Overarching Educational Truths -
As we settle into this new school year, I am once again reminded that working in schools is one of the most exhilarating, rewarding and demanding jobs that exists. While we interact closely with young people and provide them with a high-quality, broad education there are some overarching truths that can guide our efforts. By no means is this an exhaustive list. I know each of you could add something significant based on your experience and insight. Following are a few principles that have given me direction:
- Know Your Students – Certainly, knowing your subject matter is critical! However, that by itself does not guarantee success. Influential teachers develop a genuine interest in young people and a corresponding willingness to get to know students on a level that goes beyond a first-name last-name basis. When we know students well, we know the extent of the demands that we can make upon them. We know something of their talents and abilities, as well as their likes and dislikes. This allows us to lead them into learning activities with reasonable hope of success. We also know the kind of feedback that will inspire and motivate rather than crush and defeat.
- Know How Learning Takes Place – The most effective educators understand how learning takes place and then teach in ways that honor best practice. Through daily actions, they are the living embodiment of the notion that all children can learn. They understand, paraphrasing John Dewey, that kids don’t learn the basics by memorizing facts about the basics. Rather, they learn the basics by engaging in meaningful projects that require the effective use of the basics. I’m always thrilled when I go into one of our schools and see students participating in purposeful activities. Additionally, those who deeply understand learning recognize the importance of motivation. Frequently, we rely on extrinsic rewards to create that motivation—operating on the assumption that what is rewarded gets done. But in school, typically what is rewarding gets done!
- Be Careful About the Assumptions You Make – The best teachers never make negative assumptions about the capability of their students. Some years ago, while serving as assistant superintendent, I co-taught an 11th grade language arts course with one of our outstanding high school teachers. Several well-intentioned teachers, certainly wanting to ensure that I had a positive experience, strongly suggested that I use my influence to transfer one student from the class. “She’ll destroy your whole experience,” they warned. I figured, “I taught junior high school for 10 years—I’m not afraid of anything!” This same young lady became a powerful and positive contributor because of her background and personal history.
- Understand the Role of Self-Esteem – A student’s self-image depends upon so many things. It is shaped, in part, on us and how we make our students feel about themselves and their abilities. It is also dependent on our class environment and the extent to which we carefully shape that culture. For instance, students are unwilling to risk if they don’t feel a reassuring trust that they won’t be ridiculed or embarrassed when expressing an opinion. Consequently, we should always adhere to these two imperatives: a) it is inexcusable to diminish a student’s sense of dignity and worth; and, b) it is equally wrong not to work to enhance and build a students’ self-worth.
- Be Constantly Engaged in Personal Professional Growth – The best teachers I know are persistent in their pursuit to become better teachers. They never stand still! These teachers are seeking to understand how to effectively integrate technology in ways that engage and challenge their students. They constantly ask themselves questions (“What are the most important learning goals of this unit? How might I teach it differently so that students really understand? How do these students learn best? What are these grades really telling me? Are there ways to differentiate instruction to better meet the needs of all children?”). These teachers never accept the status quo and are constantly working to improve for themselves and their students.
I invite each of you to consider these overarching truths as we begin this new school year. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of so many!