Four Things I Learned This Year

As the year winds down, I’m continuing a Teaching Channel tradition and taking a moment to reflect on four things I learned this year.

1. Change as an opportunity for growth

This year was split in half for me. On June 1st, my family and I moved from Chicago to a tiny western Massachusetts hill-town of 1,800 people. We moved away from the friends and family we’d surrounded ourselves with for years, to an environment where, at least for a time, it felt like it was us against the world. The transition was tough at first, but we eventually found our stride. Though the field of education hardly ever feels like it’s slowing down, the idea that change can be an opportunity for growth is a powerful one, as we start the new year.

2. Teaching is hard work!

I recently had the opportunity to return to the classroom for a week, as part of the research I am doing for my dissertation. Though I taught for more than 10 years, and have coached and modeled lessons for the past several years, this was my first time running the show in quite a while. I taught four sections in a row of Junior U.S. History with a 25 minute “lunch period” in the middle. The experience reminded me of what a rush teaching can be: the need to be “on” every minute; the realization that the day ended and I hadn’t even had a moment to use the bathroom, let alone eat lunch; and the small, unpredictable “aha” moments in the minds of young people that make it worthwhile. It also reminded me that teaching is hard work — both physically and mentally demanding. Every teacher that endeavors to manage a classroom of 30 young people is working hard. Teaching can always be more effective and even the best teacher can improve, but hard work is part and parcel of teaching, and all teachers deserve respect for that.

3. Be present, because time flies

My daughter is growing up so fast. It seems like just yesterday that I could easily hold her in my arms, and now as a second grader she stands nearly at my shoulder. I want to hold on to every moment, but I realize there is no way to do this. What I need to do is be fully present in our moments together, to put those thoughts of work and concerns about life’s pressures out of my mind, and just enjoy being connected with her, and live in her world for awhile. As an educator, I see the need to connect with students as individuals. A lot of times students don’t need another lesson or an intervention; they need to know you care about them, and that you aren’t going anywhere. Just being fully present in the moment, to listen to them and their hopes and fears, can accelerate learning by building the kind of trust that will encourage them to push themselves beyond their current boundaries.

4. Collaboration is a powerful thing

The organization that I work with now is intensely collaborative. We are set up like a matrix with everyone serving different, but essential roles. From people who develop assessments, to people who analyze data, to people like myself who coach schools directly. This has helped me realize that none of us has all the answers, and that the best ideas are not the product of one person, but compilations of all the support, input, and feedback they have received along the way. I am regularly called upon to give my input on the work of more senior members of our teams, and collaborating with them helps accelerate my own growth. This really hit home as we work to craft a vision of English Language Arts instruction in the era of Common Core standards. We’ve been questioning a lot of our old assumptions of what good teaching looks like. The work is too important to do alone, and I am grateful to be part of a team who is on this journey together. Likewise, the schools I work with who are doing the greatest work are not comprised entirely of master teachers. Rather, they are places with a strong culture of collaboration and a sense of a shared responsibility for the learning of all students. They work together in everything from planning, to looking at student work, to reflecting on how their teaching can improve. They have harnessed the power of collaboration, and their students have benefited greatly as a result.

What about you? Reflect on four things you learned this year in the comments section below.

Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.

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