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Response: The Best Teaching Advice, Part Two

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What is a one-to-three sentence passage have you read -- in a book, online, magazine, etc. -  OR something that you were told or heard that has had a major impact on your teaching?


In Part One, Rita Platt, Fred Ende, Arpine Ovsepyan, Rachael George and Cindi Rigsbee contributed their thoughts. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Fred, Arpine and Rachael on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Roxanna Elden, Esther Wu, Timothy D. Walker, Vance Austin, and Kirke Olson share their suggestions.

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She also speaks at events around the country, providing training and support for teachers and sharing a teacher's eye view on a variety of education issues:

One of the most popular phrases on teachers' lounge posters is a quote by William Butler Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

When we think of the type of teachers we hope to be, we often imagine lighting a spark students' minds that has never been lit before. At least this was the way I pictured it, as a high school student dreaming of a future career as a teacher.

Later, as a high school English teacher with a few years under my belt, I sometimes found myself wondering why this quote didn't ring true anymore. One day, during a conversation with a science teacher, I realized why.

At some point, the conversation turned to scientific discussion of fire, and the science teacher pointed out that a fire needs more than just a spark. (Actually, since he's a science teacher, he didn't say spark. He used the term "energy source.") From a scientific perspective, a spark is useless without substrate, burnable material like wood or gas that fuels the fire.

During this conversation, I realized that this is also true in teaching. Some days, we do provide the spark and get to watch that flame flare up before our eyes.

Other days, however, we just teach kids their multiplication tables. We grade spelling tests. We coach basketball for a bunch of kids who will never be in the NBA and might not even win a middle school championship.

The days when we worry we're not lighting a spark can be the most frustrating. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves, however, that on those days we're doing something just as important.

We're laying down fuel that might one day, with the right spark, catch fire.

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Response From Esther Wu

Esther Wu is an English teacher at Mountain View High School in Mountain View, California and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC), a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

"Students will float to the mark you set."

~Mike Rose from "Lives on the Boundary"

I read "Lives on the Boundary" the summer before getting my credential.  My heart pounded when "Students will float to the mark you set" leapt off the page into my conscience.  Rose's words dared me to consider what kind of teacher I wanted to be.  Was I going to set the mark for learning based on first impressions and institutionalized measures like GPA and standardized test scores?  Or was I going to set the mark for excellence for everyone and support all students to meet it regardless of their educational history, disenchantment, or insecurities?

Nine years later, Rose's words still serve as my North Star whenever I find myself slipping into complacency, cynicism, or despair.  I've learned that when excellence is the mark set for all my students, they meet it.   I don't let their complaining about how hard something is or how they can't do it fool me.  They're teenagers.  They're wired to complain and they'll meet the mark if you help them.

This goes for teachers, too.  As the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) has shown me, teachers will float to the mark you set.  The ILC's mark?  Deliver ongoing, teacher-driven professional development supporting all California teachers with the implementation of the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.  Sounds impossible, right?  Well, here we are two years into the project, with over 39,000 educators served in 356 California school districts by 284 ILC teachers, administrators, and project coordinators.  We haven't reached all yet, but we're getting there.

So the next time I need to set or meet the mark in teaching, I remember the incredible growth we make when the mark is high.  I celebrate the progress we've made and gear up to do it all over again.

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Response From Timothy D. Walker

Timothy D. Walker is the author of Teach Like Finland and an American teacher living in Finland. He has written extensively about his experiences for Education WeekEducational Leadership, and on his blog, "Taught by Finland." He is a contributing writer on education issues for The Atlantic. He lives in Helsinki:

In my first year of teaching in the Boston area, I heard a mantra from a mentor teacher that I haven't forgotten: "The person who does the work does the learning."

When I recall that first year of teaching, I cringe; I used to talk until the cows come home, usually while sitting on the rug with my first graders. "I'm learning a lot this year," I told a veteran co-teacher after school one afternoon.

"Sure," she said, "but how much are the students learning?"

That question stung, because the answer was clear as day to me--my students, sitting and listening on the rug most of the day, weren't learning much at all. To reverse this, I knew I needed to give up the "sage on the stage" routine. So I started experimenting, beginning in American classrooms and then in Finnish classrooms, with the aim of getting my students to do more of the learning.

Once, I set a goal of having mini-lessons no longer than 10-minutes and brought a stop-watch to class. In just a few days, I found that those shorter lessons now felt comfortable, and my students were having significantly more time--after the mini-lesson--to learn through doing.

After several years of teaching in American schools, I moved to Finland, where the old mantra took on new meaning. As a fifth grade teacher at a Helsinki public school, I was drawn to visit classrooms I wasn't used to seeing in America: wood-working, textiles, and home-economics. And every time I dropped into one of these classrooms, I found students working hard and learning well. I discovered my colleagues working like coaches, offering support and feedback as needed.

In Finland, inspired by several of my Finnish colleagues, I started to see myself more as a coach with my fifth graders, which meant that my students could see themselves more as learners. For example, during writing units, I started to devote almost entire 45-minute blocks to the act of pure writing; I would sit in a chair in the classroom, and my students--who had individual writing projects--could request a conference with me whenever they needed help. (There was a section on the board for them to write down their names.)

Through this simple change of giving my Helsinki students even more time to work, I began to see encouraging signs. I was more active than ever in supporting them individually. (That section on the board was usually crowded with names, and, sometimes, my students would even request to meet with me outside of lessons!) I also started to notice that my students were becoming active in seeking support from each other. Overall, they seemed much more invested as learners.

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Response From Kirke Olson

Kirke Olson, Psy.D. is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. He has taught and been working in public and private schools for nearly 40 years from the preschool through the high school levels using research on human relationships, neuroscience, and mindfulness to educate even the most complex students. He is author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness in Schools:

"...he sees that the beach around her is littered with starfish, and she is throwing them one by one into the sea. He lightly mocks her: 'There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see... What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?' Smiling, she bends down and once more tosses a starfish into the water, saying serenely, 'It certainly makes a difference to this one.'"

Contemplating this simple yet profound story healed my burnout. It didn't happen in a blinding flash, but it launched a deeply satisfying journey. At the end of each day thinking of my work as a contribution rather than as either a "success" or a "failure" freed me and opened my heart. On the way home from school I review my day and be buoyed by images of the little things I've done with my students: greeting them by name at the doorway; the look in a student's eye when she "got it"; a funny comment from one student; a smile from another as he sat down in my classroom. I admit to feeling defeated on my nightly commute when I have assessed my day in terms of success or failure. It brings to mind negative images, because my mind drifts to the small failures.

Seeing your job as making a contribution creates two formative assessment questions--what have I contributed today? What might I contribute tomorrow? Answering the former as I drive home has become my bulwark against the car radio rants of media "experts" relentlessly criticizing schools. You see, making a contribution unfolds entirely within the relationship with your students and colleagues; it's measured only in that context. The scores on statewide testing or a performance review by my principal cannot answer these questions, only internal reflection can answer them. Making a contribution can involve surprising things--for example: calling or emailing that difficult parent helps me be a contribution to the life of my troubled student; being there for my fellow teacher as he cries about his struggles with a troublesome class makes me a contribution to his life. Being a contribution has no downside, whereas being a successful teacher always carries the possibility of being an unsuccessful teacher.

The husband and wife team of Rosamund Zander, a family therapist, and Benjamin Zander conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, offer the above story in their book The Art of Possibility (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, p. 55). Benjamin Zander is an amazing teacher and if you have not recently seen his 2008 TED talk, it is inspirational to experience a teacher being a contribution

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Response From Vance Austin

Vance Austin, PhD, a special education teacher, behavior management specialist, author of Difficult Students and Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom, and professor at Manhattanville College, lives in Port Chester, NY:

I have never forgotten the very brief but poignant commencement address delivered by a professor emeritus at a small parochial college in the northeastern U.S. in 1975. I have tried, in vain, for several years to identify the speaker and credit him with the following words of wisdom, which are relevant to students and educators of every stripe and are as meaningful today as they were 41 years ago.

The following is my best recollection:

Dear [Graduates],

I offer you three words to remember as you go out into the world: "forgive," "forget," and "get your hands dirty [in the service of others]."

Forgive those who have slighted you in any way, misinformed, discouraged you; put all bitterness and resentment aside. Only carry optimism, goodwill, and passion with you as you travel into your future.

Forget some of the "facts" you have crammed into your brains in favor of retaining the wisdom and universal "truths" imparted by your favorite teachers. Forget the hurtful words spoken in the heat of passion by friends and colleagues. Forget to hate, pay back, and get even. Forget the pronouncements of the naysayers who said you could never achieve anything worthwhile.

Get your hands dirty in the service of others. Use your gifts, talents, and knowledge to serve humanity, to better your world, to bring a little joy and hope where there is only despair. You were made to serve others, do it to the best of your ability and I promise you a full measure of happiness and contentment.

Thank you for giving me these few minutes to share my thoughts with you. Now go out into your world and make a difference!

Wise words to live by for teachers and students alike!

Thanks to Roxanna, Esther, Timothy, Vance and Kirke for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

Author Interviews

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days...

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