Six years ago I drove twelve hours with a colleague to see Katie Wood Ray speak for two days. Katie was the first professional development author I really followed – I read everything I could find that she wrote, attended as many conferences she spoke at as I could. I remember loving her book Study Driven because everything was already there for me. When she would grab an article in a workshop, read it to us, and then ask what we could teach from it, I’d freeze. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of anything to teach, I would just always wonder what the “right” answer was.
My friends joke often that I have a bit of a control issue – and they are right. There is also some perfectionism thrown in for good measure, along with a huge fear of being wrong – failing. These fabulous character traits make taking risks downright scary. In my first decade of teaching, it was much easier – safer – to buy the program instead of creating the lessons myself.
An example of what I’m talking about would be the Units of Study from Lucy Calkins. Many years ago I reflected on what subject I needed to improve in over the summer and writing came to mind. Looking back, I really hadn’t had the students write a lot that school year. When I really examined why, it was because I didn’t consider myself a writer, much less a decent one. Unsure as to how to proceed, I found the units and used them religiously.
I can look over the many years of my teaching career and remember different “programs” I used to teach various subjects. As always is the case when given time, distance, and reflection, I can now see why I clung to these programs like a life preserver. I was worried I wouldn’t teach the lesson “correctly” or undervalued my own knowledge and experience – what was my level of knowledge compared to someone like Lucy Calkins? So when did it all change?
It has only been in the last four to five years that I have found my own feet in teaching. I think I was a decent teacher before, but I trust myself more now. This doesn’t mean that I’ve pitched all of the units from folks like Calkins out the door, but I’m much more likely to think of pulling a part from one unit to supplement something I’m already teaching than to teach a unit as written. I can “read” my students and teach to their needs. I see value in slowing down, studying the children, seeing where they are, and then moving from there. I don’t always know what I will be teaching in a month – much less a few weeks – because I rely on my students to guide me. I start my year with the standards and a list of what I need to teach throughout the year and move on from there.
Is this the right way? Like anything else, it works for me. I feel more in tune with my students than ever. I feel like I actually am meeting them where they are and bringing them above where they believe they can achieve. Sometimes I remember the feeling from years past – the uncertainty of my own ability as a teacher. That resurfaces sometimes when I hear other teachers speak or read an article from a teacher’s classroom – I pause and am in awe of their natural ability. How do they come up with these amazing insights? Why can’t I teach like that?
Then, I regroup. I remember how far I’ve come. I know that if I had the chance to sit in a session with Katie Wood Ray again and she were to ask what to do with a given article, I wouldn’t worry about the “right” answer, but would instead think of my students and what I could teach them from that article. Or, in my classroom, I would likely turn the article over to them and simply ask, “What do you notice?” I trust myself more now, and I trust my students more too. I have found what works for me.