Friday, July 9, 2010

Teaching as a Solitary Pursuit

We all have a general sense of who amongst are colleagues are the good teachers and who are the bad. How we really know this is unclear since we seldom have the opportunity to actually see them in action (and the judgments of adolescents is often a bit skewed where this is concerned). Nevertheless, we usually have a sense about this and are probably pretty accurate in our assessment. But the bigger question is, “Where do I fit in the continuum?” This is the question that often nags at us.

We work in isolation. We receive very little feedback on our job performance and when we do, it is often based on brief snippets of observation. So, we wait for the end of course evaluations that we give once or twice a year. We hope for those unsolicited bits of praise from students – current and former. We look somewhat anxiously (albeit often disdainfully) for those standardized test results, knowing we are but one variable in a child’s academic success or failure. And we wonder… Am I good? Am I making a difference? All while wearing an air of pseudo-confidence with our colleagues in an effort to mask the fear. What if we aren’t good? What if we are one of the bad ones? Of course, I tend to be a bit insecure by nature so perhaps it’s just me…

I have been blessed to have companions on my journey. As a special education teacher, I was a bit dismayed when the movement toward full inclusion redefined the nature of my job. Where was my autonomy? Would I have the opportunity to creatively design my instruction? What would my classroom look like now that I didn’t even have a classroom of which to speak? It felt, at the time, like a demotion to a teacher’s aide. I could not have been more wrong. Instead, what I found was the opportunity to pursue my passion alongside others who shared my enthusiasm. And I found a measuring stick by which to evaluate myself. Occasionally my partners have set the bar low enough for me to feel validated. More frequently, they humble me with their gifts and skills. But most of the time, it’s an ebb and flow…a sharing…a growing…an iron sharpening iron. Ideas building off of idea. And the constant feeling of being just a little bit better than I was yesterday.

And then I discovered my virtual professional learning network….the world of Twitter and the blogs…a collegial community better than any I could have envisioned. When I walk into my classroom and close the door, I am no longer alone. I have a network of support that goes with me, to encourage, guide, prod, even comfort me when needed. I am enormously grateful for that. I am still humbled daily by the talent around me. I still worry from time to time that perhaps I’m not good enough. But I feel like I am walking through the trenches with a team who is there to pull me up when I stumble and shine the flashlight for me when the places seem dark.

And I realize that perhaps teaching isn’t such a solitary pursuit after all.


  1. Lovely introduction. I'm excited to read your thoughts in a more extended format than twitter.

  2. Wow. What an amazing post. This is how I feel everyday. I want so much to make a difference to the incredible young people that I get to teach. But, often I feel as if I fall short. Someone once told me that if you are worried that you are failing then you are doing it right. I believe that must be, because if we are worrying about failure then it speaks to how much we are thinking about it. And that shows how much we care. I really believe that is one of the key components to being a great teacher. I'm so glad to have you on board! Welcome!

  3. Very well said. I totally agree with the "island" sentiment and with questioning of effectiveness. I struggle with both of those on a weekly basis. I think I'm a good teacher, but I don't have any proof.

    Thanks for writing and keep up the good work.

    -Mike Mathews (Joni is my wife and I'm using her Google account, apparently)

  4. Beautiful post. Welcome! I look forward to reading about your thoughts and experiences!

    Like Mike, I agree with the thoughts about isolation and effectiveness. I struggle with it as well.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  5. It bothers me a bit when I find others (or myself) trying to judge the quality of another teacher without actually having seen them teach. I spent most of last month in classes with other math teachers. They were amazing classmates, to be sure, but I'm not ready to claim that they're amazing teachers. (Although some must be, surely.) Teaching is far too personal, a special bond between teacher and student, and without careful, regular observation I'm not in a position to judge, and the bond you have with your students might look quite different from the one I have with mine. Beyond that, there's more to it than just having a special bond -- teaching quality content matters, too.

    That said, the most important (and critical, as you expressed) judge of our teaching can be ourselves, and it helps to have colleagues who continuously push us to innovate, rethink established positions, and improve our own practice. This is precisely why I think it's so important to embrace collaboration, no matter where it happens to come from. I spent three years as the sole full-time math teacher in a rural district, the only person teaching any of my courses, and I would have benefited greatly from the ideas I see passed along daily in blogs and tweets.

    Good luck with the blog. I'll be following!