What’s in Your Teaching Soul?

Our Compass Shifts 2-1I am an idea machine. Really, it’s like Boom! This might be cool–or this–or this. How about this? It relates to that and that and that. Sounds like a pretty great machine, right?

Not even. It’s a problem.

I get so many ideas spinning that I get dizzy with possibilities, and inevitably, I get frustrated. You know what happens next. Do you hear that crashing?

So, as the days of summer disappear, and I start thinking about school starting up again and what I want to do differently with my students this year, the idea machine hums at high speed. And there is just no room on the planning calendar to do every idea that I think is a cool one. And really, why would I want to?

I do this to myself every year:  I try to do too much, so my students rarely get the chance to do some things really well. We’re in too much of a hurry to move on to the next great thing. No wonder I am a stressed out, headache prone, insomniac from August until June.

At the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute learning from Penny Kittle, she asked us at the beginning of the course and then again at the end:  What is your teaching soul?

The first day of class my answer went something like this:

I’ve lost it. That’s a lot of the reason I am here. My passion for teaching has taken a beating–a lot of it influences from outside of school, (It’s been a hard year personally)– a lot of it the choices I made within the classroom.  I’m here to get my passion back.

The last day of class, and it’s really no surprise, since, you know, I was learning from Penny Kittle, my response was something entirely different. The discussions about writing, the experiences with reading–mostly analyzing author’s craft, and my own writing practice all helped redefine who I am as an educator and as an individual.

And that is what I want for my students. I want them to know who they are and what they have to offer.

So, what is my teaching soul? What are the non-negotiables that matter, the things that will help me keep the passion and help my students define themselves as readers and writers and individuals of tremendous worth? I know in my soul the following things matter:

Community Matters. My students must trust me to establish and maintain a classroom community that allows for risk and creativity. I must encourage conversations that allow students to be their authentic selves so they can find their authentic voices in their writing. Every discussion and every activity can help us feel at ease as we grow to know and appreciate one another as developing readers and writers. Keeping writer’s notebooks, talking about books, sharing our writing–every single day–will help my students feel safe so they are willing to speak up and let me see glimpses into their lives and how they think.

Reading, Writing, and Thinking Matter–a lot. If it’s true that to develop fluency in reading and in writing, students must read and write, then it only makes sense that to develop fluency of thought, students must think. Asking students to analyze, synthesize, revise, create, etc  on a daily basis is the only way to build this fluency. I can start with asking good questions, but more importantly, I want students asking good questions. A student-centered, student-driven inquiry cycle will lead to thinking that involves and engages every learner.

Modeling and Mentoring Matter. I’ve learned the difference between showing students something I’ve written and writing something in front of them. In front of them–so they see the thinking and the struggle–works so much better. If they see me as a writer, and I talk to them as writers, our writing community helps us all grow in our craft and experience. The same holds true for reading. Students have to see me as a reader. Mentor texts that we study for craft act as professional coaches to show us the moves and stylistic devices published authors use to create meaning. My job is to ‘hire’ good coaches and make sure my students know that we can learn from them.

Authenticity matters. I’ve thought about this a lot:  How can students be their authentic selves if we never let them make choices? I read something once that compared high school to a dystopian society: wear a certain thing, eat at a certain time, respond to the bells throughout the day, come and go when they tell you, talk when they let you. All that control. I get that schools must function a certain way, but can’t we give students some control? Allowing them to choose the books they read and allowing them to select topics that interest them to write about gives students a little freedom. The more freedom we give students, the more interest they’ll have in their learning. The more interest they have, the more commitment they will have. Isn’t that what we want–students committed to their own learning? This is where blogging comes in for me, too. By encouraging students to create and post on their blogs, I learn who they are as individuals. I read about the topics that matter to them, and they find their authentic voices as they publish to a world of potential readers far beyond me as their teacher.

Dialogue matters. In a training last spring, Kylene Beers reminded me that “the smartest person in the room is the room.” I needed this reminder because I often shut down conversation when I could explode it. Rich classroom discussion can lead to intense learning. I must trust that when students engage in conversation surrounding a topic, they may learn more from one another than from me. They can learn from me in the dialogue we share during our one-on-one conferences. Talking to students about their reading lives and their writing processes is the best teaching tool I have as an educator–and the best use of my teacher voice.

As I use the last of my summer days to plan the best learning I can for the students I will serve this fall, I pledge to remember how my heart healed in July. I know the power of a student-centered workshop classroom, and I will remember to allow my students the opportunities to learn the way Penny allowed me to learn at #UNHLit13.

I met some awesome educators who will help me remember, and they will help you, too. We bonded over books, breakfasts, love for PK, and zen. In an effort to focus our teaching this year around the things we learned in NH, we devised a plan to 20130713_193936keep us connected and accountable. Once a week we’ll write about our experiences, practicing in our classrooms the things we learned this summer.

We’re calling our reflections Our Compass Shifts because it has and it does, depending on the needs of our students. From Texas to West Virginia to California to New York, we are four high school teachers with different backgrounds, teaching experience, and student demographics, who believe in the genius of our students.

Please meet my new colleagues:  Shana Karnes (WV), Emily Kim (CA), and Erika Bogdany (NY). You’ll find their bios on our About page, but I’ll let them introduce themselves and their students as they take turns posting each week. They’ve got teaching soul that makes me shiver. Oh, and see? They are walking talking FUN.

Think about what swells in the heart of your teaching. I hope you’ll share the answer: What is in your teaching soul?


Tagged: , , , , ,

2 thoughts on “What’s in Your Teaching Soul?

  1. shanakarnes August 5, 2013 at 9:22 pm Reply

    Amy, this is a beautiful post, and not just because of that gorgeous picture that’s in there…! 🙂

    I admire your seemingly innate ability to articulate your thoughts so well. Two weeks at #UNHLit13 and I still struggled to write my Teaching Soul for Penny at the end–I wound up with a two page rant about wanting to start a more professional network of friends at school. Who knows what I will learn and get passionate about at my new school?

    Can’t wait to write beside you all year long…and before that, to see you in Boston for NCTE 13!

    Take care, pretty lady!


  2. Kristen Browni August 3, 2013 at 12:32 pm Reply

    Oh my, I needed to read your post today. The August pre-professional development panic attacks are lurking around my mental corners too!

    Kittle’s reference to one’s “teaching soul” reminds me of my first year as a teacher when my mentor teacher, Krista Franklin, begged me the question that gave me unsuspecting pause: “Why were you called to teach?”

    I had left a lucrative job for the murky waters of a profession with no guarantees of success, financial security, or personal satisfaction. Why do that? Why take a $12K paycut and chance making a horrible decision with dire consequences???

    It’s actually a pretty easy answer. The desire to teach lies within each of us, but it’s those of us who possess not only the knowledge of a teacher, but the heart of one as well. The heart of a teacher is evidenced by his/her willingness to work late, attend games, act stupidly, regardless of who’s watching. It’s the phone calls made to parent and uttering courageous words others refuse or are unable to speak. It’s that compulsion to obsess over a lesson plan and its pluses and minuses, tweaking it in a never-ending act of revision, year after year. A teacher’s heart contains that drive to please, to go beyond educating, and to move minds, to model tolerance, obedience, and good manners not likely taught in the home.
    A teacher’s heart aches when there’s a premature loss, one that may be the result of a student’s self-infliction, or through a parent’s neglect, abuse, or abandonment. A teacher’s heart yearns for each child to succeed, even ironically at the cost of time lost that could’ve been spent with the teacher’s own family.

    In the heart of the teacher lies the passion, the patience, the innate desire to be present, willing, able, and flexible enough to attend summertime professional development and seminars when any other sane, employed individual would simply take a summer vacation and have it be precisely that: a vacation.

    Encompassing the heart of the teacher is the soul. Therefore, the soul houses all those attributes as does the heart, but there’s more. The soul might just be the root causes for entering the teaching profession. For me, it was a journey of sorts, one worthy of writing a novella to capture its full essence. For others, I’m sure their journeys are worthy of the same amount of paper as my own tale. My soul = your soul.

    We all want the same for our students: safety, success, perhaps be next year’s valedictorian, or perhaps to be able to rock a little less violently when the stemming comes on.

    Back to my mentor’s question. I was called to teach because of what already existed in my soul and for whatever reason, I’d been denying its existence for the better part of a decade. Once I acknowledged and accepted my “soul” and the direction I was supposed to be headed, I threw every ounce of energy I had in becoming a teacher and leaving the rest to chance.

    When I finally settled on education as my career, I realized that it had been a part of me all along. Because I believe I’m not on earth to fulfill my personal needs, but rather help to satisfy the needs of others while I’m here, my soul gets fed the more I give.

    Now that school will begin in just a couple of weeks (insert borderline panic attack), my soul’s about to get the feeding it’s been craving since late May.


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: