The Best Teachers Are Learners
This blog post is the first of a blog series called “The Best Teachers are…”
Teaching is the art of using science, passion, showmanship, people skills, and creativity to foster an environment that is conducive to optimal learning. How is this done? Well, that is a question that has been up for debate for literal centuries. Whether you’re team Montessori or Waldorf, use a teacher-centered approach or student-centered approach, prefer inquiry-based learning or find inspiration from a little bit of everything.. There is one feature that all great teachers possess: a love of learning.
The reality is that teaching is an ever-evolving art form. And as the world around us constantly changes, the delivery methods of effective teaching must change with it. Nothing is more stifling than a breathless teaching approach that lacks relevance.
Teachers that love learning never lack relevance. They read up on the latest pedagogical approaches. They attend workshops in an attempt to discover new ways to engage their students. They explore articles and blog posts, they are part of Facebook groups with other teachers, and their appetite for teacher resources is never satiated. By doing this, they guarantee to always deliver germane lessons that excite students.
Let’s look at a real world example. In a yoga for educators class I am partaking in this summer (via zoom now due to the pandemic), one of our oldest participants is a woman three years shy of retirement. She has taken all the necessary coursework to stay in her position. There are far easier ways for her to gain the required PDPs she needs for the current school year. And frankly, this woman has enough experience in the classroom that she could run her own workshop on teaching! So why is she taking this class? She wants to find new ways to engage the kinesthetic learners of her kindergarten class. This 62 year old woman is down on the floor every class with the 20 and 30-somethings. She is learning new poses and taking rigorous notes. This woman is my hero. She has not mailed-it-in and still values every learner.
The Risk of Not Changing
The danger of educators without a thirst for learning how to reinvigorate their craft is ten-fold. Firstly, you run the obvious risk of becoming a boring teacher. Why is this so dangerous? Because the way we deliver our content impacts how students retain information. Everyone’s seen the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller, do you think the students in that class remember anything about Voodoo economics?
Secondly, educators that don’t stay “in-the-know,” can teach students using outdated or even detrimental methodologies. In the 1990s, praise as a tool in the classroom was cutting-edge. The self-esteem movement was all the rage. Since its inception, we’ve actually learned that too much praise can be harmful, and there are specific means of praising students required in order to effectively motivate positive behavior, effort, and learning. A teacher of 30 years that hasn’t opened a book since college would never learn of these developments in the study of classroom praise. And what’s worse, they wouldn’t know the inimical implications of over-praising, unfocused praise, or exclusively using directive praise with students.
The list of outdated methodologies is miles long. Modern foreign language educators know that students are more likely to acquire fluency through reading and discussion than endless verb conjugations. History teachers know that fostering historical-thinking skills will better equip students to draw the connections between the past and present than rote memorization of dates. Music educators know that teaching intervals within melodic phrases is more effective than teaching isolated intervals.
The evidence is clear: teachers must continue learning if they want to stay up to date on the latest teaching methods.
I love learning new things about my subject matter. Currently, I’m in a vocal pedagogy class where weekly we discuss the newest science on the art of teaching singing. Every week, I find absolute thrill in applying the science I’ve learned to my voice students. And my excitement is contagious!
Great educators learn so that they can share what they’ve learned with their students. And their excitement bubbles over and inspires their students to get excited about learning. Teachers that engage in learning about their craft, their students, or the subject they teach are going to inspire year after year.
The Risk of Not Inspiring
Much like the risk of not changing, teachers that don’t get inspired by new material become stale. What’s worse, they struggle to connect with their students. They become unrelatable. Inspiration keeps teachers relevant!
Let’s look at two case studies to illustrate this point...
Case Study 1: Imagine you are a musical theatre teacher in 2020. You run a musical theater class where you work on ensemble numbers from different Broadway shows. Your students love all showtunes, but they’re excited about Beetlejuice, Mean Girls, and Hadestown right now. You’ve never heard of those musicals, you don’t desire to learn about them because they are unfamiliar. Instead, when you choose the repertoire for the class, you pick musicals that you personally enjoy… Rent, Hairspray, and Les Miserables. The result? Your students have fun, but they don’t really get excited. Eventually, they find another class that is doing the classics alongside some of their favorites.
Case Study 2: Imagine you are a still musical theatre teacher in 2020. Just as above, you run a musical theater class where you work on ensemble numbers from different Broadway shows. Your students, much like those in the class of the the teacher above, love all showtunes. But they’re excited about Beetlejuice, Mean Girls, and Hadestown right now. You’ve never heard of those musicals, and instead of avoiding these shows you take some time to listen to the cast recordings and watch a couple scenes on Youtube. You find a video of “Where Do You Belong?” from Mean Girls and decide to incorporate this ensemble number into your class. With Mean Girls as your inspiration, you choose to make the theme of your class “cliques,” and include “Amayzing Mayzie” from Seussical and “Pick-a-little Talk-a-Little” from The Music Man to fit with the theme. The result? Your students are inspired by a teacher that understands what’s “cool” to them. Because you’ve shown an interest in their interests, they are more receptive to pieces from different eras of musical theater they are less familiar with. Not only does the culture of the class improve, but the students are more engaged and invested. In the long term, the students will stick with your class because they see a part of themselves in the curriculum.
This is the power of relevant and inspired teaching! It transforms a class from something passive and indolent to something dynamic and robust!
Obstacles to Learning
With such discernible benefits to the craft, one would think that every teacher would be eager to learn and grow. Most are! However, some face some obstacles that prevent them from fully investing in learning.
Obstacle 1: Fear and Insecurity
Surprisingly, many educators are not school people. They love their students and they love teaching, but they haven’t had positive experiences in a traditional classroom setting. Fear of failure and insecurity over their perceived academic shortcomings prevents them from feeling safe enough to put themselves out there.
Obstacle 2: Doing What’s Comfortable
As the expression goes, “if ain’t broke don’t fix it.” And what feels comfortable appears to not require "fixin’." Unfortunately, as we’ve already discussed, unwillingness to change has its own repercussions and stretching yourself out of your comfort zone is necessary for optimal teaching.
Obstacle 3: Complacency
Good teaching is hard work! And a lot of times, mailing-it-in is just plain easier.
Obstacle 4: Financial Constraints
Workshops, training, and college courses are all expensive. It’s hard to invest in your education when you’re just making ends meet.
Obstacle 5: Exhaustion
Teaching is exhausting. And so are the many other hats educators wear... as parents, spouses, caretakers, and more. Who can add one more thing to the table?
Facing the Obstacles
Every teacher is human. And obstacles to learning are a reality of being human. While it’s impossible to cater to every educator’s personal experiences and therefore properly address their obstacles, this section hopes to address them with generally.
Overcoming Obstacles 1-3
Obstacles related to fear, doing what’s comfortable, or complacency are all related to unhealthy personal relationships with learning. The only way to overcome these obstacles is through mental and emotional “stretching.” And stretching only happens when we recognize the barriers that keep us in fear, comfort, or complacency.
Dr. Ilana Nankin, education scholar, describes the three zones where individuals find themselves in the conquest or avoidance of learning. Those in fear are in the “panic zone,” unable to function because of their own mental and emotional barricades. Those who choose comfort and complacency would be in the comfort zone, sticking with what’s familiar for a variety of reasons.
Since we've established that stretching is necessary to overcome this obstacle, here are some questions to ask to stretch yourself into the learning zone:
- Why am I afraid of learning? Do I think that I will fail? How could I fail?
- Do I believe I’m not smart enough to learn something new?
- Am I comparing myself to others, that I believe are “smarter” than me? Do others intimidate me from learning?
- What makes the comfort zone so appealing? Do I have positive experiences from content learned in the comfort zone? What am I afraid of losing if I step out of the comfort zone?
It’s extremely hard to reflect so vulnerably. But the benefits are worth the stretching. Teachers that are intentional to discover the deep rooted reasons behind learning blockades will find freedom in acknowledging them and working through them.
Overcoming Obstacle 4
In the era of globalization, knowledge is at everyone’s fingertips. Even if an educator does not have the financial means to attend formal classes or workshops, they can learn and research via infinite resources online. The key is finding the credible sources.
Tips for finding credible sources:
1. Look for an author and study their credentials.
Credible work will be penned or vlogged by someone that wants people to know they created it! Look for an author/contributor and read their bio if possible.
2. Make sure the article or video is relatively new.
As we’ve already indicated, the art of teaching is constantly evolving. Try to limit yourself to studying up on material that’s 1-5 years old.
If self-study is not something that interests an educator, there are other strategies to fund learning. Asking school administrators to pay for a portion or all of a new training program is more than reasonable, especially if the program will improve school or classroom culture. Another option is to ask the host of a learning opportunity for a payment plan or scholarship. You don’t know unless you ask! Finally, if something truly catches the heart or inspiration of an educator, long-term saving plans can eventually make dreams come true. Save a few dollars a week!
Overcoming Obstacle 5
Obstacle 5 is the hardest obstacle of all. Overworked and spread thin teachers often lack the motivation to do anything extra. But in this situation, I challenge us to rethink how we define learning. Learning can happen through a variety of modalities, and it’s not exclusive to daunting homework regiments and hours of reading pedagogical philosophy.
Learning can occur while watching a 2 minute video. Learning can occur while learning mindfulness approaches that ease stress for an educator. Learning can occur by being a part of Facebook Groups with like-minded educators and learning through discussion. Learning doesn’t have to be stressful!
When learning is redefined as something fun, and when educators explore even tiny integrants of their passions, learning becomes self-care. And everyone, even busy teachers, deserve me-time.
The intent of “The Best Teachers Are..” series is not to condemn, but inspire educators to extend and achieve their full potential. If this post moves individuals in any way, my hope is that it encourages them to always seek out a growth mindset. As we outwardly shape young minds, may we look inward as well in order to shape ourselves.