I’ve been an educator for twenty years. As I was participating in a lively Twitter chat recently, the moderator asked what professional development advice we would give to first year educators. I had no problem thinking about my own failures and challenges through the years and listing off a half-dozen tips. However, if I had to rank them, the one that I would put at the top of the list is this. Be an open book.
I’ve written about my first weeks as a middle school educator years ago, when I struggled with classroom management. What made the difference between my success and failure in those early weeks and that first year was one critical decision. Almost everything in me wanted to close my classroom door, hide my limitations as an educator, and hope that it would go away or that I would figure it out on my own. That decision would have ended my career as an educator. Instead, thanks to a wonderfully open and non-judgmental principal, I found the courage to walk into his office, explain my situation, my fears, my limitations as a teacher. I asked for help.
I’d love to say that ever since that time I’ve been completely comfortable opening up about my shortcomings and not trying to hide them, but that would not be the truth. It is true that I’m much more comfortable with being open, however, because I know that it can make me better. It can help me become the type of educator to which I aspire, or at least to get closer to that ideal.
This requires vulnerability, being what I am calling an open book. It means not just letting people look into your classroom and life as an educator, but asking…even begging for as much feedback as you can get from them. I’m talk about being really curious about how you are doing. Ask anyone and everyone to observe and share their thoughts and insights. Learn to use that feedback to grow as an educator. It might be inviting one or more colleagues, asking students to give you frequent feedback, or asking people who might have no direct connection to your teaching but can offer a fresh perspective and different set of insights.
There is good research to show that a key to growing and improving as an educator is what they call reflective practice. This is developing the ability to reflect on your practice as an educator, to review and critically analyze what you did, the results, and how you might adjust future behavior to get better results. Reflective practice is evidence in most or all people of excellence, whether it is a concert pianist, a pro golfer, a dancer, a comedian, a motivational speaker, a small business owner, a researcher, or an educator.
However, simply reflecting is not enough. You also need accurate feedback about what happened. Just asking about how you did and what results ensued might result in self-deception as much as self-discovery. This is where we benefit from getting feedback from multiple sources and perspectives. It doesn’t mean that you have to treat the student’s perception as 100% accurate. Nor do you need to accept without doubt the observations of a colleague. However, they all provide input. Combined, you are likely to get a richer and more accurate understanding of what is taking place. This means setting aside your ego, degrees, titles, and credentials. We can get excellent feedback from almost any source. Even if we don’t agree with their observations, they are giving us insight into how different people perceive your teaching, and that is valuable.
This plus that habit of reflective practice, prepares you to adjust your behaviors, collect more data from multiple sources and see if you are making progress. This simple approach can help you address how to increase student motivation, engagement, improved performance of as many learners as possible, improved positive relationships with students, more accurate and in-depth teaching of certain concepts, an improved classroom ethos, or any other valued aspect of your work as an educator.
It starts with a desire to improve and a willingness to do what it takes to improve, and this is about more than professional reading, attending conferences, and going to professional development days. No presentation, conference session or book will make you a better educator. Head knowledge is never enough. Excellence in teaching comes from practice, reflection, an openness to input from others, rich feedback, and adjusting your behaviors accordingly. Yes, there are many great concepts that can be learned through books and presentations, but it isn’t until you practice them and incorporate these other elements of reflections, feedback and adjustment that you reap the benefits.