Thursday, December 20, 2012

Teaching the Teachers

This blogpost I wrote, originally appeared on on November 21,2012. It can be found here:

You've been teaching for five years, and you love every part of it. You love the kids, your colleagues -- well -- you love teaching. The parents are happy, the kids learn, but you’re getting an "itch." School isn't as exciting as it used to be. The routines are becoming routine, and you know what the kids are going to get stuck on, push back at, get excited by -- nothing is new anymore.

You are not alone.

Should you pursue something else? Get on the track to become an administrator? Go back to grad school? What will bring that extra excitement back to your job? What will challenge you and, indeed, make every day an intellectual challenge? Would you want to stay if someone were pushing you to get better? If they were really challenging you to think about your practice and grow as an educator?

Channeling Your Expertise
Have you ever thought about teaching teaching? No, that wasn't a typo; it was a suggestion. You can become the next teacher of teachers and offer what you have learned to the newest members of the profession. There is no such thing as a "born teacher" or a "natural."

Author and teacher education expert Sharon Feiman-Nemser summed up concerns of new teachers nicely in What New Teachers Need to Learn, a 2003 article in Educational Leadership:

For the novice, the questions are unending: What am I supposed to teach? How will my students be tested? What will their test scores say about me as a teacher? What does the principal expect? Am I supposed to keep my students quiet, or do my colleagues understand that engaged learning sometimes means messy classrooms and active students? And after the first weeks of school, how can I find out what my students really know, deal with their diverse learning needs, and ensure that everyone is learning?
Teaching is a craft -- an art form -- that needs to be practiced and perfected. You know that new teachers don't know everything they need to thrive in your school -- even if they are really bright and come from a great graduate program. You have spent the past few years learning from your mistakes, reflecting on your practice, and perhaps now you are ready to help someone else.

Where to Begin as a Mentor
The first thing to do is look around your school. Is there a formal mentoring program going on? Do mentors meet regularly to talk about their mentoring practice? If so, you should join this community. Ask if you can become a regular at these meetings to learn more about mentoring from these mentors.

If your school doesn't have a mentoring program, you can start thinking about how to create one. Post a notice to your colleagues to see if anyone wants to be part of a book group with you. Begin the group by reading Beyond Mentoring by Jon Saphier or Coaching Classroom Instruction by Robert Marzano. Once you are acquainted with some of the basic principles of mentoring and coaching, you can start by observing one another and giving each other feedback.

Opening Your Classroom to Mentees
Now that you feel like this mentoring thing really is for you and you're ready to take the next leap, reach out to a local university. See what mentor training opportunities they have and how you can become involved. Your classroom may soon become a host classroom for new teachers, and you will be a mentor.

To become a teacher of teachers, or a mentor, you do not need to leave the classroom. You don't have to forgo the things you love; you are just adding another layer onto the teaching -- meta-teaching. This new challenge will help you think about your own practice. Why do you turn off the lights to get kids quiet? Is there a more effective way? Is there a different approach? Having another person observe your classroom regularly and question your decisions will help you grow in your own practice.

Becoming a mentor gives you a new peer group of other mentors and novice teachers. There is an entire world of mentoring, a ladder of professional growth. This field of new teacher support must continue growing to ensure that the caliber of our schools continues to grow.

Growing Within Your Job
Ultimately, the students need skilled teachers guiding them. As a skilled and proficient educator, you can't teach all of them every year, but you can teach their teachers. You can ensure that the teacher next door is thinking about his practice in a thoughtful manner. You can say with confidence that you know your kids will be going on to a reflective teacher -- if you are part of their teacher's education.

Graduate programs are always looking for skilled, thoughtful, reflective practitioners to open their classrooms to the new teachers entering the field. There are so many talented teachers who leave the field when they get that "itch," but you don't need to be one of them. You can continue to learn and grow within your current job, and help a novice learn as well. If you love teaching, why give that up for something else? Just start teaching the teachers.

What have you learned from a novice teacher that has helped improve your practice? What were some of the surprises you experienced taking on the role of mentor?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Child is a Genius

Parents rarely tell us straight out that their son/daughter is a genius, but many of them believe it. Teachers get glimpses of this by the comments we hear. "Johnny says he already knows much of what you are teaching." Or " Sam said the most amazing thing today--I can't believe he is only five." In general parents know their children really well, so why do so many think their children are geniuses when "less than one quarter of one percent" ( of humans are ACTUALLY considered to be geniuses?

I think the answer is simple, children are amazing. The capacity of children to understand their world, learn new information, and produce creative output is astounding. Parents realize this, but sometimes as teachers we can become numb.

When we see forty eleven year olds all day every day we tend to look for commonalities. How can I group these kids, what misunderstandings will this group have, what will allow me as one person to teach all of these kids? We are always looking for "developmental levels" or " problems that kids have every year" but we must remember to take a step back and remember the amazing 'genius' that each individual child has.

These children might not all be technical geniuses, but the fact that they are walking, talking, thinking, and innovating is truly amazing. Parents may not realize that the behavior they see at home really is typical of eight year olds, but they do see how amazing their eight year old truly is. As teachers we can learn from a parents definition of 'genius' and remember how amazing the human child really is.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Who is Flying the Plane

Somewhere over Nebraska my plane began to experience serious turbulence.  It was like being on a rollercoaster in the sky.  Being the nervous traveler that I am, I thought to myself “It is a good thing that every commercial pilot needs to go through many hours of training before they become licensed to fly these planes.”  But what if that wasn’t required.  What if pilots were in such demand that we hired ‘really smart people who were good with buttons’ straight out of college?  Would you want to ride on that plane?
All too often we put our children in classrooms with ‘really smart people out of college who are great with children.’  They have no training or support, and many of them are destined to crash and burn. 
So what can we, as school leaders do to make sure that these new teachers succeed?  As a field we first need to acknowledge that teaching is truly a craft.  It is not merely a set of skills, tricks, and techniques that can be taught in a week.  No one was ‘born’ a teacher. Teaching is truly an art cultivated over many years through practice, thoughtfulness and deep self-reflection. 
We must set up systems in our schools to develop and cultivate new talent in the field. New teacher induction begins even before a teacher is hired.  Administrators need to be planful about how we hire and how we place a new teacher.  We realize that a new teacher is not seasoned or adept at their new position just because they have a teaching degree.  The number of classes, size of classes, and the specific children placed in a class are all need to be strategically chosen to allow for the success of both the new teacher and the success of the students.  All too often new teachers are given the most challenging classes with students who are struggling to learn.  Would you rather be with that new pilot on a 14 hour flight in the middle of a snowstorm or on the Boston to New York shuttle on a balmy July morning?  We tend to think the stakes are lower with our children in a classroom, but if your child were flying in that classroom with an ill equipped and ill supported teacher, you might feel a little differently.
Through the Yeshiva University School Partnership we have been able to develop systems of support for the new teachers in our classrooms.  Our New Teacher Induction Program currently works with five schools around the country to do just this.  The schools have partnered with our team to help develop systems to support the new teachers they employ.  The Institute works with the veterans, administrators, and new teachers to ensure that this support is sufficient to meet the needs of the new teachers.
When a new teacher walks in to the school there should be a plan to help him adjust to the new environment.  Where do I park? What do I wear? How do I order supplies? What are the students supposed to call me? Are just some of the questions that a new teacher doesn’t know the answers to when he first walks in to a new school.  This doesn’t even begin to address the issues of what do I teach, and what is the tone I set with parents. 
Once the new teachers feel some level of comfort with the school culture and the daily expectations, then comes the time for the serious work.  Each new teacher needs a mentor—a veteran teacher who can reflect on his/her own practice and help the new teacher learn to do the same.  The mentor is a new teacher’s guide to the complex thinking and planning behind what goes on in a classroom.  These two teachers need to build a relationship where they can learn from one another and each hone their individual craft.  Through the New Teacher Induction Program each new teacher in our participating schools receives a one-on one mentor to help him/her through these challenges.
The new teachers need to be able to explore their role in the school with other new teachers.  They need to feel a comfort in sharing their doubts and reservations with colleagues at a similar level of professional development.  Each new teacher needs to have an audience of colleagues who can truly appreciate a new success and who understand how to help him recover from a failure.  We have seen that schools that setup new teacher study groups, a network of new teachers, led by a veteran teacher have helped new teachers to deal with the common struggles they face as a cohort.   Camaraderie is what keeps teachers vibrant, dynamic, and ever learning.
Our teachers are the most reliable variable in predicting the success of our students.  Countless studies have shown unmistakable correlation between the effectiveness of teacher instruction and the accomplishments of their students.  Every student is going to have a new teacher at some point in his/her schooling.  That new teacher is given the invaluable task of guiding that child on the road to success for an entire year.  We need to be confident that our new teachers will have all the resources they need to ensure a smooth ride for both the teacher and the student in that first year.   Next year, the YU School Partnership will be partnering with 15 schools on this important endeavor.