Monday, December 26, 2016

How Teachers Can Empower Themselves: Keynote Address at Merrimack College in New Andover, Massachusetts

I was recently honored with an invitation from the Merrimack Institute for New Teacher Support (MINTS) at Merrimack College in New Andover, Massachusetts, to be one of the keynote speakers at the launch of their new program--one that is designed to offer extensive layers of practical support to new and novice teachers in the area. The program is certain to be a success--mostly because of the insightful people who are its chief creators and their visionary approach to what new teachers need to succeed and the best ways to provide that support. For my part of the launch event, I chose to speak about the many different choices that we educators can make to empower ourselves. Here are my notes.  ~Julia

No one is a natural born teacher. No matter how easy some teachers make it seem as they arrange their students into well-behaved little lines on the way to the cafeteria or have their students conduct experiments in chemistry class without blowing up anything or hush an entire middle school class with just a teacher look, those teachers were not born able to perform those educational miracles. No. They write their lesson plans one word at a time just like the rest of us.
When I was first a teacher, I was completely intimated by other teachers. They seemed to know exactly what to do all the time. Their handouts looked professional. They never misplaced their room keys. They had taught all their students’ siblings and sometimes even their parents. And their classroom management? While I could barely get my students to sit down and stop poking each other, their students were models of perfect behavior. It was awe-inspiring and very discouraging all at the same time.
It took me years to realize that those accomplished teachers were not born with those skills. Instead they developed over time from new teachers full of dreams and mistakes into dedicated professionals. They had learned the secret of being great teachers.
What great teachers have figured out is that teaching is a series of deliberate choices that has a profound effect over time. Great teachers don’t wait for some mysterious outside force to make them into the kind of educators they want to be. Instead, they make deliberate choices to empower themselves.  
You can, too. Those deliberate choices are ones that are open to all of us.
Here’s how.
The first deliberate choice you can make right away is to EMBRACE professional growth. Notice that I did not just say “professional growth” but to EMBRACE professional growth.
Professional growth does not happen by accident. Great teachers don’t just passively say they are lifelong learners and then move on, instead they fully embrace the opportunities in each school day to become a student—to learn more about their subject matter, about pedagogy, and, most of all, to learn everything they can learn about their students. Great teachers even embrace the growth that comes from making mistakes. And there are plenty of opportunities in our profession to learn from your mistakes! Professional development is a way of life for a great teacher. So, if you are going to become the kind of teacher that you want to be, make professional growth a part of your everyday life. There are so many ways to do this…
·        Ask other teachers to allow you to observe them.
·        And ask them to observe you. Just a ten-minute snapshot observation can give you a new idea, a new strategy… or an ah-ha moment.
·        Or, you can video record yourself. It’s not always pleasant, but watching yourself teach is a good way to get rid of all of those bad teacher mannerisms that your students probably notice.
·        Read professional literature online and in books.
·        Join the thousands of other teachers on Twitter to create your own PLN or Professional Learning Network.
·        Set up a Pinterest board to store all sorts of great ideas and lesson plans that generous teachers across the globe have shared for you to use.
·        Seek feedback from your students—after all, they know more than anyone how well you are doing. Ask them to evaluate your lessons.
·        Join professional organizations and, if you get a chance, attend a conference.
We are here tonight to launch an exciting new program—one with far-reaching benefits that will not only impact the various communities represented here, but also its impact will echo throughout the years---just as it always does when caring teachers come together to support each other and to learn together. I can’t tell you enough how lucky you are to have this opportunity. If your plan is to become a great teacher and to EMBRACE professional growth, then the MINTS program is a terrific resource for you. Make a deliberate choice to take advantage of all the opportunities that this program will bring you.
 Seek growth. Make it happen. Take charge of your professional life. If you see EMBRACING professional growth as a helpful attitude, a way of life for a teacher, then you are already on the path to becoming one of those great teachers we all admire. Remember: great teachers empower themselves when they embrace professional growth
Another deliberate choice that can empower your teaching career is to set your own professional goals and then work toward them. I don’t mean those benchmarks imposed on us by our school districts, but rather the kind of professional goals that are meaningful only to you. I have found that when I set a goal for myself, I tend to focus on it until I master it. I know, I know, this is what everyone who sets a goal does, but it is an incredibly effective way to improve your teaching skills. For example, when I was a novice teacher, one of my goals was to improve the way I handled class discussions. I worked on that goal all year. I researched and observed others and thought about what was happening when my students were holding a discussion. Just think about what that action research did for me as a beginning teacher—I focused my energy on something more important than just making it through another day at school.
It required me to reflect on what my students were doing, what I wanted them to do, on what I was doing that was right, and what I was doing that was wrong. The focus provided by such a personal goal was invaluable to me then, and it still is today. And you know what, unlike those goals that are imposed on us, there was no tedious paperwork to contend with. No one knew my progress but me…and a roomful of students. This is how important setting professional goals has been to me: You can almost trace the ups and downs in my long career by some of my goals.
When I was teaching in a tough inner city school, one of my goals was to decide how strict I should be. I had to determine the boundaries of good behavior and how to withstand the testing, testing, testing of those boundaries by students who were used to intimidating teachers. I learned a great deal that year. For one thing, I learned it’s okay to be a strict teacher. I also learned that even the toughest kids are more comfortable when they know that the boundaries are fair and immutable.
When I was teaching in a middle school one of my goals was to learn how to settle my students to work quickly. I actually set little time goals for myself and tried to streamline the start of class so that they would settle right away.
By the way, I have the deepest respect for middle school teachers. They deserve a huge pay raise RIGHT NOW because they deal with hair-raising classroom situations that the rest of us don’t even want to imagine.
Because I am an English teacher, one perennial goal is this: How can I grade papers quickly and still have students learn from their mistakes as well as how to repeat what they did right? I hate grading papers. I mean it. I really, really hate grading papers. Learning to grade papers to maximize student value and minimize my tedium was definitely a good use of my time.
So you see, setting professional goals for yourself gives you direction. I try to have about three goals a year, except for this year. I tend to focus more on classroom management and general pedagogy rather than on specific content. I tape my goals to my desk. And in my plan book. And on a file cabinet facing my desk.  And on my calendar. I am serious about goals.
Goals allow you to move forward. To focus on improving instead of just coping. They add intentionality to your practice. And, they allow you to self-assess and reflect on what you do as a teacher. What a powerful and very personal way to grow as an educator. As far as deliberate choices go, setting professional goals is something that I know that all great teachers must do.
And for my goals this year? Because this is my last year as a teacher—my fortieth year--, I have set only one goal for myself this year. Here it is: I want my students to have the BEST. YEAR. EVER. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty terrific goal.
Can you imagine the power in making that deliberate choice for your teaching practice? Instead of having a short-time soon to be retired teacher attitude, every day I am figuring out how to make class meaningful, relevant, engaging. This is probably one the best goals I’ve ever had. Feel free to adopt it as your own. Making a deliberate choice to create your own professional goals is a positive step in empowering yourself to become the great teacher that you want to be.
A third way that great teachers empower themselves is by connecting with other educators. In the not so distant past, teachers were not expected to work together other than to attend occasional meetings. If you were an experienced teacher, this working environment was okay, but if you were a beginning teacher, it was a terrible way to go to school.  No one was expected to help you. No mentors. No official ways to get advice. If you were lucky, a kind-hearted colleague would help you out. Today, however, that has changed. Today’s schools are composed of intersecting communities of practice with one goal: successful students. It is easy to connect with other teachers who are in your building, your district, and through the internet, across the globe.  If you are a new teacher, and even if you are not, it is up to you to choose to make the most of these opportunities. Seek a variety of mentors. Ask questions. Join study groups. Participate in the MINTS program. Reach out. Ask for help. Share ideas.
One way to share ideas and seek advice that I have recently been involved with is something I started at my school called a Community within a Community. Since I also work with the new teachers at my school, I want to touch base with them every day—adding yet another layer of support. Several years ago, I started a simple email group where we could contact each other easily. Every day, as curator of the group, I send out a quick message, a link, a meme, a reminder of a school event, or I ask for opinions and advice.
The response was overwhelming. Our simple little group grew into a schoolwide group where we share ideas—a digital teachers’ lounge. No longer just an email group for new teachers, our Community within a Community consists of experienced and beginning teachers all sharing ideas and supporting each other in a wide variety of ways. Our only caveats: every post much be about educational topics, must be of interest to the entire group, must be professional in tone and content, and must be supportive of the members of the group.
You can, with just a few clicks of a keyboard, create a similar group for yourself—building your own Community within a Community. The overlapping circles of collaboration that make up a school will allow you to grow and develop as a teacher confident that you are making sound decisions because you have had the opportunity to consult others.
Great teachers empower themselves when they choose to connect.
One of the easiest ways to empower yourself on the path to being a great teacher is to deliberately choose to master the practical responsibilities of your career. Well-organized, efficient teachers don’t have to spend time racing around at the last minute making copies or finding resources. Instead, they can focus on what’s important—their students. Successfully managing the practical aspects of running a class—passing out papers, collecting lunch money, taking attendance, and getting papers graded and returned—all those sorts of things can make the difference between a good day and a bad day at school. I have been asked many times what inspired me to write The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide.
Other than admitting that I was probably the worst first year teacher to ever step foot in a classroom, and oh my goodness, I was so na├»ve. I had a solid knowledge of my subject matter—I could quote Shakespeare for hours and diagram just about any sentence written in English—but I had no idea at all how to manage a classroom. I did not even know how to take attendance or how to set up a gradebook, much less any of the more advanced stuff like making a seating chart.  To my credit, I learned quickly to take good advice when it was offered to me.
But, it was not my own ineptitude that inspired my book for first year teachers, however. I had just been offered a second book contract to follow up my discipline book and was trying to decide what I wanted to write about. Early one morning, as I was waiting at the copy machine, I noticed a first-year teacher taking her time slowly and carefully cutting and taping her documents while standing at the copy machine. She was completely unaware that a long line of furious teachers who also had to make copies before class began was forming. That was when it dawned on me that lots of the problems that first-year teachers have come about because they do not have a grasp of the practical workplace skills that they need just to manage a classroom. So, even though it may seem mundane, learning to be an efficient, well-organized worker is one of the most significant deliberate choices that great teachers make because it frees them to do what is important. Here is what I have noticed that great teachers do to make the practical aspects of our jobs more manageable:
·        They leave their desks clean at the end of the day more often than not.
·        They automate tasks such as returning graded papers or passing out materials so that students can manage them.
·        Because students need a clean, comfortable, well-organized space in which to work, they teach students to clean up their work areas and to put things away.
·        They use every single second of their plan periods for school tasks.
·        They plan instruction in terms of the year, the semester, units, and daily plans. No great teacher ever says, “I’m staying one day ahead of my students.”
·        They make to-do lists and work calendars and use them.
·        They have a routine and a place for everything.
·        They make productivity one of their priorities.
·        They…well, you get the idea. Organizational schemes of various types can transform your classroom. I think you would be hard pressed to find a great teacher who is also a disorganized lummox.
Another deliberate choice that great teachers make to empower themselves is to take a proactive stance to discipline problems. It’s no coincidence that many teachers at all levels of teaching experience cite discipline issues as a significant factor in the dissatisfaction they feel with their careers. In my own work with new teachers, I have noticed that beginning teachers and preservice teachers almost always tell me that their biggest fear is not being able to control their classes. 
Let me tell you right now: you don’t have to be afraid of this. Instead, be proactive. Face those fears and make good things happen in your classroom! Making a deliberate choice to adopt a preventative approach to classroom management can certainly transform your teaching practice.
No teacher wants to deal with rude, out-of-control students who make learning impossible for everyone around them. Even if you don’t have to deal with severe discipline issues, the constant petty disruptions such as reminding students to stay on task can convert into hours of lost instruction time for the other students in the class as well as for the misbehaving ones.
By making the decision to proactively manage potential discipline problems, you will be able to avoid dealing with the unpleasant aftermath caused by problems that can become unmanageable. Believe me, it is no fun to have to ask yourself, “Well, now what do I do?” as you drive home from a long and probably unhappy day at school. And honestly, if you doubt the veracity of this approach, listen carefully. If I can do this, so can you. I could not intimidate baby bunny rabbit, yet I do have an orderly classroom—one that I work at maintaining every day.
Here's how I do it.
First of all, I try to think about the things that could cause misbehavior in my class. I constantly ask myself, “What could go wrong?”  Why? Unfortunately, experience has taught me that if something can go wrong, it will. When I plan lessons, I think about back up plans. When I arrange an activity, I consider safety, noise levels, student interactions, and all sorts of other factors. What is important is that I constantly work to prevent things from going wrong.
I also try to understand the forces that create my students’ misbehaviors. I try to look beyond the misbehavior to consider the reasons for it. This approach allows me to work toward a solution and not get stuck in the blame phase of a discipline incident. Also, just think about this. Even the biggest troublemaker in your class does not always come to school with the sole intention of making your life miserable. Students are complex beings with complex reasons for acting the way they do. Many of the reasons that students misbehave are ones that easy to manage once you are aware of the underlying causes and can deal with those causes instead of just reacting to the misbehavior. If you are going to be able to prevent or minimize discipline problems, you must be aware of the causes for those problems
Third, I also operate on the belief that, of course, my students will do what I ask them to do. I am steadfast in my expectations. I am calm about this. I make it clear that I have thought carefully about what I am asking them to do, that it is a reasonable request, and that I expect students to behave correctly. Just think what a gift this is to students with a history of misbehavior. They have a teacher who does not focus on their past mistakes. Instead they have a teacher who simply expects the best from them.  If you expect good behavior all the time, (and if you work to prevent bad behavior) then you are highly likely to get it.
Finally, I maintain an orderly classroom with an important attitude—one that I cannot stress enough:  I put my students first. When I am in class, I am to use a nifty expression, “where my feet are.” My students have my undivided attention. We all can experience legitimate distractions time to time—an illness in our families or our own fatigue, for example. However, those teachers who are so distracted that they do not fully attend to their students will have to deal with many more discipline problems than those teachers who are focused on classroom activity. Students should always come first when they are in the room with you.
Making a deliberate decision to empower yourself by taking a proactive stance toward classroom management and the prevention of misbehavior is one of the most productive decisions that you can make as a classroom teacher.
Another deliberate choice that can empower your teaching practice is to allow professionalism to be the cornerstone of your career. I think that we can all agree that one of the chief hallmarks of a great teacher is a pervasive sense of professionalism. Great teachers make a deliberate choice to wear their professionalism like a badge of honor—which of course it is. Professionalism means being the very best teacher that you can be every day. When you choose to conduct yourself in a professional manner, you send the message that you are in control of your classroom and yourself.
Although it is not always easy to be an educator, especially when you are just starting out, resolving to be as professional as possible is a sound decision with far-reaching effects. By behaving in a professional manner, you will earn the respect of your students, their families, and your colleagues. You will be able to enjoy your school days instead of struggling with the unpleasant consequences brought about by poor decisions.
If you want to be highly regarded as an educator, keep in mind that such regard does not just happen. Choosing to act in a professional manner is a deliberate choice made by every excellent teacher.
So how do you go about doing this? Well, one effective way is to spend time reflecting on what you want your students to say about you this year and in the future. Great teachers do this. They have created a professional persona that seems to permeate almost everything that they do at school: their dress, their ability to listen more than they speak, their deep content knowledge, the respectful way they treat every staff member, the positive relationships they develop with students, and their pride in their profession.
When I was a beginning teacher, a veteran teacher told me something that, while it made sense, absolutely terrified me. He said, “You need to remember that everything you say today will be repeated over dinner tables across town tonight.” What great advice. It forced me to think about how I was presenting myself to my classes. Did they see me as a good role model? An adult worthy of respect?
I began then to create my teacher persona. I decided that I wanted my students to think of me as fair, approachable, knowledgeable, reasonable, and determined not to let them down. I began to hold myself to high professional standards. And I have noticed that the great teachers I have met along the way have done the same.
All teachers have a classroom persona—some better than others, but the difference is that great teachers thoughtfully and deliberately create a professional image and then work hard to live up to it. They set high standards for themselves and then work every day to meet those standards. Great teachers empower themselves when they choose to allow professionalism to be the cornerstone of their career.
And finally, probably the most significant way that great teachers empower themselves is by choosing to accept their students just as they are. Like so many of my colleagues, I became a teacher because I loved the subject matter I had studied in college. What is far more telling about those of us who are lucky enough to be experienced teachers, however, is why we choose to remain in such a highly-criticized, intense, often-stressful profession.
The reason is simple: children. It is fun and frustrating and fulfilling to work with children—from adorable preschool darlings to one-foot-out-the door seniors—they are all worth our trouble. I know that we are in the business of change—after all, isn’t that the purpose of an education—to effect change? But, I have found that we succeed best with students when we fully accept them for the complicated, intriguing people that they are. And, if you think about this, isn’t this really what differentiated instruction is all about? And IEPs? And 504 plans? And probably a whole host of other alphabets that all come down to one factor: students are individuals. Living, breathing, individuals who are worthy of their teacher’s time, effort, and love.
Great teachers know this: Education works best when teachers accept children as they are-with quirks, weaknesses, and strengths. Once students know that you care about them. That you appreciate them. That you take pleasure in their company. Then the real magic of education begins to happen. Instead of wasting time wishing that students could read better, write better, sit still, pay attention, or whatever else impairs their ability to succeed in school, great teachers accept their students and then work to move them forward to academic and behavioral success.
That means, too, that great teachers take full responsibility for what happens in their classrooms. Just think about the implications of what it really means to accept responsibility for your classroom. Instead of blaming poor parenting, or social media, or reality tv, or society or other teachers…great teachers teach. They get on with instruction.  They look at the students in front of them and TEACH. No excuses. No blaming. No whining. They teach.
Making a deliberate choice to accept and appreciate our students for the complex individuals that they are is a crucial step that great teachers make in accepting responsibility for their classrooms. Instead of wasting time wishing for the impossible, great teachers teach.
At the beginning of my presentation I said that there are no natural born teachers. I mean that. We are gathered here tonight to launch the MINTS program which, by its very nature, contains the deliberate choices made by great teachers everywhere to empower themselves. How fortunate you are to be a part of this wonderful resource.
When you decide become a teacher, you enter a very special universe. Our jobs are about far more important things than just the content we teach.
Just think of what it is that we REALLY get to do. We light a path for the students in our care. I like to think of myself as a missionary from the adult world who helps young people learn how to navigate life. To be kind. To be successful.  To accomplish dreams. To be a good citizen.
Research shows over and over again that the single most significant factor in a child’s school success is a classroom teacher.
What a responsibility. What a burden. What a privilege.  
Just think of what that research means. It is a classroom teacher who teaches a child to read, to do math, to cooperate with others, to write sentences, to think analytically, to do neat work, to solve problems.
It is a classroom teacher who protects a child from bullies and who is the first line of defense in the battle against racism, ignorance, and poverty.
There is one last way that great teachers empower themselves. They have an unshakeable belief that what we do MATTERS. That what we do makes a difference. That every day we shape the future one classroom at a time.
Behind every single successful person on this planet stands a long line of teachers. Someone taught our soldiers, someone taught our doctors, someone taught our scientists, someone taught our builders, someone taught our inventors, someone taught our mothers, and someone taught our fathers. And that someone was a teacher.