What it means to be a Professional Teacher

Recently, someone sent me the following editorial about students needing to be a participant in their own education.  I read it and found myself agreeing.  The author was saying things I had thought hundreds of times.

This opinion piece presents a commonly-held belief about students and educating students.  I certainly have felt this way at times in my teaching career.  I usually sum it up with this phrase, “I cannot want a student to succeed more than they, themselves, want to succeed.”  In other words, it is unfair to expect me to work harder at a student’s success than that student is working, because sometimes it feels like they are doing NOTHING!  So I invest my limited time and energy where it will actually produce some visible results that can be celebrated.  I get a boost from teaching students who “want to be taught” and they get the attention they are so desperately seeking.  It’s a win-win.

What I don’t always acknowledge to myself though is that I get to this point of giving up on a student or group of students when I feel as if I have tried my utmost to understand and provide for what that learner or group of learners needs without seeing any improvement in learning.

While looking for resources on collaborative study techniques, I came across the following TEDX video (you have to turn the sound up pretty far to hear it):

This video presents the idea that “Kids do well if they can.”  This idea, supported by tons of epistemological and educational research, recognizes the huge impact the empathy and involving students in the problem-solving process can have on learning.  In my own practice, I have seen this to be true.  When I take the time to understand and work with a student towards his/her goals, I see tremendous jumps in learning.  Generally speaking this requires all of my “teaching tricks and strategies”.  Every student is different so it requires that I have intimate knowledge of the learning head-space of all of my students.  It’s not easy.

I believe though, that the ability to understand students and help to remove roadblocks to learning is what makes us professionals as teachers.  Anyone can stand in front of a room of students and present to them, but it is a professional teacher who finds innovative ways to understand where each child is at mentally and provide for them the experience that will help them reach the next level in understanding and applying the concepts they need in order to be prepared for life outside of high school.  This is the challenge of teaching that requires of us that we constantly increase our understanding of the process of learning and teaching as well as our understanding of the disciplines we wish our students to leave us with.

Think about this.  What behavioral skills do you want your students to leave high school with?  Is it the ability to passively listen and take notes, or is it the ability to question, to research, to collaborate, and to own the learning process.  Which behavioral skills does your class encourage students to learn?  How do you set up the learning atmosphere in your classroom to encourage students and to help you diagnose the difficulties students have in learning?  We, as professionals, are like doctors of the mind.  We diagnose the difficulties students are having and then provide the resources students need in order to take the next learning leap.  Only we are most effective when we engage students in their own diagnosis and learning process.

Our kids have been taught for years and years to sit and listen passively.  Often, when we try to engage them in the process of diagnosing and overcoming difficulties, they have tremendous difficulty and they will not always easily engage.  Learning to have agency in their learning is not an easy process where we ask them what they need help with once and then provide a worksheet or practice.  It requires that we are there every day, asking and engaging in the thinking process with them.  This is what it means to be a professional teacher.

14 Years In Education

This was always the year I said that I would quit teaching.  When I went to high school there were a few teachers that I really admired and respected.  They were good at their jobs, cared about students and obviously worked hard.  All of them lost it in their 14th year of teaching.  One took a young lady to Vegas, one had a full scale psychotic melt down in the classroom and one just stopped caring.  When I got my license I told myself that I would quit education by this time in my career because teaching is a young person’s job, and I was worried that I would follow in the footsteps of the people I had admired in high school.

Now, standing on that frightening precipice, I am worried.  I am unsure whether or not I can just leave my students.  What will happen to them, to the program I have built, or to my school if I am not there?  I am terrified of what comes next, worried that I don’t have the skills to compete in today’s job market and unsure.  I can handle it right?  It is August right now.  I’m always hopeful and full of ideas/plans in August…Ask me in October.

US History 1, M1 Reflection: Colonization

These slave-grown products stimulated a consumer revolution, enticing the masses of Britain and then Western Europe to work harder and more continuously in order to enjoy the pleasures of sugar, tobacco, rum, coffee, and eventually, cotton clothing. It was New World slave labor that ushered in the consumer culture we know today. In addition, the slave trade provided stimulus to shipbuilding, banking, and insurance; and Africa became a major market for iron, textiles, firearms, and rum. – Digital History

This is a particularly interesting quote to me. The idea that one of the most popular pillars of Western society was driven by slave labor is antithetical to me. I am a consumer and consumption of goods is one of the major ideas that the American economy is built on, but yet the inception of this phenomenon was and has always been a divider of people. Consumer societies almost always drive the creation of higher and lower classes of people. Maybe if there was more of a return to creating or building the important things in our lives, then we might be able to level the economic playing field a bit more between groups of people…or potentially even more importantly today, between the human race and all the other races of plants, animals, bacteria…etc that are so out of balance today.

Sustaining Life and US History

I am currently studying a variety of different ideas (as is usual to my scatterbrained approach to my own academic development). These include the book Sustaining Life in preparation for my upcoming Edx class, Colonization and Development of the New World (the topic for this week in my US History 1 class from canvas), and the various podcasts I listen to.

It is fascinating to me how we have been setting up our current crisis in Biodiversity really from before we colonized this country but certainly in an accelerated fashion from that point. It seems that the oppression in Europe in the time before colonization that set up the diaspora of European concerns propelled by people seeking something different was a direct result of oppressive religious groups. Can we really trace the ideas that led to our current dire crisis directly to the monotheistic ideas that resulted from domination of people by theocrats? I don’t know. I’m not the person to make that direct argument but they certainly seem linked to me.

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Zero?

What is Columbus’s legacy–discovery and progress or slavery, disease, and racial antagonism?

This is the question posed in the reading early on in my US History 1 class readings from the Digital History Website. I think this is an interesting question. Working as I do at a boarding school for Native American students I see and hear daily examples of anger and resentment of the steps my family would commonly consider as progress in our Westernization of the Americas.

The Digital History website traces the movements of tribal peoples in the Americas, including development of their cultural, agricultural, religious and social structures up to the invasion of their space by Europeans and then poses the above question. The text makes it clear that the divided nature of the tribal systems that people lived in made them vulnerable to the disease and division that occurred within the time of colonization, but does not tell how that same society welcomed many early settlers, helping them to adapt to the ecosystems here in the Americas. It is interesting to me that Christopher Columbus that is villianized when, to me, much worse offenses were committed by those who actually did the “settling” and “governing” of the land. The human drive to discover new places will always be there and would have happened with out the intrepid Mr Columbus, but the monarchs who thought that they could take and own a thing already owned I think are much worse as are those who came after and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the land they took already had owners but demonstrated no human decency toward those they stole the land from.

Public School Relevance in an Era of Educational Choice

As a public school teacher I believe in the public school system. I believe it is important for every person to be educated, both for the success of our society and for the success of our country. Over and over again though I see more and more educational choice open to our students. They don’t have to go to a public school to receive their obligatory education. There are charter schools and online schools they don’t even have to pay for. If families still want more choice there are always private schools where all of the resources parents pay for actually go to their own child’s education. This is different from the public school system where between 30 and 40 percent of the district’s resources go to 5% of the school’s population and that 5 % is not the most intelligent portion of the school population.

Students are highly intelligent. They are consumate consumers of education. They can identify immediately if a class is helpful to them or if it isn’t. What they sometimes lack is a vision for their own futures, but then who are we to say that we really and truly know what they actually need. Our world is changing so fast and their world will change even faster. How can a system still largely based in the industrial revolution era really be relevant to our children today? Is the way we teach truly beneficial to our children? These are the things I wonder when I stop to take a breath between lesson planning, mountains of grading, and the latest edicts from overstressed and overtired administrators.

What do you think?

Summer 2013 – The Summer of the MOOC

This summer I am conducting my own online professional development. I have subscribed to (probably too many) MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses. I’ve signed up with the following services:

My Goal:

I want to learn how digital instruction can best be delivered and how students can best collaborate online. I also want to think about how I can apply these techniques to my version of a flipped class with a classroom set of iPads at school this year. Wish me luck! We’ll see how it goes!

The Courage To Teach 1

When I was going to school to become a teacher and writing my thesis paper on teaching I read a book called, The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer.  This book transformed my thinking about teaching.  Then I graduated and it sat on my shelf for about 10 years.  I recently picked it up again and was inspired for the second time.  This summer I plan to read and reflect before I begin again with teaching next year.

“This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves.  It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.”

Palmer speaks about the fact that we focus on the what and why of teaching, but many times we fail to consider the “who” of teaching.  The person who creates the learning space is very important to the process.  Knowing ourselves as people is important to the teaching process.  As much as we prepare and care for our students, our subjects and our classrooms we must also prepare ourselves.  This is essential to good teaching.

My Own Preparation

This summer I plan to think about myself in the classroom.  When am I an effective teacher?  How do I prepare my heart, and myself for the classroom?  I believe that becoming effective in the classroom requires that we consider the following:

  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • True listening.

What do you think?  Does a teacher’s mental state of mind affect his or her performance in the classroom?  How do we teach from our hearts in the classroom?

Philosophy of Education

Recently my new school supervisor asked for my philosophy of education.  After giving it a lot of thought here is my response:

A Successful Classroom

I believe that students learn best when they are able to interact with concepts and then make their own meanings from them.  They need to “try it out” and then read, see, hear about or discuss the concept or skill.  Students also need to think about or discuss how they completed a skill.  This helps them repeat successful patterns and revise ideas that don’t work.  The role of the teacher in a truly successful classroom is that of a coach or master learner who helps apprentice learners (students) achieve mastery of the skills and concepts taught.  The teacher continually assesses students and reteaches or varies instruction based on that assessment as well as the input of her team of teaching peers.

Goals For Students

When my students enter my class I have two goals that guide my teaching practice.  First, I want them to become accomplished scientists with a clear understanding of background concepts and the ability to investigate new ideas using a variety of science skills.  Secondly, I want them to become 21st century learners and thinkers, able to use technology effectively, work in collaborative teams, and communicate ideas and results.


These ideals translate into action in my classroom.  I use a variety of instructional techniques including lecture, cooperative learning activities, socratic questioning, projects graded by rubric, as well as worksheets.  Each is a tool with an appropriate place and time.  As a learning coach I try to make myself and my class materials available at all times through my class website (mssigman.weebly.com).

I also feel that it is incredibly important to assess student progress often, using a variety of formal and informal techniques.  These include tests, quizzes, tickets out the door, and cooperative learning (Kagaan) techniques.  Because it is essential for students to understand their progress, I try to grade assignments and hand them back quickly.  Students can then use that information to improve.

Personal Growth

Over my eight years of teaching I have become more and more interested in helping my students too construct their own ideas and less and less interested in telling them what to think.  As this shift has happened in my thinking I have changed my classroom practice.  Currently I am more and more interested in shifting my classroom activities so that information gathering (what used to be lecture) happens outside of class and we spend class time practicing skills and interacting with the subject together.  My current syllabus reflects this.  My future goals include guiding students to prove competency using products that reflect grasp on the content and demonstrate skills that will make them successful in today’s workplace.  I would also like to extend learning outside of the classroom, both in a physical sense (developing the school’s swamp into functioning wetlands), and in a “cyber-sense” (collaborating with scientists and other classes over the web).