Wednesday / May 22

The Gift of Beginning

Weeks of 16-hour days, endless re-arranging of furniture, and final decisions about bathroom passes and rules for pencil sharpening—all were about to pay off.

I was so tired from spending so much time preparing for my students, I wasn’t even really that nervous on my first day as a fifth grade teacher. I had scripted out everything I would say in the first hour of the day and then planned the rest of the day in five-minute increments. I knew the first day was essential for setting the tone for the rest of the year, and I could not wait to have students join me in the classroom space I had spent so long preparing.

The Gift of Beginning

This Polaroid picture, the one taken by the department secretary of every graduating education major, was taken a few months before my first day of teaching. I may have looked like a 13-year-old in an over-sized shirt, but I was earnest.

The picture is now over 20 years old. When I look back, I cringe at the many cringeworthy moments that occurred during my first attempts as a real teacher, but I also long for that energy, enthusiasm, and hopefulness. As I start my 21st year in education, here are three takeaways that allow me to tap into that energy at the start of another year:

Transparent Practice

Being honest requires us to overcome fear. We don’t want to be vulnerable or show weakness as teachers. However, if we aren’t honest with ourselves about what’s working and what’s not, we cannot grow. This requires transparent practice where we invite others into our work. This can take the form of reciprocal observation, where we invite others to observe us and we observe them, but it can also be as simple as inviting feedback from students or reflecting on the success of a lesson or day.

Failure and struggle can be good, but only if we learn from them. It was easier to struggle and fail as a brand new teacher because I was not expected to know much, but I can still do this if I humbly embrace my role as a learner.

Visible Learning, not Fake Teaching

My first year, I did a lot of “fake teaching.” My prairie unit was a prime example of fake teaching. I was teaching in Illinois, so we celebrate our natural wonder, the prairie—large expanses of flat land covered by un-mowed grass. As an entire class, we read a somewhat banal novel about a girl living on the prairie, we studied various types of prairie grasses in science, and we had “Prairie Day.” We came to school, dressed as “prairie people” and did prairie types of activities.

All of this could have been beneficial to learning if learning would have been the focus. However, I was focused on what I was doing and whether or not students were busy and having fun. I found myself trying to figure out how to give my students grades for their work rather than assessing their learning.

John Hattie has written extensively on visible learning, and I find his suggestions to be a useful remedy to fake teaching. We maximize learning when we see teaching from the perspective of students and students see their own learning as teachers themselves. Receiving feedback from students and giving feedback to them is vital to real teaching and learning.

Not About Us

Implicit in visible learning is the reminder that learning is not primarily about teachers. Learning is about the learners. As teachers, we create the conditions and opportunities for learning to occur and then provide feedback on how to continue to make progress. If we view teaching and learning in this way, then teaching is never dull. It is not about teaching the same content for the 25th year in a row. It is about facilitating the learning of the human beings with whom we share a classroom space over the next school year.

According to poet Wendell Berry, “We are either beginning, or we are dead.” Parker Palmer adds, “I am a novice in every new moment of the day, each of which presents possibilities unknown and untried.”

As we approach our first day with students, let this be our approach – not just for the first day, but every day of the school year.

Written by

Jonathan Eckert was a public school teacher outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years. He earned his doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Currently, he is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College where he prepares teachers and returns regularly to teach in the district where his career began. In addition to leading professional development across the country, he has published numerous peer-reviewed and practitioner articles on teaching effectiveness and education policy.

Jon is the author of The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher.

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