What Does It Take To Become a Better Teacher?

When I was about 12, my beloved 5th- and 6th-grade teacher Mrs. Zeuloff commented to our class how terrible a teacher she had been her first year. She added that she would be surprised if her first class of students had learned anything at all. I don’t remember much about those pre-pubescent years, but I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the classroom (back row, left) at the time this happened, and my shock and confusion over her words. Mrs. Zeuloff was a marvelous teacher!  I loved her!  What did she mean,  and why or how had she changed?

The contrast between my experience as her student and her self-reflection has stayed with me for decades. I remembered it forcefully during my early years of teaching, as I struggled with classroom organization and management while simultaneously trying to develop curricula that met local, state, and professional standards and addressed individually the diverse skills, interests, and experiences students brought in with them, using the resources I had on hand (or could borrow or steal.) Ten years after a favorite teacher expressed a truth I couldn’t comprehend, I lived that same worry.

I still look back on my own first years of teaching and see the faces of specific students that I lacked strategies to effectively support. I regret the instructional practices that I now know were inadequate, despite the fact that during those first years of teaching, I regularly stayed at school until 8 or 9 pm at night. Of course, I now think about some of the things I spent my time on, and the tasks I required students to do, and wish I could go back and redesign my early teaching. I enrolled in graduate school mainly  because I didn’t know how to help my students who were struggling with literacy, especially those who were labeled learning disabled. What good was it to be the “inclusion teacher” if I lacked strategies to effectively support them?  I never turned down professional development or rejected suggestions for my teaching. I even asked my assigned mentor to come in and observe, only to be told, “Well, we don’t really do that here. You’ll figure it out. Each teacher needs to find her own way.”

I did what I thought was best and used all the skills and resources at my disposal. I probably wasn’t a very good teacher, but fortunately for me, no one wanted to fire me or reduce my salary based upon my students' achievement, and gradually, through further study, experience, and finding mentors and colleagues who wanted to collaborate and talk about practice, I believe I did improve my teaching and my ability to help students.

My experience as a teacher—who still today recognizes the need to learn and improve—influences how I work with the Literacy in Learning Exchange editorial team to design this site. Our goal is to provide the resources and support to help you improve your literacy instruction and collaborate with others around problems of practice. Here are several ways you might want to step into the learning opportunities of the Exchange site this week:

  • Look at the existing Exchange Groups and find one to “follow.”  Given my current interest in engaging families and communities, I’m following the Rowland Unified School District Community Mapping & Family Literacy team. One of the members of this group, by the way, has contributed a vignette sharing details of their work.
  • Read about how Nogales High School in California is using Learning Walks to create shared agreements about good instruction that lead to both collective and individual instructional improvements.
  • Post a question about practice in the Discussion Forum and engage in conversation with educators from across the country about a question or issue of interest to you.
  • Click on the Resource tab and search for a literacy topic that you are working on. Just today I was reviewing the Gradual Release of Responsibility Rubricdeveloped by teachers in Northview, Michigan, and Sarasota, Florida, based upon their collaboration with Doug Fisher. It provides a useful framework for examining the kinds of structures that all learners—teachers and students—need to support their learning.
  • Form a group yourself. If you'd like help to do this, use the contact button to request assistance and Community Facilitator Lara Hebert will get in touch with you. Anyone who would like a more in-depth tour of the Exchange website and its features may sign up for an online Exchange tour that Lara will host on August 27th.


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