Josiane Blackman recently retired from E.W. Stokes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., but she’s still a familiar face there. She works a few mornings each week to observe classes and help teachers solve problems. “After I retired, there was no question of my severing my relationship with Stokes,” she says. “When I was hired twenty years ago, I committed myself totally to the growth of my school. So, I feel privileged to be still contributing.” Josiane participated in one of the earliest Inspired Teaching Institutes 20 years ago.
How would you describe your experience at the Inspired Teaching Institute?
Inspired Teaching was transformational in my life. I have vivid memories of the amazing work. There were many wonderful activities, but for me one of the huge shifts I remember having to make as a teacher was sharing power with students. I came from culture with adult-centered classrooms, and respect for elders was a given. Here children were more independent thinkers, and adults really had to assert themselves. The Center for Artistry in Teaching [now Inspired Teaching] gave me real tools that I could start using right away. The tools were more mental tools, shifting my thinking on many things, like the idea that learning could involve the whole body, and the whole child. To me, that was revolutionary.
Most of all, it was the idea of sharing power, through practices like the class constitution, that was key to my growth. Focusing on self-awareness and reflection was also crucial. Self-assessment remains the bedrock of any growth for a teacher.
When you go into a classroom to observe, what do you identify as the characteristics of a really great learning experience?
For me the first thing is getting a sense of peace and comfort in the classroom. You walk in and it is palpable.
I remember walking into a 2nd grade classroom that was co-taught. Co-teaching is complex with several teachers planning together, and at Stokes, they’re planning together in several different languages. It’s easy for things to get chaotic. However, when I walked into this room, I was awestruck. I was happy to be there. It was comfortable, peaceful — you felt like you could breathe. The teacher was relaxed. She had everybody engaged. She planned carefully, and ensured that she and her co-teacher had the same expectations for their children.
I recall the teacher helpfully redirecting a child, “Your friend is new to French. Help your friend float, not sink, as we discussed in science.” I thought that was amazing, the way she connected her redirection to the science content they’d been discussing earlier.
The level of engagement would be something I would also look for very intentionally. How excited are students about what they’re doing? How does the teacher instigate participation in appropriate ways?
What does it mean to you to be a Teacher Leader?
I’m still connected with my school and I go back a couple mornings a week to observe in classrooms and coach teachers. It’s not my nature to be front and center, but to me, being a leader means pushing that self-reflection. Teacher Leaders are self-reflective and committed to growth — and inspire others to do the same.
What advice would you give to a first year teacher?
I would say, use the greater part of your energy in becoming the best manager of your classroom that you can be. We are so caught up in the content and the deadlines, because they’re thrown at us all the time. The school year is like a never-ending treadmill because there is so much to cover. I would say, step back and be clear about your priorities – one of them should be being the best manager you can be. I don’t mean manager in a paternalistic sense, but in terms of building deep relationships. Think of the children you have in front of you and work on creating a strong, trusting relationship with each of them.