Learning from Veteran Teachers: Some Things Never Change
Nobody likes to be reminded how fast time flies. There are mornings when I wake up, look into the mirror and am surprised by this 60-something face staring back at me. The comfort that follows the shock is that age-old adage that a well-lived face is always beautiful. Maybe. Okay. But what is truly beautiful is looking back on, and forward to, a life full of work that is fulfilling, meaningful and even enormous fun. And in the now, at this stage of my life, it is also nice to know that there are some actual benefits of having all this experience. I don’t get red in the face anymore or feel flutters in my stomach when I enter a classroom. I know I am not going to drop my notes on the floor because they are in a Word Doc on the desktop next to the Firefox window that contains the WizIQ classroom with my preloaded PowerPoint: now everything is just there, on the screen in front of me.
The First Time
The first time I walked into my own classroom at a university where I only knew the secretary and the department chairperson, I was more than a little lost. I didn’t have my teaching internship supervisor just down the hall to talk me through what had happened in class. The protégé of my grad school advisor wasn’t in the next room ready to step through our connecting door and intervene if he heard me losing control of the class. There was just me, a newly hired adjunct faculty member at a small university in Chicago, loaded down with my briefcase full of books and handwritten notes. Oh, and, of course, my exceedingly red face.
That first time there were 30-some adults crammed into a windowless basement classroom when I arrived. A half dozen more followed me in and another half dozen wandered in later. Some of them were half asleep in their desks almost immediately after they sat down. Some carried take-out coffee or a thermos from home. Others opened lunch boxes and pulled out a sandwich or two as soon as they sat down. A lot of them knew each other but they were all new to me. There were eager 20-somethings not much younger than I was, exhausted 30-somethings straight from the office, a few grumpy 40-somethings with “don’t waste my evening” faces, auditors in their 50s ready to enjoy what would be for them a Monday night lecture series, and 60-somethings wondering if it was really a good idea to go back to college in retirement. They turned out to be a very good group and I was really lucky to get them. Of course I didn’t know that in the first few minutes of the class as I emptied the briefcase, filled up the desk with books and notes, erased the blackboard, and generally tried to look like I knew what I was doing.
I learned that night that I could start my lecture and be coherent even after knocking my briefcase off the desk and watching it slide happily towards the door. I discovered that the 20-minutes-and-shift-the-tone strategy my internship supervisor taught me was handy for keeping the first few rows from nodding off. I found out that good things could happen in the first class. They laughed at most of my jokes. They waited patiently while I drew diagrams and wrote bullet points on the blackboard. I came home from my first evening of teaching pretty amazed that I had survived the experience. Okay, I had chalk on my hands, my sweater and my skirt, but generally, I felt pretty proud of my 28-year-old newly-hired adjunct faculty self.
The world of teaching has gone through several sea changes since I turned around to face my first class of students back in 1979. My grade book is now buried deep in a box somewhere. It has been decades since I have seen a piece of chalk, or even, come to think of it, a blackboard. I no longer spend serious time drawing out blackboard plans on paper so as to save time in the classroom, or even—in the era that followed—spending serious amounts of money on overhead transparencies and related supplies.
Some things never change though. What it takes to be a good teacher for any age group, in any type of school, is still pretty much the same. As Jim Barry meant to say—a gentleman you will meet in the video a little later in this blog—, it is still all about “confidence, content and caring.”
In fact, the advice I was given back in the day pretty much lines up with the research I’ve done for this blog. Advice to rookies then and now generally falls into three categories: how important it is to (1) set up a creative classroom, (2) love your students, and (3) know when to tend to yourself.
Setting Up a Creative Classroom
The emphasis these days is on the benefits of project-based learning and active learning, that is, classrooms set up for creativity in which students are at least partially in charge of the way in which they approach a subject, in the setting of at least some of the goals, and in finding their own path to learning success.
I asked a friend of mine, Alison Waugh, who recently retired from the school system in Edinburgh, Scotland, about the advice she got back in the 1970s when she first started teaching. Were there lessons she learned then that still hold true today? She said “There was a big focus on children learning through play. We were expected to have an ‘integrated day’ in which groups moved from one activity to another, with several simultaneous activities going on. We had to more or less put together our own curriculum, and design/create our own materials, individualized to suit the kids in our classes.” What she was describing sounded to me like an open classroom, a learner-centered way of helping students move through a curriculum.
That this description is timely for teaching today can be seen in the blog Richard Byrne posted some months back called “100 Tips for New Teachers and Good Reminders for Veteran Teachers.” Byrne included a PowerPoint of tips for new teachers, some of which are right in line with Alison’s early experience. One of his contributors, who signed him or herself as “desertful” (slide 64), wrote “Create a safe and fun learning community. Start with introduction icebreaker activities and establishing class norms.” Another contributor to Byrne’s blog has, by the look of his own blog, set up a very creative classroom indeed. The contributor’s advice centers on his own learning: “Join, develop or create a personal learning network of educators [who] … are innovative, personable and put students first” (slide 126).
Loving Your Students
To understand who needs what in a classroom requires really knowing your students, what their needs are, who they are as people. My friend Connie Anderson, who used to teach elementary school in Ohio and is the author of Not Your Grandma’s Phonics, puts it this way: “Outstanding teaching is rooted in a genuine love of children. That love moves mountains when it comes to the daily challenges of classroom teaching.” Her advice was golden in the old days and it is golden today.
A number of the teachers who commented for Richard Byrne’s “100 Tips for Teachers” echoed Connie’s advice. Greta Sandler (slide 3) said, “Connect with your students, get to know them. That’s the most important thing.” Squilana’s (slide 107) advice was “First comes the person, then the pupil/student.”
There’s a wonderful video on YouTube that brims over with this feeling for the students. It is from a channel called “RnVEducation” that I think stands for “Rookie and Veteran Education.” The veteran, Jim Barry, is a retired high school teacher from Canada. He joins his former student, Jamie Cohen, in each of the videos. “Nurturing Classroom Environment Strategies” is my favorite one.
Jim Barry’s advice focused on “confidence, knowledge and caring” with an emphasis on empathy for the students. (All four of the videos on this channel are so worth watching.)
Loving the students, whether they are children or adults, allows you to connect with them, get to know them, start to understand their strengths and challenges, enjoy their company, and let occasional grumpiness, or fear, or worry and its consequences roll off.
Back in my first class in 1979, I discovered by learning that the guy who slept in the back row worked two jobs. My class was mid-way between his first job and his second one. He got the work done, but, understandably, had trouble keeping his eyes open from 7:00pm to 9:30pm. I learned to let him sleep.
I learned by not asking–and regretting it–that the one student in the room who turned in hand-written papers no matter what I said to her was not being defiant. That she finally had to force me to understand—in the middle of a class—that she couldn’t afford a typewriter and certainly didn’t know anyone from whom she could borrow one was my fail. Thanks to her, I started to see my students as basically wonderful people who hoped for the best but dealt with lives, goals, stresses, joys and challenges that I needed to understand, even if only just a little. As one of Richard Byrne’s contributors said “Remember that every student has a strength but sometimes it takes a bit of searching” (slide 38). One of my student’s strengths turned out to be having the courage to teach me to stop drawing lines in the sand.
Keeping Yourself Fresh for the Classroom
Another friend of mine, who has been teaching little kids in a disadvantaged area in her home country for many years—kids with very difficult lives—, learned that “the small things keep you going.” She also said new teachers need to understand “that it is impossible to ever get everything done. You have to prioritize and say enough is enough and have a life outside of work.” One of Richard Byrne’s contributors, Ann Boylen, who also counseled new teachers to “enjoy your students” echoed my friend. She wrote “Do something for yourself every day after school that makes you happy” (slide 14). She goes on to advise new teachers “to learn how to end the school day.” That can sometimes be so difficult but finding time for yourself is important.
In the Online Classroom
In one of the courses I’m teaching online, I usually have a once-a-week opportunity to talk to my students. My weekly lecture is uninterrupted until the moderator takes over and raises the questions the students wanted to ask. But in the discussion forums I get to meet them all, so it’s there where I learn about their lives and their goals for the course.
In the WizIQ virtual classroom where I teach my own courses or contribute to the courses of other WizIQ teachers, it is much easier to get to know the learners who share my journey. There’s audio, video and the always lively chat, although, truth-be-told, sometimes all you know is where in the world they live, what time of the day it is, and what the weather is like outside their window. Still as a WizIQ course rolls out, it becomes easier and easier to empathize, to listen, to ponder on what life is like in their corner of the world, not to mention that wonderful realization that we are all so much alike. So Connie’s advice really resonates with me.
As for Alison’s, having the little kids play to learn in the old days is so in keeping with the current theories about active and project-based learning that swirl around us today. In my online courses, I find that it’s really important to set up activities to get folks playing to learn. Practicing their new-found skills, watching what other folks have built: These are two of the best ways of learning. In more text-oriented courses in which students read and discuss, it is sometimes hard to build in opportunities for active learning. It’s worth trying though: even for adults, putting play into the course is important. I know from my own experience that when I feel like I’m back in kindergarten, eager, excited, roaming around looking for something to create: then I feel like I’m really learning.
Finally, my friend who felt that making time for herself, understanding that not everything would fall into place, and that sometimes those small things were the best victories really had the key to how to make teaching a sustainable life’s work. You have to do your best, but you have to try not to be too hard on yourself as well. I know how that feels in an online classroom. You can set up a host of activities, encourage people to participate, make them feel welcome, but ultimately their own schedules, their own lives, their own goals are going to determine if this is the class they finish or not. If you’ve done the best you can, that’s all you can do. Then you need to take some time off for yourself to recharge.
A Last Word
[CC image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/gfes/]
Veteran teachers have a lot of advice for the rookies. And good advice is not only in the heads of your friends who have been around education as long as or longer than you have, it is also out there: on blogs, in downloadable reports, in videos on YouTube and all over the web.
In the old days, when I was starting out, it was a little harder to find that kind of advice. I drove my teaching friends, favorite professors, and my masters advisor crazy with questions. They all patiently gave me pointers. Now, because of our interconnected online world, we can all learn from everybody. So even as my hair gets grayer and my wrinkles get deeper, I am as excited about the years ahead of me as I was back in 1979. Sure, I am “walking” into a WizIQ live class now instead of a windowless basement classroom smelling of chalk and coffee; sure, the challenges are somewhat different, the techniques more technologically supported; but, trust me, the joy is the same.