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Engagement, Opinion, Teaching

Professional Learning Begins and End with Ourselves

Ten things that I've learned after a career of teaching

Researchers such as David Hunt and John Hattie , along with my own experiences, have shaped this post about what makes teacher development work from initial teacher education through to the end of a decades-long career. Being close to career’s end, I often think about “What if I knew then what I know now”. Since I cannot reverse time I can only offer some ideas for those who may follow me.

I accept a characteristic of good teaching espoused by Hattie by striving to develop a mindset that relentlessly pursues student learning and looks for evidence of my impact on your students. In my career I have done this in a number of ways. Here are some examples:

  • Early in my teaching I had students watch a video in an old-fashioned science lab where they were jammed together in pairs. I noted that if I let them work together on doing the typical “20 questions worksheet”, more students got more of the answers. A few years later, inspired by an idea from a workshop, I had students do peer editing prior to submitting their essays. The resulting increase in quality was amazing!
  •  Years later with more experience on what students typically found challenging in certain types of assignments, I would outline specific challenges in completing them—not to be confused with “teaching to the test”. Once again, students improved their work as they did when we used a variety of exemplars they would examine and critique. They were good at seeing quality though they needed lots of help in understanding why something was outstanding, OK or inadequate.

 TEN THINGS THAT I’VE LEARNED AFTER A CAREER OF TEACHING:

  1. Keep an ear open to what colleagues say about teaching, and not just those who agree with you. At the same time, avoid the “tales from the trenches” or “toxic talk” about “bad” students.
  2. Done well, both student teachers and their school mentors can gain insights about their students. When you watch them in action and not stuck at the front of the room trying to manage things, they do get a different look and perhaps insights into their strengths or struggles.
  3. Take every opportunity to watch other colleagues teach. This includes veterans who have a good reputation from students as well as teachers of non-academic subjects such as music, art, drama, and athletics. I learned a lot from coaching in my early years of teaching such as the value of teamwork and the importance of specific criteria for success and quality feedback. 
  4. I am now learning a great deal more about teaching and learning from taking improvisational theatre classes. Putting me back into the mind of a learner helps me resist the “curse of knowledge” in which we take for granted student understanding since we know so much that learners may not understand. We too easily forget what is like when we learn new things. Just because their heads nod when you tell students something does not mean they get it. In improvisational theatre the power of listening and observing, being “real”, working with colleagues, and “yes and” instead of “but” are powerful invitations for students to learn. As some student-teachers shared in a class this past February, catching students doing “good” can be a better management tool than reacting to “inappropriate behaviour” if your goal is to change students.
  5. When I taught high school social science, my Grade 11 classes and I would do little experiments as part of our unit on socialization and learning. Perhaps it was an example of the famous “Hawthorne Effect”, but we learned about learning.  Decades later when I taught Additional Qualifications courses for teachers, I used an “action research” model in which teachers and their students tried out ideas for improving learning based on their own experiences and felt needs rather than on any “agenda” I had.
  6. Whenever we do professional learning and regardless of the form it takes –courses, conferences, workshops, TED Talks, etc. – recognize that there are no magic bullets. Ask the tough questions, connect the “new thing” with what you already do, and be honest with yourself. Test things out with a class and a unit with which you are comfortable and can recover if it bombs.
  7. Those of us who deliver a lot of PD with teachers also have an obligation to make ideas clear and do a better job of linking theory to practice. This often means providing a context for a change as well as a clear rationale. From there we model it, have participants do the same and check for understanding.
  8. Instead of ending the session and subsequently going our separate ways, offer opportunities for participant feedback and encourage follow-up via email. What happens when the “new thing” is tried out in a real school with real students?
  9. Another powerful tool for maximizing our impact comes from inviting feedback from students and listening to them. Whenever I get to work with students, this is usually the first thing they want from me—”listen to us, please”. If students bring ideas and experiences from their lived experiences we have the obligation to help them make sense of these and organize them for their benefit as well as society’s as they grow towards adulthood and fully participation as citizens.
  10. As our connections with our students develop, we can involve them as much as possible in shaping units and lessons, choosing topics for investigation, and setting assessment criteria for assignments; I first got interested in multicultural studies in general and Black history in particular when a couple of Grade 10 students of Caribbean background wanted to do a project looking at the history of Blacks in Canada. They were good students and it was near the end of the course, and in the 1970s I provided for independent research projects based on topics of interest and relevant to the course. Black history related to Canadian history but it was my students who showed me just how much.

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR PROFESSIONAL LEARNING?

If you want to learn as a teacher, do not begin with an educational “expert” though they have a role to play. Begin with yourself and the mindset you bring to teaching and learning. Or as John Hattie says: “Know thy impact.”

Meet the Expert

John J C Myers

Currently a curriculum instructor in social studies and general teaching strategies, John has worked from Grades three to adult in four provinces and three countries over four decades. Current interests include exploring innovative yet practical ways to teach and assess using familiar strategies (co-operative learning) and helping busy teachers make sense of all the ideas thrown at them.

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