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Learn to Teach: 3 Insights from A Day Out on the Lower Bay

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LEARN TO TEACH isn't a declarative or imperative. I'm not slamming your approach or telling you I've got the goods on classroom management, pedagogical mindset, or a million other things you probably have a better handle on than I do.   I'm lucky enough to do the work I do and so are you.  LEARN TO TEACH is my way of reminding myself to keep questioning and learning from the world around me-- to turn exciting and mundane experiences alike into ones that I can find truth and knowledge in, so I can share them with students and turnkey them into project-based programs. Simply put: I LEARN TO TEACH. 

A DAY ON THE LOWER BAY

The Lower Bay is the body of water that runs between New Jersey, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.  Every once in a while I'm lucky enough to go out on a friend's boat and explore the water with a knowledgeable group of fisherman and a legit sea captain. For a lot of people, this is a day to relax, to shut down the brain and take in the sun.  For people like us, those obsessed with finding new ways to turn the content we are expected to teach into something great, a trip on the ocean(or anywhere) can inspire a thousand lessons we can bring back to our classrooms. More importantly it can inform who we are as learners, so that we can better serve our students.  Here are 3 lessons I learned about how to become a better teacher:  

INSIGHT #1:  IT'S OKAY TO NOT KNOW STUFF

I think one character trait that cripples and plagues a lot of adults is the idea that we believe we need to know everything.  This leads to insecurity and the inability to ask for help, which usually results in a defensive ego. As we become more insecure and defensive, we enter the danger zone: we begin to believe we actually do know everything . One doesn't need to look too far to realize that the majority of the world's problems are formed by people who think they know everything. 

Being out in the ocean with people who can read the sea the way I can a room of 10 year olds is a powerful reminder of how much I don't know.  Being put in new situations where I'm vulnerable because I lack content knowledge is a great way for me to understand what my students experience each day. I often explain to students who are reluctant to ask for help that they're in school because they are learning. If they knew everything they wouldn't have to show up and we'd be out of a job. 

But it doesn't work like that-- we give the kids we teach the benefit of the doubt. We're understanding that they are learners, not learnt. In our best, most honest, moments we can see that learning is a lifetime process and it's okay to not know stuff. By accepting this simple idea wholeheartedly-- that we don't have to know everything-- we will be open to experience new things with a beginner's mind and we can develop more compassion towards the children we teach. 

PUT IT INTO ACTION:  Learn to ask questions even when you feel embarrassed.  Allow not knowing stuff to motivate you to learn. Turn "not knowing" into part of your classroom's culture. Celebrate the process of gaining knowledge as much as we do being knowledgeable. 

INSIGHT #2:  GET RID OF THE ONLY-IFS

There's probably 21 million posts on positivist and productivity blogs about removing the only-ifs and what-ifs from one's life in order to make headway on their goals. The internet is littered with inspirational quotes galore about how the right moment is right now, jumping into cold waters, fulfilling your dream today, etc...... And guess what? All of it is probably true in the right context. But for some reason educators often find external reasons not to share  their own educational experiences with their students. 

This common only-if usually starts because of rules that are out of our control: "I can't bring my students on a boat, there isn't protocol for that, it would be a logistic disaster." This is usually followed by a reason outside of our own control as to why we can't: "the system isn't fair, there aren't enough real learning experiences for students. If-only the world was fair." 

When we end the argument there, we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice. By accepting the only-ifs we are saying that the cards are fixed and the universe is set up in a way we have no control over-- it's a dangerous form of fatalism.  

Students don't need to be there to benefit from our experiences AND we don't need to lose instructional time by sharing our interests with students. If we train our minds to LEARN TO TEACH we will see connections between what we are teaching and what we are learning in our own lives no matter what. Sharing our experiences in connection with what we are teaching our students enriches our learning community and makes the experience authentic for everyone involved. 

PUT IT INTO ACTION: Next weekend do one new thing. This doesn't mean you have to climb a mountain or run a 20k, but both would be great. During this experience find one connection between what you are doing and what you are currently teaching. Follow Insight 3 for more....

INSIGHT #3: HOLD YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE

If you're reading this you know that accountability is an overused, broadly defined, and often abused term thrown around by policy makers and teachers alike. All students should be held accountable for their learning, but I've learned that the easiest way to enforce policy on others is to hold myself to the same standard. If you're anything like me, my excitement for learning is only really impeded by the amount of time I have to spend learning new stuff. I'd love to get a degree in field biology, become a much better fiddle and guitar player, learn about API's and big data at something other than a novice's level but, you know, life....

Instead I've learned to make time for learning through my teaching practice and the programs I put together in schools. In my learning practice, I hold myself accountable by turning subjects I am interested in into meaningful project-based lessons and programs for the students I work with. I don't use all of these programs or lessons, some of them aren't always great-- but I am following through and showing that I have some mastery of the content I've just spent time exploring.  This is a form of accountability  that works-- we can define it, we can say what it looks like. We can feel confident in holding our students accountable in this way because we are holding ourselves to the same standard. 

PUT IT INTO ACTION: Remember the tip from the last insight? Now it's time to go home from that new experience and do a little more research. Maybe you were wondering about how to identify different types of rocks and what they say about the time in which an area was formed. Now that you've learned that, put it down in a lesson. You don't need to run into class to teach it, but you've held yourself accountable. Also, you never know when the lesson will come in handy!

One of the reasons I love project-based learning is because it allows me to engage all of the things I care about and put them into experiences that are meaningful for students. I believe that we're all projects, works in progress, and our love of learning informs our teaching.  If each of us take some time out of during the day in order to Learn To Teach we'll be surprised at the connections we find between what we're exploring in our own lives and what we're teaching our students. Like the oceans spread out around the world, everything we do is connected. 

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Chris O'Brien | @chrisobrienisok 


 


Chris O'Brien is a former NYC public school teacher and the founder of Lower Bay Learner's Guild, a small consulting group and think tank comprised of working artists, coders, musicians, retired teachers that help districts, individual schools, and teachers build student-centered makerspaces and integrate project-based learning into their current curriculum.  O'Brien's goal is that his current projects, The Propeller Car Challenge and CivCirca, will make it into the hands and minds of every U.S middle school student and their teachers within the next two years.

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Guest Sunday, 11 December 2016