A Milken Educator's Advice for New TeachersJanuary 19, 2017
John Lary teaches European and U.S. history at C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Last November the Louisiana Association of Educators invited me to speak to 25 graduating education students at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. As I prepared my remarks, I realized that even in my tenth year, the advice I planned to share with these soon-to-be teachers still resonates with me. Here's what I told them.
First: Be passionate.
The most successful teachers are passionate about real learning and passionate about students. I learned the most from the many passionate teachers I had as a student. Knowing that, I let my passion shine through for my students and for real education.
One of my greatest mentors in education was Mr. Mack Evans. Mack never let the fact that he was a math teacher get in the way of teaching his students something every day. His classroom had an incredible eclectic mix of art, quotes, photography and weird student projects hanging from the walls and the ceiling. He was passionate about learning and we saw him get excited about it every day.
In Mr. Evans' calculus course, he taught us about the election of 1972, Hunter S. Thompson and gonzo journalism, nuclear scientist Richard Feynman, safe-cracking, Renaissance Art, Nobel prizes, DNA…oh, and a lot of math, too. He was passionate about learning, even if it wasn't part of the curriculum he was tasked with teaching. And his passion was contagious.
I try to show my students the new things I'm learning regularly. I try to show them that education doesn't stop with a diploma or a degree. I believe in the power of education, and I want my students to know that, not just because of what I say but from my actions. I want them to learn for more than just a standardized test. I want them to think actively and critically, to appreciate the world around them, to find beauty and value. I am almost always running behind my lesson plans because I get distracted when real learning opportunities arise. When a student wants to know more, I can't help but use that interest to spark a discussion I could never have planned.
Successful teachers are passionate about learning, but they're also passionately devoted to their students. They want to see their students succeed and grow. They want to know their students better and be part of their success stories. I have found that students work harder than they thought they could for a teacher when they know that teacher cares about them. Connections and relationships are what make learning happen.
I have been lucky enough to have students tell me that I made a difference. It wasn't that history (the subject I teach) made a difference in their lives. I've taught almost 1,500 students, and I can count the number of students who ended up majoring in history on my hands. It wasn't the content that made something click for them. It was the connection, the caring, the passion.
I remember some of the lessons I was taught in school. But more importantly, I remember the way teachers made me feel. That my opinions had value. That my brain could work. That I had potential. That my interests were interesting. That I was cared for. I remember the conversations I had with teachers that were not about content at all, but were about my aspirations, my life. I had teachers who were passionate about students, passionate about seeing my success, and they made a difference in my life.
Second: Be transparent.
My first year teaching I was deathly afraid of making mistakes in front of my students. I dreaded the idea that a student might ask me a question I didn't know how to answer. I dreaded being caught not knowing what I was doing. I feared my students seeing my weaknesses.
I got over that, and you should too. I can't say this strongly enough: It's okay to make mistakes. Every year. Over and over again. Forever.
Just try to avoid making the same mistake twice.
I believe that it's important for students to see us make mistakes, recognize our errors, look critically at what happened and develop solutions. From the student perspective, it's often a mystery why teachers do what they do. Pull back the curtain. Let the students see some of your thought processes behind your decisions.
We're often told to write daily objectives on the board or announce them to the class so students know what we are trying to get them to learn that day. Go further and explain the why behind it. If you don't know why you're doing something...well, figure it out.
Third: Be better.
If you write up daily lesson plans, leave space at the bottom for reflection. Ask students for feedback too. Look back at what you did, why you did it, how the students responded, what went right, what went wrong. And then, next time, make it better.
Learn to love your numbers. Check the data to see if students are getting what you intended. If they aren't, adapt and change.
Professional development is important—and I find observing other teachers one of the best forms of professional development. Teachers-in-training are always required to observe. Don't stop. Observe other teachers as often as you can. Observe teachers who teach your subject. Observe teachers who have your students (current and former) for other subjects. Watch and get ideas from those around you. You will be surrounded by incredible educators with incredible ideas and incredible experiences. Use them. Lean on them.
I've been teaching for 10 years. I have yet to give the exact same test twice. I've yet to present the same content in exactly the same way twice. Each year, each day, each hour, I find something I could do differently or better. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it still needs some tweaking. I try to look back constantly so I can pave a better way forward.
I won the Milken Educator Award in October 2015. I was in shock that day, and now, more than a year later, the shock hasn't worn off. I did not get into education with the intention of getting awards or recognition, and I am uncomfortable with the attention. Even so, I wear the gold lapel pin from the Milken Family Foundation every day.
Students sometimes ask what the pin is about. I tell them that I continue to try to earn the Award every day. I try to deserve the recognition. Each day in class I try to live up to the teachers who inspired me. Each day I try to show my passion for real learning and my passion for my students. I'll earn the Award if I can keep my passion alive and channel it to improve my craft, if I keep striving passionately to be better, if I keep reaching for that constantly shifting goal of improvement. The pin is my daily reminder to be passionate and to be better, for myself and for my students.
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