Saturday, March 1, 2014

I Don't Have All the Answers, But I Do Have Some

As a third grader, gifted with my teacher’s leftover purple ditto worksheets, I taught school every afternoon and all weekend in my playhouse in the backyard.  Quite often, I twisted a friend’s arm to come over and play the role of student.  We read stories, sounded out words, and solved math problems.  I wanted to become a teacher just like Mrs. Nipper.  But as I got older, my interests changed.

In college, I declared to my advisor, “I will not get stuck in a little bitty town teaching school!”  And therein lies the lesson of don’t say what you won’t do.  Three months after graduation, with not a single education course on my transcript, I accepted a teaching position. The principal assured me that my degree in English was qualification enough to teach high school English. 

What a horrible teacher I was!  I knew zilch about classroom management, appropriate assessment, or instructional strategies.  I spent long weekends preparing lessons that lasted less than half the class period.  I graded failing papers, casting blame on students for not studying.  I lost my cool with ill-behaved students who didn’t have enough work to do. 

That was 1989, before home computers, instant internet access, online libraries and  I needed help, but my resources were limited.  I floundered for several years, doing the best I could with the few articles I found with creative ideas for lessons and tips for managing discipline, and I earned initial teacher certification through coursework at the university.

Then, in 2000, a charter school opened in my hometown.  I became an elementary teacher, again with no formal training.  Fortunately, the school provided training in the reading program.  Because of my students’ success, the strategies and philosophy used in the program began to shape my teaching in all subjects.

Fueled by my desire to teach better and to lead within my school, I pursued three graduate degrees.  I became a voracious consumer of educational literature; my professional library has grown to hundreds of volumes covering the many interests and concerns I have had as a teacher and an instructional leader.

I have learned much about effective teaching through trial and error and through studying professional literature.  If only I had known in 1989 what I know now.  I can’t start over, but I can use what I’ve learned to improve the experiences of others. While much of my learning has been in response to a problem I was experiencing, I can be proactive as a teacher of teachers to prepare pre-service educators with skills and pedagogical knowledge to be effective in the classroom on Day One.

I believe, as Engelmann (1997) emphatically states, “The teacher is responsible for the learning and performance of the children” (p. 34).  As a professional educator, I take responsibility for my students’ academic performance.  I believe that if the student has not learned, I have not taught well. If my techniques are ineffective, I must improve.  I also agree with Engelmann: “When the teacher blames the children for not having learned, she automatically excuses herself from teaching” (1997, p. 35).  Been there.  Done that. Not anymore.  As a reflective practitioner, I analyze my students’ performance and modify my instructional strategies to better meet their needs and accomplish the learning goals.

Effective teaching requires a combination of expertise in subject matter, pedagogy and human relations. While I believe in the principles of Direct Instruction for skills instruction, including repetition, frequent assessment, and tightly sequenced lessons, I recognize the necessity for experiential learning and activities across the curriculum using multiple learning modalities to engage student attention and enhance their cognitive abilities. 

I believe, too, in the necessity of building relationships with students characterized by trust, caring and kindness.  I think students are more receptive to learning when they feel a connection to the teacher.  I am charged with creating an emotionally and physically safe, nurturing atmosphere and modeling high standards of character. 

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some.  And I’m willing to share them. 

I’m still learning, trying new strategies, and assessing their effectiveness. 


Engelmann, S. (1997).  Preventing failure in the primary grades.  Eugene, OR:   Association for Direct Instruction.

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