• Brent Kaneft

5 (easy!) Steps for Teacher Growth


Many teachers struggle to understand their new role in the 21st-century classroom. When they realize that "Content Knowledge" has dropped to the bottom of their list of requisite skills, they feel lost. In a desperate attempt to maintain value, many will hold on to the role of "Content Expert" and significantly decrease the learning that could be happening in their classrooms.

As educational leaders, it is important to identify this anxiety and to help teachers cope with this shift. Support them by explaining their new roles — mentor, guide, expert learner, tool finder — and helping them take the next steps toward developing a student-centered, 21st-century classroom. Here are five progressive steps that shouldn't cause too much anxiety.

1. Limit the symbols of hierarchy in your classroom.

For over a century, teachers have maintained their role as "Content Expert" by active symbols in their classroom. Classroom design is an easy first step toward changing that role. If all your desks are aimed to the front of the classroom where a teacher stands and disseminates knowledge, the message is clear: a "Content Expert" runs this show. This is a hierarchy. If we move the desks into a circle, or, if your school has the resources, bring in collaborative tables, then the message changes for your students: this is a place for students, not one teacher. "The Medium is the Message," said Marshall McLuhan, and the classroom space is the medium. This doesn't change everything, but it is a symbolic gesture that takes the teacher out of the spotlight. While you're changing things around, see if you can throw out your desk, too. Make more space for students and tear down that fortress we so often hide behind. Be among the kids.

A More Radical Idea: Depending on your school's culture, I suggest getting rid of the "Mr." or "Ms." we often use as another sign of the 20th-century hierarchical model. This might be a tougher one to stomach, but ask yourself why you need that salutation. Respect is not something that is given freely, it's earned. These archaic salutations make us feel better because they give the impression that there is already respect between the teacher and student on day one. This is a lie, of course. Respect is earned when you do what's best for the learners in your classroom, when you give students choice in their learning, and when you support their growth. "Mr." and "Ms." is about control, not respect.

2. Make a list of tools you can use to enhance learning.

Tools don't have to be the latest technology, but certainly new tools on the market should be considered. But start with the basics: Are you a Google educator? Do you know how to teach students to use Docs, Sheets, or Slides? Do you use online citation generators? Do you use programs like Grammarly? (Yes, I'm an English teacher). There are a thousand tools you can use. But making a list of tools we are familiar with is a good start to finding out what we need to learn.

A friend of mine who works at a prestigious private school was beside himself the other day. His colleagues had refused to use an online citation generator for their history research paper. When he asked them why, they didn't make the argument that going through the process of finding the correct format in the Chicago manual was better. They simply admitted, we don't know how to use Noodletools. This is a problem! Ignorance is good to recognize, but it doesn't excuse your lack of initiative.

3. Find colleagues who are interested in talking about student-centered learning (Professional Learning Network).

Not everyone wants to innovate in their classrooms. Not everyone wants to use technology to enhance learning. Not everyone wants to give up the control over their students. That's OK. Resistance is normal. Resistance is good. Otherwise, your school would flip and flop with every new idea on the market. That being said, there are ideas on the market right now that are worth discussing. We are living through a period of remarkable change; those who deny it by holding on to the past will be left behind. I've yet to see a school post a teaching or administrative position that called for experience in traditional methods. No one needs a history teacher, for example, who lectures all day and occasionally leads a class discussion. Lecture and discussion are still viable tools, they're just not the only tools.

You need to find colleagues who are at least willing to discuss innovative ideas, people who will encourage you to grow, to risk, and to move forward. You may have a handful of people like that in your school. Find them. Make time to meet with them. If you can't find them at your school, get online. Read about what educators are doing to help students navigate this 21st-century world.

4. Read a book that will challenge your thinking.

It's tough to find time for reading during the school year, but if we want to grow, we must read books that challenge our thinking and make us uncomfortable. Here is a list I recommend:

George Courous's The Innovator's Mindset

A.J. Juliani and John Spencer's Launch and Empower

Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher's Neuroteach

James Lang's Small Teaching

Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner's Most Likely to Succeed

Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators

Angela Duckworth's Grit

Cal Newport's Deep Work

Robert Evans's The Human Side of School Change

Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy's Hacking Project Based Learning

5. Assign one project that doesn't have a predictable outcome.

OK, this step might not be "easy," especially if your administration doesn't value risk-taking. But if you do have good school leadership and if you have fostered those collegial friendships, then you have a large safety net when/if you fail. The truth is that whenever you try something new in the classroom, it's never quite as good as it will be. If you are a motivated teacher, you will see its flaws and learn what not to do in the future. That's growth. That's failing forward.

If the project is student-centered (i.e. it focuses on student inquiry, choice, process, empowerment, and growth), then its success is assured. Most of your students will learn when the projects they are assigned take their needs into account.


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