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What it means to be a skillful teacher

Dennis

While the popular media often portray good teachers as charismatic “sages on the stage,” skillful teaching is a sophisticated cognitive process in an intensely interpersonal environment whose most fundamental activities are less dramatic and often invisible to the casual observer.

Skillful teaching requires:

• designing meaningful lessons that engage and ultimately ensure success for all students;

• developing a highly-nuanced professional judgment informed by both “hard” and “soft” evidence to assess student learning and to determine the most appropriate teaching methods;

• applying emotional intelligence and human relations skills with students, parents, and colleagues in complex and ever-changing circumstances;

• engaging in professional learning and collaboration with colleagues to continuously improve teaching and learning; and

• managing personal energy and time to enable vitality both in school and at home.

What have I missed?

“Don’t smile until Christmas”

Dennis

I remember hearing that advice as a new teacher. The logic behind it was simple—it is easier to loosen up classroom management routines and discipline than to tighten them.

If you didn’t think about it too much it made sense.

But unsmiling teachers give the appearance that they don’t like teaching and don’t even like their students.

And students don’t learn as well from teachers who seem not to like their jobs nor them.

So “Don’t smile until Christmas” is not advice I would want given to a new teacher.

What “truisms” from early in your career turned out not to be so true? And, conversely, what advice were you given that made a positive difference in your work as a teacher or administrator?

Words can injure, or uplift and inspire

Dennis

A hospice patient in her 60s whose life story I was videotaping told a sad story from her childhood about an adult who had said cruel things about her, words that produced a depth of pain that was still sufficiently strong that she felt compelled to talk about it at the end of her life.

“Some people say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” the patient told future generations of her family. “I want everyone who sees this to remember that that is not true. Words can hurt us.”

Words matter not only because they affect our feelings but because they can alter how we view ourselves—whether we see ourselves as valued or unimportant, respected or disrespected, competent or incompetent, included or excluded.

While words can injure, they can also uplift and inspire. Most of us can recall things that significant adults in our lives said that encouraged and sustained us—the right words at the right time.

The words spoken by teachers, principals, and parents can have a particularly strong resonance across a lifetime, for good or for ill.

Which words encourage and sustain you? Which words disempower?

Extending invitations

Dennis

I once heard a minister tell a story about being new to a congregation and noticing an elderly man who attended services each week, faithfully sitting front and center.

Upon learning that the man was not a member of the church the minister sought him out after a service to inquire about why he had never joined. “No one ever asked me,” the man responded.

Invitations can be very powerful.

While they don’t ensure acceptance, more often than not people are willing to step up to greater involvement when they are encouraged to do so.

At least that was true in my career as I was invited to take on new, more challenging responsibilities or encouraged to apply for positions that felt far beyond my reach.

An invitation, of course, is only the first step. Ensuring the success of those we promote often requires mentoring, coaching, and other carefully-considered developmental experiences.

But it all begins with an invitation.

In what ways have invitations enriched your life or career, and how have you sought to ensure the success of those you have invited to take on new challenges?

When we don’t know what we don’t know

Dennis

Many teachers and school leaders are largely self taught. For the most part, their training was on the job.

Their teacher and administrator preparation programs were inadequate. So, too, was (and is) their professional development.

They received little or no mentoring and have had few opportunities, if any, to learn with or from their colleagues.

One of the problems with being self-taught is that there may be significant gaps in knowledge and skills. Another problem is that educators are often unaware of those gaps.

Such blind spots will persist without skillful supervision and a strong system of professional learning that includes meaningful and sustained teamwork, peer observation, and instructional coaching that reveals what teachers and administrators don’t know about what they don’t know.

A strong system of support and learning will not only reveal gaps, but will identify and build upon educators’ strengths.

What do you think? What’s the best way for teachers and administrators to determine what they don’t know and to fill in those gaps?

Intentionality and habits

Dennis

People do things because they want to (intentions). Their motivation comes from a desire to create something that does not now exist.

People do things because they believe they have to (obligations). Their motivation often comes from guilt.

And people do things because they have always done them that way (habits). Often those habits are long standing and were not consciously chosen, which means they may not support current intentions.

The world would be a better place, I believe, if

  • people did more things that were motivated by intention rather than obligation,
  • and if antiquated habits were replaced by those that were consciously chosen to serve intentions.

What do you think—are intentions and consciously-chosen habits trustworthy sources of guidance and energy?

“Done is better than perfect”

Dennis

“Done is better than perfect.” – Guiding principle of Facebook

Similarly, sometimes the best is the enemy of the good.

Delaying action until something is perfect (for example, perfectly understood or perfectly expressed) can slow momentum and squander energy and goodwill.

Knowing when something is “good enough,” subject to future iterations of improvement, is a hallmark of skillful leadership.

What is your experience with applying the idea that “done is better than perfect”?


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