Lessons Learned

MODULE 12 ~ (2) Bag of Tricks: Create a physical collection of objects to help you remember what you learned from the class. Give each object a "tag" or a "label" describing how it represents a lesson learned.

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With all the challenges that teachers face, and the relative lack of public support and respect for the profession of teaching, it is a job that can seem like a staircase to nowhere. The majority of new teachers abandon the field of teaching after only a few years.

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Teacher training programs often do little to prepare students for the hard realities of teaching. A national panel of U.S. education experts has called for an overhaul of U.S. teacher-preparation programs, including a greater emphasis on classroom training as well as tougher admission and graduation standards. The panel's sweeping recommendations urge teacher-training programs to operate more like medical schools, which rely heavily on clinical experience.

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In response to the current economic recession, many states and school districts are being forced to lay off teachers and cut educational budgets. Some schools are eliminating extracurricular activities and firing teachers who lead elective classes such as music and art. In Santa Fe, a charter school recently fired a popular school garden teacher due to budget constraints. Many school districts (including New York City) are concentrating teacher layoffs on the newest teachers, who have the least seniority. When students see their favorite teachers disappear for no good reason except lack of money, this tells them how little their education is valued by mainstream society.

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Repeating information (in multiple ways) is a key strategy for encouraging people to remember it!

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Lots of teachers understand that the misplaced priorities of the United States government are directly responsible for our educational crisis. Since 2001, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion on prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "This juxtaposition of robust war spending and inadequate support for education highlights the moral bankruptcy of political and economic leaders who seem to find endless piles of money to kill people abroad but not much to educate them at home," say the editors of Rethinking Schools magazine.

"The link between teacher layoffs and a permanent war economy has become so glaring that we ought to bring it up in every possible forum: More than a trillion dollars spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," they argue. "For those of us concerned with the hemorrhaging of teacher jobs in this country, one call is obvious: Stop the wars."

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Yet in America's public debate, teacher unions are facing the brunt of criticism for the crisis in schools, while the deeper systemic causes are left unexamined. For example, a new high-profile film, "Waiting for Superman," criticizes teacher unions for being opposed to merit pay and for perpetually blocking "bad teachers" from being fired. These tenured "bad teachers" are almost single-handedly responsible for dragging down the test scores of America's students, the film argues. But even if this argument contains a grain of truth, it doesn't address the harder questions, such as: If teaching is not appropriately valued and we're dramatically cutting education budgets, how will we find "good teachers" to replace the "bad" ones? And if labor unions don't exist to protect and advocate for the interests of teachers, who will?

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In reality, teachers are responsible for teaching to the best of our ability and always striving to do better. The challenges of dealing with limited resources and lack of public understanding are simply part of the turf that comes with teaching. It's a good idea for teachers to do what we can to struggle to change this, but we should never use it as an excuse to avoid doing what is necessary to become better teachers.

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Fortunately, some progressive teachers are fighting back and reclaiming the unions. This year in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won the election to gain control over one of the country's largest and most influential teacher unions. Although CORE still faces an uphill battle to implement progressive reforms in Chicago's educational system, they have quickly become an inspiration to other teachers nationwide. And simply by telling the truth about the real causes of the educational crisis, CORE is helping to lead the way to greater public understanding and respect for teachers. "Fifteen years ago, this city purposely began starving our lowest-income neighborhood schools of greatly needed resources and personnel," says one of CORE's leaders. "Class sizes rose, schools were closed. Then standardized tests, which in this town alone is a $60 million business, measured that slow death by starvation. These tests labeled our students, families and educators failures, because standardized tests reveal more about a student's zip code than it does about academic growth."

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Beyond the tyranny of standardized tests, effective teachers realize that students possess many different types of intelligence, and they adapt their teaching style and content to the needs of individuals.

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In other words, all of us have varying degrees of each intelligence. Instructional practices should involve all intelligences, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn.

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In his book "Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher," Stephen Brookfield Stephen Brookfield identifies a number of benefits that teachers can gain by practicing the art of critical reflection. These include: 1) to increase the probability that teachers will take informed actions – those that can be explained and justified to self and others; 2) to enable teachers to provide a rationale behind their practice which can be crucial to establishing credibility with students; 3) to avoid self-laceration - believing that the teacher is to blame if students are not learning; 4) to ground teachers emotionally; 5) to enliven the classroom by making it challenging, interesting and stimulating for students; 6) to increase democratic trust as a result of the examples and modeling conveyed by the teacher, thereby allowing students to learn democratic behavior.

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In addition, great teachers embrace the need for "culturally relevant" teaching. Gloria Ladson-Billings' book "The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children" highlights this approach. Similarly, in Albuquerque's South Valley, the La Plazita Institute works to provide "at-risk" Chicano and indigenous youth with adult role models and meaningful educational programs. Their core philosophy is "La Cultura Cura," or "Culture Heals," with the mission of strengthening community and enabling youth to leave behind a destructive lifestyle by tapping into their own roots to express core traditional values of respect, honor, love, family, and community.

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Although teaching is hard work and the challenges are immense, there is no doubt that the vast majority of students truly appreciate and learn from good teachers. This is the best reward for teaching!

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