We all enter the teaching profession with a number of hopes and goals for the kind of classroom community we want to create and the kinds of learning in which we want to engage our students. For most teachers, this includes a classroom community where students can:
- Feel they belong.
- Learn about issues that matter to them and that affect their lives.
- Voice their perspectives and expertise.
- Talk to and work with others across differences.
- Participate as active community members in shaping the learning environment.
- Connect what they’re learning to the community and the broader society in powerful and authentic ways.
While these goals continue to drive many of us and our passion for working with young people, they are hard to achieve.
In fact, the ideals for building an authentic, democratic, and just classroom can continue to serve as a reflection point and a lamp post for what we want to continue to strive toward in our classrooms every day and every year. Having a network of other educators to connect to, reflect with, and gather ideas from is invaluable in this pursuit.
For this reason, I’m thrilled to introduce Heather Van Benthuysen — the latest Teacher Laureate at Teaching Channel. She will be sharing resources and tools as well as provocative questions for us to grapple with, focusing on how to build democratic classrooms and integrate civic engagement across grade levels and content areas.
Heather is a veteran of experimenting with and developing powerful civic school cultures and learning experiences. She is a National Board Certified English educator with almost 20 years experience as a teacher, coach, and youth advocate. Heather is currently the Civic Education Manager at Chicago Public Schools. In this role, she supports teachers across the district to integrate civic learning into their classrooms and schools in a variety of ways. From setting up democratic classrooms, to teaching a civics course, to supporting students in developing media literacy skills, and the capacities needed to navigate civic and political participation in the digital age, Heather has done it all.
Question for you: If the health of our democracy depends on the people, then when do we learn the skills of participation?
Hopefully, your answer was the most transformative space on earth… school! Since the inception of American public schooling, we have considered school to be where participatory citizens were made. You probably have the words “community” or “citizen” in your school mission statement. Yet, preparing students for college and careers tends to take priority over that “third C”… civic life. Our schools develop the people, we are the people, and it’s time that we fully realize our role in revitalizing civic life.
We can start by looking at how our schools and classrooms model democracy every day. We can’t expect to fully prepare young people to participate in a democracy from within undemocratic systems. That would be like teaching someone how to swim without ever putting them in the water. Developing a civic identity, like any complex skill, takes time and practice in varied contexts to achieve mastery.
If we want our young people to participate effectively, then we need to get them in the water early and often.
“Success demands singleness of purpose.”
~ Gary Kelly, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
I recently read The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Kelly and was struck by its beautiful simplicity. Kelly posits when we try to do too many things at once, we’re highly unlikely to do anything well; and rather we “need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.”
Now if you’re in the field of education, you may have just read that quote and wondered if Kelly was sitting around your last staff meeting, or maybe even rhetorically asked yourself if he was mocking the last district initiative memo you received.
As teachers fighting to survive the rapidly changing educational landscape, we’ve all experienced feeling like we’re asked to do too many things, and as a result, do few things (maybe some days, even zero things) well. As an educator supporting teachers through project-based learning (PBL) implementation, I see this strife far too often.
How might we use Kelly’s logic to go about doing PBL with fidelity and quality? And not lose our teachers through the process?
Well, let’s just do ONE thing and do it well!
Teaching is a rewarding profession on its own, but we also know the importance of elevating teachers that take initiative. The ones who put themselves out there and respond to the needs of their colleagues. Teachers like Meg Richard, a seventh grade science teacher at California Trail Middle School in Olathe, Kansas.
Meg has been an active content contributor as an NGSS Squadster, offering ideas and strategies which have proven to be of great interest and value for our followers. In response, we’re now re-introducing Meg as a Teaching Channel Laureate so she can share even more of her practice with our Tch audience.
It’s nearly impossible to put into words what educators feel when the bell rings on the final day of school. The sheer joy of entering into weeks of bell-free, kid-free, and paper-free days alone is almost worth entering into the profession. In June, the new school year seems so far away. But, August does come. And we find ourselves at the beginning of the cycle all over again. Even more, we find ourselves hitting pause each January to reflect and adjust our course.
The school year begins to come into perspective for me after the baseball all-star game and before the start of NFL training camps (can you tell that I’m a sports fan?). After July 15th, August comes into sharp focus for educators across the country. However, if you waited until July to actually begin preparations for the new year, you might’ve been feeling a little pressure.
And now in January, it might feel like you’re starting all over again, as you revisit and reflect on the progress you’ve made so far and forge onward with your new and improved plans for the second half of the year. But no matter where you are in your planning and preparation, collaboration is a very important part of starting — and finishing — strong.
When did you first realize that you were called to be an educator?
As a child, I can recall teaching “classes” full of stuffed animals, dolls, a few live puppies, and even a captive audience of neighborhood children. But it wasn’t until high school that I really knew I wanted to be a teacher. It was an ordinary day during my sophomore year in high school, in the middle of a world history lecture, that I remember thinking to myself — Yes, I want to be a high school history teacher.
I was watching my history teacher, Mr. Sterling, at the time, and I could sense his ease with the content, his passion, and his excitement. When he wasn’t captivating me with his ponderings on the state of Abu Dhabi, he was likely teasing me after catching me waving out the door to my boyfriend for the 100th time that semester, or encouraging me to keep going after I missed that one point I needed to meet the goal I’d set for myself in the class.
I knew he was doing exactly what he was called to do in this world — and I knew I wanted to do that, too.
I loved teaching. And that’s why I know that making the decision to leave the classroom is one of the most difficult decisions an educator will ever make.
Yet, for more than a decade, we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about teacher shortages and the difficulties we now face recruiting and retaining teachers. Notably, the data suggests that retention is no longer an issue that only impacts teachers in their first five years, but that teachers are leaving their classrooms in increasing numbers throughout the trajectory of their careers. This is a problem we must address, and we believe that you can help!
From the first all staff in-service at the conclusion of summer, to the end of the year checklist session, teachers are inundated with meetings. More specifically, teachers are overloaded with meetings that see them as actors and doers rather than collaborators.
The teacher-centered pre-observation conference shifts this narrative. This approach to the pre-observation meeting is more collaborative and less intimidating and in order to call attention to the nuances of this process, I created two interactive videos for Tch Video Lounge to help you notice how I approach coaching with the teacher taking the lead.
In The Teacher-Centered Pre-Observation Meeting, I model what this may look like with a second-year teacher, Marquis Colquitt. What I hope you glean from our interaction is that the meeting is collaborative, learning-focused, and practice-centered. Additionally, I hope you can clearly observe the principles that guide an effective pre-observation meeting.
My internet browser always has extra tabs open. As I’m writing this blog post, I’m composing in one of approximately nine open tabs on my Google Chrome web browser. Nine may sound excessive, but it’s actually fewer open windows than my usual mode of operation. And I’m only talking about one application.
Usually, when I plan a lesson or conduct an observation, I’ll have ten or more tabs open, as well as a word processing program and YouTube or Amazon for background music. I admit this is probably not all that healthy when it comes to sustained focus, but there is a method to my madness.
My entire way of teaching changed dramatically when I went to a Barnes and Noble and picked out a book entitled, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap by Dr. Alfred W. Tatum. From that moment on, I engaged in a new kind of personal professional development.
Have You Tried Number Talks?
What strategies are you planning for building number sense and problem-solving skills this year?
Check out our Number Talks collection to see a daily, short, structured way for students to talk about math with their peers.