Recently, I was interviewed by a former student who is now studying to be a teacher. I have been interviewed by college students who are preparing to be teachers numerous times before. One of the questions I always get asked is what is my one piece of advice for a future teacher. In all of the times I've been asked that question my answer always comes back to the same thing.
As a teacher you're only going to be as good as your ability to adapt and evolve. This is largely done through the new, different and more innovative ideas and strategies you expose yourself to. I often share a short story from my own teaching experience. One day a few years ago during my study hall a student came up to my desk. This particular student was complaining about another teacher. In my years of teaching this has happened before and I typically will tell this student to sit down and instruct them that I will not have a conversation about any other teachers in the building. Personally, I think that's unprofessional and despite my feelings on a teacher I will not share those with a student.
However, this particular student was one I knew extremely well and I could tell he was frustrated. So, I simply asked the question of why he was frustrated with this teacher. He went on to tell me about why this particular teacher was a bad teacher and gave me some examples from the classroom of how they were not doing things to where he thought in his mind they should have been. I thought this over and I asked the young man a simple question. I asked, “Do you think [this teacher] is teaching the way they are because they don't know how to do it any other way.” Now this confused him and he wasn't sure what I was asking. I further elaborated to say, “Is it possible that [this teacher] is just teaching the way they have always taught. Or maybe they are teaching the way that they were taught and don't know any other way?”
This caused this young 11 year old boy to think for a second. His simple answer was, “Well [they] should come in and watch you teach.” Now I knew that was a loaded comment and I wasn't going to set my colleague up for failure like that or put myself in an uncomfortable position. However, the student and I had a great conversation about what makes a good teacher and a bad one. I even shared some of my early teaching experiences where I definitely was not a good teacher. I went on to explain to him the reason I got any better at teaching was because I found people that shared their ideas and what they were doing with me. It all came back to exposing myself to new ideas and new ways to do what I do in my classroom.
Going back to this advice for new teachers, the simple answer is exposure to as many ideas and different ways to teach. This includes not only the instruction but all of the nuances and dynamics that comprise the art, craft, and science of teaching. This can take the form of observing your fellow teachers in your building. It can be attending conferences and workshops to learn about new ideas and ways of thinking about teaching. It can be connecting with other teachers via social media or using technology to connect with other classrooms. There are so many resources available that connecting with other teachers can be done with a simple click of the mouse. There is no longer an excuse to be teaching in a silo and not exposing yourself to new ideas. New and old teachers alike, who are concerned with how to be a better teacher, simply need to be exposing themselves to better teaching.
On the other side of that coin, exposure to some bad teaching can be beneficial. It will help you discover what you believe is good and bad about teaching and the larger sample you have the more grounded your perception will be. The only way to truly get better is to be around and experience “better” and also to be constantly evolving what it means to be “good”. My definition of what good teaching looks like is always changing as I learn more about teaching, learning, myself, my students and the people and experiences I have been exposed to.