My long journey into education, tough and fraught with peril, has been padded by a long list of fabulous supporters and teachers. Just this summer, I finished a week long training with 29 other people facilitated by a professional that truly knew his content and cheered us all on with a tasteful sense of humor that was both dry and engaging. Believe me, being treated like a professional after a long drought is definitely refreshing because the sense of collegiality and respect had become somewhat foreign to me. Prior to the weeklong experience, I also enjoyed two other summer trainings that incorporated fun activities into a socially relaxing environment. Both of the facilitators were prepared, the materials were of quality, and the content was relevant to the questions that had been roaming around in my head. Recognizing a teacher's right to professional autonomy and choice is what every experienced coach and facilitator prioritizes. Jim Knight writes about the importance of respecting a teacher's choice of professional development opportunities in his book, Instructional Coaching, a valuable 'must read' for anyone in education, especially if you suspect that you could be better supported. Reading the book can at least either validate your suspicions, or help you take advantage of opportunities available to you even if they are limited. In other words, you can fine tune your relationship with your coach if any trust exists.
Whenever I have problems with parents or students, I try to think back to what I learned from student teaching. I worked side by side with an experienced professional, a truly amazing, organized, and well prepared teacher. She had a ton of tips and tricks that she shared with me that made it possible for me to imagine myself at her level at some far in the future day. No matter how hard I try, or how long I slog away at this, I will never be able to match her expertise because she is just that great. She shared her classes and her students with me for 14 weeks in a spirit of positivity and inclusiveness; she never complained about me because she was graceful and patient, consistently modeling professionalism. Whenever I raised doubts about my own competence, she would point out my strengths.
After I became certified, I started to venture out into other places for professional development. The Writing and Thinking Institutes at Bard can't be matched for intense instruction. Each group consists of at least 15 participants that work in both secondary and post-secondary schools. I managed to attend 3 summers in a row. The first summer I attended I took a weeklong seminar in creative nonfiction, and I can't recommend it enough. The professor that taught this section had lived on the Hudson for most of her life. The texts that she selected centered around the local river culture, and the discussions were thought-provoking. I learned about the area and the people, the history, and how the river sustained them. To say that a Bard Institute is inspirational is to understate the value. At the end of the week, my fellow participants and I had created a lesson plan for our own creative nonfiction unit. This sparked an interest in teaching and writing creative nonfiction, and I learned how valuable it is in the classroom for making students aware of our common humanity.
By the next summer, I was feeling as if I needed more instruction assigning and responding to student papers; I signed up for a seminar at Bard titled, Teaching the Academic Paper. Because I love composition theory so much, the class was a perfect fit for me. The week just seemed to fly by, and every evening was filled with English nerd-type fun. I even met Sondra Perl, a famous writer and leading composition theorist that I had always looked up to and had always felt intensely curious about because she had developed the 12 guidelines of writing that I like to use in the classroom. Finally, the following summer, I took a Bard institute titled, Writing with Technology. All of us participants bonded closely because this class required us to share our journeys into literacy. Not only that, I was able to take a super strong and super smart English professor with me. What could be more important to an English teacher than practicing the continuous cycle of reading, writing, learning, discussing, and sharing with some of the best people in the field? I hate to sound silly, but we were tighter, tougher, and stronger than the New England Patriots when our week together concluded.
I've been fortunate enough to attend other advanced placement trainings and tons of other one-day seminars, writing retreats, and of course, the daily grind and struggle of grad work and teaching various preps; the intensity of these high quality experiences have helped me improve my teaching. Without dutifully attending these various trainings and zoning in on my grad work, I would be not somewhat mediocre, but truly mediocre. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the people that inspire you the most. Usually the toughest teacher with seemingly unattainable requirements ends up, often after years of agony, becoming the most important person in your professional life. But at this point, I don't have time to tackle becoming that well-versed in my subject even if I was that kind of genius. But I do know that after taking trainings and trainings after trainings, that I am able to learn from the work of other people, especially if it isn't garden variety. I know that at least a few of those people that bothered to teach me do still care about me, just as us fellow participants still enjoy keeping in touch. Being able to differentiate between a quality training experience and one that is mediocre and inspired by nothing but basic low rigor and test prep is an important skill in the education world. Teachers that invest in high quality professional development, that take the time to learn their subject, sometimes have to accept the superficial even though it isn't helpful. It is at those times that I reflect on the differences between quality and low rigor and try to develop fresh ideas for student learning. Now at the beginning of a new academic year, when I once again feel like running away rather than running to, it seems appropriate to reflect on what has brought me to this point.