Learning From The Good Ones

Today, I had the pleasure of watching a student-teacher conduct a lesson. It was one of those moments where I was sitting there watching a young teacher, someone who was actually a student in my class years ago, navigating her way through a lesson. I remember that feeling of being in front of the room for the first time. I remember thinking that it was a whole lot harder than it looked. And, I remember the relief that I felt when the bell rang and I made it through the period without anyone, including me, getting hurt. 

I was watching the lesson along with the cooperating teacher, a person who did her demo lesson in my classroom some 15 years ago. I leaned over at one point and asked, “When did we become the old people?”

She knew exactly what I meant.

Time flies.

We were once the young person in front of the room, not quite sure if we were explaining things clearly, uncomfortable with wait time, and wanting to elicit the exact, perfect response that we had written down on the answer key. It wasn’t that long ago.

Afterwards, we all sat down and discussed the lesson. There were so many positives and, as with every lesson for every teacher of any experience, a few things that could have been done differently. It struck me as we were talking how attentively the young teacher was listening. It wasn’t just the look of a young person going through the motions of hearing an veteran give advice. It was a genuine, three person conversation. I learned a couple of things about seventh grade from my colleague and I learned a few things from the young, aspiring teacher too. The best conversations in education are ones where people genuinely listen to each other and look to get better from each other. It was a great ending to another good day.

On the ride to pick up my daughter from school, I was thinking about that conversation, but then began to reflect on my day. It began with a first period conversation with a high school colleague about another project she wants to explore, something that may not even apply to her grade level, but perhaps to middle schoolers. Here’s a teacher bringing an idea to me that she’s willing to help with even if it doesn’t directly impact the kids she’s teaching because she feels that kids would benefit. And, this is far from the first time. She’s always bringing great ideas and taking action. She’ll take on projects that make a big impact on our school. Last year, she spearheaded the first all-student run assembly on bullying. It made an impact on the student body. She is inspiring.

Aside from gaining experience in the classroom, that is the most important part about getting better with the craft of teaching. Muting the Naysayers is just one part. Blocking out the negativity and relegating them to irrelevancy is just one step. That will put you in a positive mood, but it won’t make you a better teacher, a better technician, and a better thinker in a classroom.

The single most important thing a teacher can do is surround him/herself with “the good ones”. The Good Ones are your crew. They are the people who aren’t afraid to talk education and their passion for it. They aren’t afraid to share as if giving another a teacher a lesson idea will take away  their specialness. They are about making the profession better and making it a better experience for all kids, not hoarding the “gold star” lessons for themselves for glory. They are the people who do extra for kids. They invite kids on their prep periods so they have a place to talk. They are the people who will pick you up with a kind word or drop by with a great thought.

You need your crew. You need the crew to inspire you. You need the crew to help develop ideas and take on big projects. You need the crew to create with. You need the crew to laugh with. You need the crew to vent with. You need the crew in your foxhole. Without them, you are an island with no outlet. Without them, you don’t get better. You don’t evolve. And, that is so dangerous to the teaching profession. 

I am fortunate enough to have a crew. I say fortunate enough for two reasons. First, obviously, it is because I am surrounded by so many people who share the same passion for the profession. I am lucky to have these people. I am also fortunate because I wasn’t always so open. As a young teacher, I had always felt that every time I came up with an idea, there was a veteran telling me it was stupid or I was unrealistic. You get enough experience of that, you tend to close your door. I took the island approach. I went into the classroom, did what I thought was best for kids, and then pretty much stayed in my room for preps and lunches. Sure, I would venture out to talk baseball or something, but the thought of talking education wasn’t going to happen. That changed about 12 years ago.

I guess she’s the original member of the crew. She’s a fellow English Teacher who would come into my room and just talk. We’d talk about education and where it was going. She’s one of those brilliant English Teachers who can look at the word “the” in a story and tell you the significance and why the author chose to put it there. She has a such a high vocabulary that I used to pretend to know everything she was talking about and then head to dictionary.com once she left and look up the words she used. After a decade, I am comfortable enough to tell her to explain it to me. And, she knows my looks when I need it explained to me like a five year old.

This was also the person who would stock her classroom closet with food and snacks because she knew a lot of her high school students didn’t have much at home. It was because of my friend that I started to venture out and talk about teaching to some others in my department.  It was the inspired conversations that would make me seek out more and want to do more. I’d pick her brain and learn from what she would do in class.

To this day, we still have conversations almost daily. We talk about kids and how we can do better. We’ll talk about the things that didn’t go well or how much some students “unloaded” in their personal writing. And, then, of course, lesson ideas are shared. You need someone who is always looking to inspire and always looking to help.

And, when you start those conversations with one, you find yourself surrounding yourself with more people. In my case, I began to do so because I felt more confident in speaking about what I did in a classroom. I began to seek out people. I found one in a colleague and friend who can be best described as someone who is a genius and teaches like Robin Williams would have. We don’t have the same philosophical views on many things, but we are both about doing what’s best for kids. That’s the basis of our professional relationship. Having someone like him in my crew pushes me to really think about my beliefs. We debate the merits of homework or the idea of mandating a summer reading program. Although his views are opposite mine, he makes me better. Your crew isn’t about surrounding yourself with people like you. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who love the job and are in it for kids. You need people to push your thinking. It is the only way to evolve. I am grateful for this friendship.

My crew includes my friend and administrator–The Admin–who is responsible for pushing me to be more open and outwardly positive about the profession. He’s given me and so many others the opportunity to push the typical and make schools better for kids. He’s also someone with a relentless work ethic. You would think that one of the bosses would be on the golf course or sleeping in. The Admin isn’t one of them. When you work for someone who is one of the hardest working people in the organization, it makes you want to do more. You need those people in your crew who push you to do better, while allowing you the opportunity to follow your passions. I had told him that I was thinking about writing about education. He immediately said do it and wanted to as well, thus this site was born. Without him pushing immediately, so many of the great things that have come from this site would’ve never happened. People are reading our stuff. That’s amazing. It feels like we are helping. That’s amazing. It’s all because he pushed. You need someone in your crew who will push you to do more, take chances, and believe that you can make an big impact.

I also have a friend who will always be on my team. We’ve worked together over the years to create new curriculum programs, new summer programs, new opportunities for kids to get enrichment opportunities, and so many other programs that would take too long to list. We hold the same position within our respective departments and get to work together quite a bit. He’s not only a friend, but he’s the one who will work with my madness, fill in the details when all I am seeing is the big picture. We bounce ideas off of each other, solve problems, and always try to improve our schools. Not only that, he may be the best teacher we have in our building. He can teach any level and always views, as he likes to say, curriculum as the vessel for skills. Everybody needs that friend who, no matter what, will drop everything to help you out. Everybody needs the friend to create with and think big with. 

Then, there’s the veteran middle school teacher who could be resting on years worth of binders and plans. Instead, she is the one calling or texting, wanting to collaborate on new ideas. She’s the one who already had her opening week plan, but after participating in the department meeting on the first day, wants to do more and gives up an entire day off to plan out something she think will be better. After nearly 25 years in the classroom, she still has the passion. She still loves the kids. And, she still inspires the kids. So much so, that seniors write about her eighth grade class years later and how it transformed their lives. So much so, that an eighth grader will tell her that he can’t wait to get back to class the next day. You need that person who constantly wants to plan and because she always reinvents herself, you want to do the same. 

There’s the long time high school teacher who says yes to my idea of her going to our middle school. Not only does she continue to teach at such a high level, she embraces the change. She will dive into any curriculum project and is always there to listen and problem solve. You need those people who will always make a great impact, no matter the level or whether or not she receives recognition. 

There’s the colleague who gives her students a safe place to be. She gives up her prep period so kids can come in and talk. The number grows everyday. She is always there for kids. She always advocates for her kids, even when they are no longer in her class. She makes kids feel welcome and valued. She gives her time, allows them that safety, even when others question why she would give up that free time. You need a person like this to constantly remind you why you are in education. It’s about the kids; it always will be. 

There’s the long time colleague, turned first year assistant principal who always amazed with her energizer bunny work ethic, but was always focused on improving the system, being transparent, and wanting to create more opportunities for kids. In just a few months in her new role, she’s already impacted the place, making for a much more positive, collaborative environment. You need people who aren’t afraid to take another role in order to make schools better. You need those people who remain focused on that importance no matter the job title.

There’s the colleague and department member who is stoic in his actions. The kids love him, but he’ll never bring that up. He’s been in the profession for nearly 25 years, but is still the first one in the door, opening up the doors for kids to enter classrooms. He’s there providing a logical voice as you try to wade through some of the madness. And, when you find a brilliant Meet The Teacher Night sheet that he has parents fill out about their kids, he gives credit to the person who showed him, even though he made it his own. You need those calm, selfless people in your life. They not only help you, but they remind you that being a good colleague and friend isn’t about the recognition.

There’s the middle school principal who not only empowers you to make change and make an impact, but genuinely cares about you as a person and always makes time to check in and make sure life is alright. You don’t always see eye to eye on certain things, but the strong relationship yields the understanding that both of you are on the same side and will always do what’s best for the kids in the building.

And, finally there’s the young blood, the last two hires of the department. One is brand new and so enthusiastic. She’s willing to try anything and is always looking to do more, listen to feedback, and seek out mentors within the department. It’s that spirit that reconnects you to your first year when your enthusiasm wasn’t tamped down by naysayers. You need that injection of spirit to keep you fresh, to keep you going.

The other young one came in and it became immediately apparent that she had “it”. She could teach any level. She puts kids first and is always willing to do something new and innovative. She’s emailing different ideas, sharing ideas, organizing and constantly planning. Her talent scares the naysayers, who, sometimes, will lash out and treat her poorly because of that talent. You remember that feeling. Yet, she continues to do the job because she’s damn good at it. You need young, innovative people in your crew. It’s how you stay relevant after two decades in the classroom. You need to see the youthful passions, see new ideas, and be willing to give the younger people the opportunity to innovate and make things better. I remember when I wasn’t given that opportunity. I would never do it to someone else, especially these talented people.

I am, indeed, fortunate. I was fortunate enough to be put into a situation where I can go to work and have a group of outstanding people surrounding me. I have people who inspire, who work alongside, who challenge me, who help me, who innovate, who exchange ideas, who provide examples, who make me want to be better. Every teacher needs a crew like that. It is not only how you get better in the classroom, but it is, more importantly, how you stay focused on the real reason you chose this job. You always want to do great things for kids. Your crew will keeps you focused on that because of all of those things they do for you. 

Do not be an island. Do not think you have all of the answers. And, most important, do not be afraid to talk with your colleagues. There’s so much knowledge, so much inspiration, and so much friendship out there. All of those things not only make you better, but fulfill you as a person. Mute those Naysayers and surround yourself with your inspiration and valuable crew. When you surround yourself with “The Good Ones”, you come to work each day knowing that you are a part of a greater whole and all of you are doing important work and impacting kids. That’s a great feeling.