Teachers in schools should remain learners

On the HPC blog I intend to invite practising teachers to share what’s on their mind in teaching. This month I would like to feature Jackie and a conversation I had with her about why she works hard to remain a learner in her practice as a primary school teacher*.

Before we launch into that conversation here is some context.

teacherslearners_223In the foreword to Professor Sharon Feiman-Nemser’s book Teachers as Learners (2012), Professor Deborah Loewenberg-Ball notes how “ground-breaking scholarship in the field of teacher education provides tools for combating the urge to reduce teaching to a matter of being smart, caring about kids and getting experience” (p.xi)**.

Later in the foreword Loewenberg-Ball also notes Dan Lortie’s (1975) work in Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Lortie was strident in his belief that teacher learning is characterized more by idiosyncratic experience than by professional socialization. The occupation of teaching he said ‘revealed itself as passive and characterized by structural individualism’. There is also a timely reminder in Teachers as Learners to the work of John Dewey (1904) who highlighted teaching ‘as intellectual work’. And, Professor Susan Groundwater–Smith (2011) from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney writes about these ideas in her work on Leading Learning in the Intelligent School.

Many of the essays in Feiman-Nemser’s book argue that ‘serious and sustained teacher learning is a necessary condition for ambitious student learning’. I was reminded of the essays in a recent conversation I had with Jackie and thought that given research teacher education academics often do alongside teachers in schools it might be a moment to pose some questions as to whether the ground has shifted on this notion – well, at least in the minds of some teachers?

learnersI also went back to Professor Louise Stoll (1999) and her writing about motivation as the starting point for learning in teaching. She said in a keynote address in Texas at the time:

“For a busy and often overworked teacher to devote effort to change and new learning, there has to be a good reason for the change: some sort of catalyst or urgency – a sense that what I’m doing doesn’t seem to be working. Also, faced with a new teaching strategy, the teacher needs to know it is practical and useful – relevant to me in my classroom with these students”.

Furthermore, Stoll added:

“Teaching has been described as the second most private activity, and yet the majority of humans are social animals with a need for connections, relationships, and social support. While many teachers may express individuality and choose, at times, to work and learn alone, some also see the potential within groups, and know their work benefits from collaboration”.

At the recent #inspiredec15 conference for teachers in SW Sydney one tweet noted an idea that found a ground swell of support over a couple of days: “Would you want to be a learner in your classroom?”

A great question.

Now, clearly one would want to mount a full research study to understand this ‘hunch’ about the need for teachers to remain learners in their classrooms, and indeed that is what professional teaching standards in part aim to ensure, but Jackie offered some insights that are worth noting***.

Julie room
Jackie’s Year 4 classroom

Jackie has been teaching for more than 20 years and she recalls her mother saying: “You were preparing all your teaching resources when you were a little girl”. She explained why teachers must remain learners:

“You have to be passionate about learning to be engaged in the learning with the students. This to me is the best way to motivate students. To be ignited by learning new things and to share with the class your learning journey is also a great model for the students.  If you share what you are learning with them it means you value them and they are important”.

hoopsHer father made an interesting observation about her in her post school studies: “You did all your learning when you left school”.

Jackie clarifies: “I am inclined to agree with him. I just did as I was told at school, jumped through the required hoops and passed the required exams. But it wasn’t until I could learn what I was interested in and be independent and find out things for myself when I really started learning how to learn. I think that has shaped my teaching somewhat”.

She adds: “I don’t know how you can teach and not be a learner. I don’t know how you can show students the absolute joy of finding out new things if you are not challenging yourself and getting those great ‘aha’ moments yourself. To be a learner you need to be open to new ideas and to listen to others. You also need to allow yourself to fail and not let it define who you are. Then, when you take risks with your learning and fail, you can give yourself a little pep talk and tell yourself that at least you had a good crack at it!”

What still inspires her to be a learner? “Kindness, caring people, loyalty, integrity, honesty, and passionate, interested people – I am inspired when I see growth and transformation in students. I also think when you have really great connections with students and there is fun and laughter – the learning is joyful, that’s inspiring”.

I think I would want to be a learner in Jackie’s classroom. Would you?

* Not her real name. And I thank Jackie for making time to have this conversation with me.

**Professor Sharon Feiman-Nemser is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University, a private research university with a liberal arts focus in Waltham/Boston, Massachusetts.

*** There needs to be more resources allocated to schools to do this in terms of time and opportunities for ongoing professional learning.