Teaching can be such an alienating experience. I remember leaving the shelter of my undergraduate program and entering my very first teaching position. Suddenly, the expert voices that I had come to rely upon were gone. The friends that I shared my apartment and my student-teaching placement with had moved across the state. That first classroom full of students and my fabulous mentor-teacher? They became pages in a scrapbook……farewell cards tucked into a box that lives on a shelf inside my closet now.
When I began teaching, mentoring was not mandated, and identifying role models was something of a challenge. I worked in a private school that first year. I was teaching 11 different courses, and in preparation, I was provided four walls, twenty desks, a ten year-old text book series, and several groups of mostly eager students, excepting that little boy from Korea named Jung. He knew not one word of English and had just entered the country for the first time three weeks previous. I think he was the only person in the room more frightened than I was.
That year was probably the best learning experience of my life.
Those first students were my mentors in so many ways. Fifteen years later, I’ve taught several thousand more, I’d guess. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t remember some of their names. But the students from that first class? Well, I’ve remembered them all. Each and every one. They taught me so much.
My work with teachers has provided similar gifts, and my greatest realization has probably been this: admitting what I don’t know is just as important as sharing what I may know, keeping in mind that knowledge is rarely absolute. My first year in the classroom was a perfect demonstration of that. Had it not been for the help of my students and those teachers that I identified as mentors, our learning would not have been as successful as it was.
Teaching can be such an alienating experience. There is danger in this truth, and the fact of it sometimes forces educators out of the field. When I left the classroom and began my work in staff development, I had yet to fully realize the importance of community in the process of learning. My professional relationships with select teachers who were just as passionate as I was sustained me more than I knew at the time. In recent years, my personal learning networks have grown. My colleagues have shaped my understandings and enabled me to do better work than I ever would have been able to do alone. This is where I thrive professionally: in collaboration with others. I may train teachers, but ironically, I’m not most comfortable at the front of the room. I feel happiest inside the circle. I’m discovering that placing myself here allows me to do better work as a staff developer as well, and this understanding has led to a tremendous shift in my own practices.
We all know that professional development that leads to sustained change isn’t merely about the content we intend teachers to learn. It’s about inclusion. It’s about exploring and attending to resistance. It’s about listening. It’s about conversation and struggle and coming to know….together. As a result, it’s messy and uncomfortable and it demands reflective practice. All of this takes more time. It also requires greater vision than one person alone can possess. As educators, our best work is done collectively. When we’re surrounded by professionals who are willing to share their expertise and challenge our assumptions, we grow. Our work improves. We serve kids better.
This is how I like to learn. It’s how I like to work, too. But something has been missing.
In recent years, I’ve become very interested in the power that assessment provides us. Assessment is different from testing, as many know, and when it comes to improving student performance, much has been said about the need for better and more frequent assessment. Recently, I’ve become interested in the role that assessment might play in improving my own work as a professional development provider. Building solid initiatives around identified needs, defining what improvement might look like, and measuring my own performance and the success of the initiative against this definition is something that I am eager to do with far greater consistency than my previous experiences have afforded me. I believe that formative assessment should guide the work that all teachers do, including the work delivered by those of us who happen to teach teachers.
This is what has motivated me to become a Communities for Learning Fellow. The invitation to join this community could not have come at a better time. Learning more about this, determining how it would look in my own practice, and accepting the guidance of others within a supportive community practice will be incredibly rewarding. I hope that I am able to contribute as much to others, truth be told. I’ll be spending next week at the Summer Institute, beginning work on the baseline portion of a portfolio that will allow me to document my professional growth throughout the year. I’m looking forward to five solid days of reflection, conversation, and goal-setting around a long-term initiative that I will be starting shortly.
Teaching can be such an alienating experience. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. There is opportunity all around us. Everyone is a teacher. Joining this community has reminded of that, and I’m grateful to have a place within the circle again.