Success, transformation, and inspiration…
In May of 2009, I was in my 2nd year teaching. Since beginning in 2007, I had switched schools once, grade levels twice, and lost a co-teacher midway through my 2nd year. I was frazzled, unfocused, and exhausted as one of my favorite parents pulled me aside one day.
She spoke about a “Summer Institute” she thought I should take, through the Center for Inspired Teaching. “You do some really creative and valuable things in your class,” she said. “Inspired Teaching can help you do those kinds of things better.” I tried to picture what things she was referring to – the class project on Natural Disasters that got a little out of hand when we build our own volcanoes? The literacy “Mysteries” unit I created centered on our class’ love of “Goosebumps” series? I wasn’t sure, but I was intrigued enough to spend 2 weeks of my summer learning how to do this better.
From the first day, when I entered an empty room (no, really, not even chairs!), to the last day when I looked at the walls covered with our work and the empty space which had quickly become so many things – a stage, a classroom, a yoga/dance studio, an art studio, a workshop, a math lab, a meeting place – I knew that parent was right. I had learned how to do many things better.
Over the short two weeks, I had the time and space to transform my teaching, and myself as a teacher. Between interactive experiences, challenging academic reading and analysis, and intense reflection, I became what I can only describe as an empowered teacher. By closely examining student development (academic and social), district academic standards, my own school’s expectation and performance, and my own teaching practices, I learned how to balance the necessity for student engagement with the urgency of district (and now national) standards and standardized tests. I became confident enough to root my teaching in my students’ interests and creativity, yet knowledgeable about how best to do so for them to “prove” their learning on standardized tests.
I learned that I didn’t have to choose between creativity and academic success in my classroom – we could achieve both! In my next year of teaching, my students saw far more success than in years before, and were engaged in their learning on a completely different level. As a teacher, I was also engaged on a different level. My teaching changed, my perspective changed, classroom changed – for the better. My chaotic projects had direction and purpose. My haphazard attempt to cover as many standards as possible before the test became carefully planned units centered on what students found interesting. It turns out that 3rd graders are fascinated by almost everything – but rote test practice is not one of them. I dumped the scripted Reading curriculum. My students began choosing their own books, so engrossed in reading that 30 or 45 minutes would pass without a sound. Our class wrote stories, sometimes fiction, sometimes personal, but always meaningful in some way. Our Math block became like a workshop – students in different areas, exploring and practicing concepts and skills. I looked around one day and realized all of a sudden that my job had become fun.
One of the most remarkable things about this transformation is that I did not sacrifice academic rigor. In fact, my students’ test scores improved, and have been improving ever since.
My students have continued to benefit from my experience with Inspired Teaching. I am proud of my classroom – of the community we build each year, the focused and creative work my students engage in each day, their kindness and curiosity, and their bravery in taking risks. I am also, I will admit it, proud of their test scores too.
The experience I had in Institute in the summer of 2009 has led me to stay in close contact with the Center for Inspired Teaching. In the summer of 2011 I had the pleasure of working for Inspired Teaching as a New Teacher Mentor. I worked closely with the new cohort of teachers who were just beginning their teaching careers. I was able to witness these new teachers begin to understand what I had learned two summers before – the art and science of combining creativity and inquiry with state standards and assessments. I transitioned from learner to teacher, and spent every day that summer with the new teachers as I helped to guide their experiences as they tested out their new skills and knowledge by teaching summer school. I helped my new teachers plan their curriculum, write lesson plans, and teach for the first time. Watching my group of new teachers teach for the first time was thrilling – I was inspired by their enthusiasm and dedication, and humbled by the effect I could have on this group of teachers who were each going to lead their own classrooms in the fall.
I am now coming to the end of my 5th year of teaching in DC Public Schools. My classroom continues to be a more focused, engaged, creative, and inspired place. I work hard and am often exhausted, but I am always full of ideas (usually from my students) to keep things moving. I also understand the power and importance of supporting and developing great teachers, and I am proud to play a part in doing so.
This, to me, is exactly what the Center for Inspired Teaching does – meeting teachers where they are, nurturing them, challenging them, and then, if they choose, helping teachers to support each other. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. In a school system in great need of this kind of support, I am increasingly grateful to have Inspired Teaching with me along the way.