By Teachers, For Teachers
As teachers we naturally inspire growth, improvement, and mastery of skills in our students. If our students leave our class at the end of the year in the exact same condition as when they entered, then we have failed to a certain degree in living up to our responsibility as educators.
But these same factors apply to us as teachers as well. If we end our careers in the exact same condition as when we started, then what have we learned? Have we improved at all? Would we assume that we didn’t need to improve or adapt as teachers?
The only safe assumption teachers can make about their own growth, improvement, professional development, and mastery is that they’ll always need to actively focus on them. Teachers – like any other professional – must strive to get better at their craft year after year. Teachers, for the sake of their students, must make sure that they continually work towards achieving a better version of themselves. They must learn from their mistakes, actively connect to sources that educate them, and move toward applying new techniques and concepts in their classrooms.
If teachers actively focus on their own self-improvement, then they are doubtlessly turning themselves into better educators who inevitably benefit their students more each year. And there are three critical steps all educators need to take that will inevitably lead to success: Self-Reflection, Customized Professional Development, and Practice.
Imagine an aspiring golfer who slices his drives every time. He steps up, swings his club, and the ball sails to the right. He may curse the ball, slam his club, march around angrily, and perform other frustration rituals … but then he steps back up to the next ball and sends another ball far off course again.
What’s wrong here?
The golfer fails and fails again because of what happens between Attempt #1 and Attempt #2. Or rather, of what doesn’t happen. Even though he is obviously dissatisfied with the result of his swing, he does nothing between swings to correct his error. He gets angry, but makes no effort to figure out what he did wrong.
Our teaching can sometimes feel this way. Maybe a unit, a class period, or a whole year doesn’t quite go how we hoped it would. But what’s our response? Do we get angry, yell at the students, blame our administration or co-workers, or give up? Is Attempt #2 identical to Attempt #1?
Self-reflection is the first critical step to inevitable self-improvement. Self-reflection is that pause that happens between doing something and doing it again, when an introverted examination points out weakness, strengths, and adjustments necessary to making improvements.
Self-reflection is like a muscle in the brain; and like any muscle, it needs to be exercised. Think about yourself and your abilities. Think about how your lessons went. Think about how a unit of instruction went. Think about how your interaction with a student or a whole class went. Think about how a year went. Think about your students and their abilities, successes, shortcomings, and areas that need addressing. In short, think about as much of yourself, your students, and your classroom that you can. And then ask yourself that critical question: “How can I make this better next time?”
When you do that, you’re guaranteed to identify a few aspects of your discipline that you can take steps to improve on.
Also consider utilizing many of the tools of self-reflection. Try some of the following techniques:
Self-reflection is the first step toward inevitable improvement. But you cannot stop there. If all you do is think about the past, you’re not guaranteed to make strides in the future.
Teachers must continually educate themselves. Each year offers its own lessons, and each school provides its own methods of staff development. But ultimately if a teacher wants to inevitably improve, then they must devote toward customizing their own professional development.
Often, teachers wait for their school to provide them with “the professional development they need.” But that era of professional development has passed. There are so many opportunities available for teachers, and the teacher who is committed to improving is the teacher who leads himself or herself to the exact resources needed for development.
Traditional Professional Development. When it comes to professional development, teachers have often relied on several of the following elements:
Each of the above traditional methods is still extremely worthwhile. But at the same time, they come with certain limitations. They cost money, are limited to certain times and places, deal with content that may or may not pertain, and connect teachers to a restricted number of resources. While taking advantage of traditional professional development opportunities, the effective teacher can also more thoroughly customize their self-education with new, digital resources.
New Professional Development. Several newer, technology-based opportunities have emerged within recent years. Consider how you might further customize your professional growth with any of these opportunities:
When it comes to professional development, there are too many resources out there with too many customizable options for teachers to sit back and wait to be told what to learn. Teachers who want to experience inevitable improvement must connect themselves to the resources that fit their needs and their schedule.
The above two elements of inevitable growth are essential. But reflection and professional development exist only in the teacher’s mind: They are just thinking and learning. If a teacher really wants to improve, then this last step is critical. Teachers must continually apply what they’re learning in real ways in their classroom. Once they are educated with new ideas, they needs to make sure to experiment and practice their methods without fear of failure.
Experimentation and practice in the classroom allow teachers to try out new techniques of educating their students. The students then stand the chance at being benefitted by their teacher’s improved instructional methods. As the teacher continues to experiment year after year, they inevitably find the most dynamic, effective ways of reaching their students.
Self-reflection, professional development, experimentation. Self-reflection, professional development, experimentation … and on and on until retirement.
When a teacher self-reflects, they lead themselves to resources to learn from. And after learning, they apply their new knowledge. And after applying it, they reflect on how it went. Over and over again the teacher is a vicious machine of inevitable growth. These three dynamic areas of self-improvement are critical for teachers to continually master their craft. And it’s equally critical that schools foster an environment that encourages this cycle that helps educators to get better year after year.
How do you approach any of these three components of inevitable growth? What’s your secret to self-improvement as a teacher? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.