A Lifelong Student TeacherOctober 28, 2019
Bill Sterrett (VA '08) serves as associate dean of teacher education and outreach in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
As educators, it’s important that we always see ourselves as student teachers. Even as a veteran educator (that sounds strange!) with nearly 20 years of teaching and leadership experience, I know I have a lot to learn. From time to time, I even need to watch my own teaching on videotape—just like our student-teachers do—and look for growth areas to reflect upon. Did I listen to each student? Did I incorporate movement breaks? Did I ever “take the pulse” of the room? And was I willing to maybe change my game plan midstream?
I was fortunate to receive the Milken Educator Award over a decade ago as a third-year principal, in the middle of an unforgettable October afternoon assembly in our elementary school gym. Joining the Milken family of educators has opened the door to learn with an incredible cadre of amazing teachers and leaders in projects such as authoring a book on school leadership, studying green schools in Colorado and joining an incredible professional network in Virginia that pours energy and promise into the next generation of teachers each spring.
This past year, my perspective expanded even further when I had the opportunity to go to Pakistan. I was answering the call from the U.S. State Department to “establish enduring and self-sustaining connections between U.S. and Pakistani educational institutions” through teaching underrepresented students in middle grades, addressing critical STEM areas such as water and natural resource management through hands-on project-based learning teaching strategies.
While our team of educators from the University of North Carolina Watson and Towson University were ecstatic when we were awarded the competitive grant in September 2018, I was not quite sure what to expect. I again felt like a student-teacher, knowing I was about to embark on the unknown. Over the next few months, as we learned the Pakistani curriculum and got to know our collaborators in the Punjab region, I was impressed by the established STEM curriculum framework in the middle grades and inspired by my colleagues’ willingness to embrace the unknown, invite us into their classrooms and embark on a journey of innovation together.
Before our trip to Lahore in December 2018, our team videoconferenced regularly and got to know our colleagues at the University of Education Lahore. We spent countless hours preparing lessons and units, navigating our different time zones and languages, working through travel plans, and firming up goals and learning objectives. Here are a few takeaways from our collaborative effort:
- Be prepared, but be realistic. We had mapped out a full week of professional development, and we carved out space for the unexpected. We realized that there would be questions and nuances to navigate. We embraced this uncertainty as a team. We focused on understanding, not just covering all the content.
- Focus on the learner’s perspective. As an educator, I have been fortunate to teach all ages, from pre-K students to doctoral candidates. Whether it is an inquisitive four-year-old learning about the notion of teamwork or a veteran principal engaging in a seminar about innovation, I realize the importance on focusing on what the learner is doing and saying in class. In our work together with this grant effort, we made sure to carve out time and space to listen.
- Keep the collaboration alive. Since our December trip, we have built on our work through ongoing videoconferencing, seeing work products from middle school classrooms in Pakistan, and continuing to build working relationships with our colleagues across continents. When both parties are willing to work together and learn from each other, the sky is the limit.
I really enjoyed having time to talk with and learn from my Pakistani colleagues. I realized that many of the challenges they may grapple with (such as engaging all learners) are quite similar to ones I have faced as a teacher, principal, and professor here in the U.S. I am grateful that I still don’t have it all figured out. Yes, I am proud to still be a student-teacher. I am thankful to embrace the unexpected and the new, and to appreciate the learning that helps me grow as an educator.
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