a teacher and my personal writing skills will come more naturally.

Charles Westmoreland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Interesting idea... I am a History teacher and I find out that my class is more lively and listening carefully when I relate current events to past events. I often find similarities in the local history.Also I am interested on one of this article that I've read about maxgxl australia,Now I am looking for someone that have any information about it.Thanks

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think you bring up interesting points about teachers roles. Often times I feel that teachers both get burnt out and don't care how they deliver the information, or they think that they know the subject and that all they have to do is relay that information to students. I think that is when learning stops. Learning is always an ongoing process and if one stops learning, I think one stops living. How is it possible to connect to students and truly teach them if you are not learning yourself as an educator? If we don't set the example for students then how will have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and learning? Teachers set the tone and teach by example, if we don't practice what we preach then why should students respond and learn?

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