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February 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 5
How Teachers Learn
To remain enthusiastic and committed in their work, teachers need environments that promote meaningful learning.
How do teachers move from simply surviving to actively thriving in the profession? How do they go from dreading the trials and tribulations that each day brings to instead welcoming the challenges awaiting them?
Having been a classroom teacher myself (as well as the wife of one teacher and the mother of another), I know it takes a great deal of dedication to walk into school every day with enthusiasm, energy, and love, often in spite of conditions that make doing so a constant struggle. Yet some teachers do it all the time, and many remain in the classroom for years with a commitment that is nothing short of inspirational. These teachers (including my husband and daughter) have been the source of my admiration as well as much of my work. Throughout the years, I have explored the question of why and how they do it.
My research has made it clear that previous experiences as well as values, dispositions, and beliefs fuel teachers' determination to remain in the profession. Sensibilities such as love, engaging with intellectual work, the hope of changing students' lives, a belief in the democratic potential of public education, and anger at the conditions of public education are all at the heart of what makes for excellent and caring teachers (Nieto, 2003). Attitudes and values such as a sense of mission; solidarity with, and empathy for, students; the courage to challenge mainstream knowledge and conventional wisdom; improvisation; and a passion for social justice are teachers' motivations for entering the profession (Nieto, 2005).
On the other hand, teachers have never mentioned to me that teaching students how to take tests, learning to follow rubrics and templates, or heeding district mandates concerning the latest basal reader helped to keep them in the classroom or made teaching a rewarding experience. Although these tools and techniques may be helpful, truly "highly qualified teachers" have never viewed them as ends in themselves.
My experience has shown me that a number of conditions sustain teachers' energy and commitment to keep going. These include policies and practices at the school and district levels and attitudes and actions on the part of teachers themselves.
Because of state licensing requirements, all teachers must engage in professional development both before they enter the profession and periodically afterward. In spite of such requirements, too often teachers find that their professional development is both inadequate and irrelevant. For example, a survey of more than 5,000 teachers concerning their preparedness to teach found that fewer than 45 percent had participated in professional development programs focused on teaching students of diverse cultural backgrounds; worse still, only 26 percent had any training at all in working with students of diverse language backgrounds (Parsad, Lewis, & Farris, 2001). Yet the reality is that students of color and those for whom English is a second language go to school in every city and state. They are found increasingly in rural districts, and in many places, they are the majority.
In addition, in spite of the ineffectiveness of short-term and whole-school professional development activities, these kinds of programs remain ubiquitous in schools. Mandated professional development activities—in which administrators select the topics and teachers are a captive audience for a half or whole day—are notoriously unproductive. The result is often frustration and resentment on the part of teachers, dissatisfaction on the part of administrators, and a fruitless allocation of scarce resources.
Probably the most significant action school districts can take in changing the nature of professional development is to provide meaningful and engaging programs that respect the intelligence and good will of teachers and help them grow in terms of knowledge, awareness, and practice. Such professional development is characterized by teachers' ability to select the topics they want to learn more about and the opportunity to work collaboratively with colleagues.
For instance, in a yearlong inquiry group with high school teachers in Boston, Massachusetts, Stephen Gordon, a veteran teacher of English, wrote about his frustration with the traditional character of professional development:
I am not looking for prescriptions for teachers. I am not looking for narrow "silver-bullet" programs that script teacher behaviors using some quasi-scientific rationale.
I want to find ways to teach that embody the several theories and beliefs that I have come to believe are true and good, truths and knowledge that have consequence for educating urban children. I can do little about the injustice and racism that permeate our institutions. I want to create pedagogy that makes me feel I have done my best. (Nieto, 2003, p. 86)
Districts and universities can support meaningful research opportunities by providing long-term collaborations that enable teachers to earn master's degrees or professional development units. One example is the Access to Critical Content and English Language Acquisition (ACCELA) Alliance (see
www.umass.edu/accela), a joint project with the Springfield and Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts in which I was involved with my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The goal was for regular classroom teachers to learn about, and develop strategies for working with, English language learners, most of whom were Hispanic. Most of the classrooms in both school districts included students who were learning English, and in some of these classrooms, they were actually in the majority. Yet most teachers had received little, if any, previous training in working with this population or in building relationships with their students' families.
ACCELA provided courses, technical assistance, and research opportunities for teachers to learn more about their students, as well as about language and literacy development, children's literature, and family outreach (Gebhard & Willett, 2008). The individual or joint research in which teachers engaged resulted in projects in which teachers not only honed their skills, but also developed greater confidence in working with students who were learning English. In the process, they learned about the sociocultural realities of Latino children and families and about teaching students effectively despite the strains of living in poverty. When teachers learned new ways of working with English language learners, the results ranged from improved student math skills to increased advocacy on the part of students as demonstrated by, among other activities, writing petitions to reclaim recess (Gebhard, Habana Hafner, & Wright, 2004; Gebhard, Harman, & Seger, 2007). Even more significant, many teachers developed strong relationships with families that will, in the long run, improve the education outcomes for their students.
Another important condition that encourages teachers to remain in the profession is a climate of openness, shared decision making, and collaboration in the school. This means respecting the fact that teachers are professionals who may not always agree with administrators. Although it can be difficult for principals to have in their schools teachers who challenge their policies and practices, this approach is usually more constructive than running a school like a small fiefdom in which teachers have little say and feel they are treated more as technicians than as professionals.
Seth Peterson, a high school English teacher in Boston, wrote about the seeming contradiction of working for openness and change in a system that is often bureaucratic and closed:
My fellow teachers work in a system that trusts and expects them to know how to respond to a suicidal student, a bomb threat, or a hate crime. Yet this same system does not trust them to design the final exam for their own course. They teach the glory of this nation's struggle for freedom and defense of individual rights and yet are asked to do so with a curriculum that is standardized so that government agencies can measure growth more efficiently. … We, who do this work, are caught in a conundrum, working within the system to create change. (Peterson, 2005, pp. 163–164)
Another Boston high school teacher, Ambrizeth Lima, wrote about why teachers need to learn to question—and to teach their students to do so as well:
Part of learning is to question things that we take for granted, to discover issues that need to be debated, to uncover hidden realities that need to be transformed. The more we learn, the more burdened we are because it becomes our responsibility to bring that knowledge to others, to make it explicit, and to do something with it. (Lima, 2005, pp. 92–93)
It is sometimes difficult to create conditions in schools that promote dialogue, interaction, and collaboration, yet they can make a significant difference in retaining good teachers.
Teachers' attitudes, beliefs, values, and dispositions have a powerful influence on why teachers teach and why they remain in the profession in spite of difficult conditions that test their resolve. Certainly, there are many dispositions, which include the love of students and subject matter; a view of themselves as lifelong learners and intellectual workers; a deep commitment to social justice; comfort with uncertainty; endless patience; and, of course, a sense of humor.
But instead of focusing on dispositions, I want to discuss three necessary actions—or dispositions to actions—that need to flow from teachers' values.
A number of years ago, my colleagues and I interviewed several alumni of our teacher education program, which prepares all teachers, not just bilingual or English as a second language teachers, to work with language minority students (Gebhard, Austin, Nieto, & Willett, 2002). One of them was Mary Ginley, a veteran teacher of 30 years, who had recently been selected Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.
Mary spoke about why it had been necessary for her to learn more about herself to become an effective teacher of students who were different from her—and about how, for some teachers, this can be a difficult step:
I went to a conference, and this teacher said to me, "I don't understand you! What is all this multicultural stuff? Why can't we talk about how we are the same?" And I said to her, "The problem is when we do that, we are talking about how everybody is like us—white, middle class, and monolingual." I know she didn't get it, but you have to step outside of yourself … and it takes a lot of energy to bridge that cultural gap. (Gebhard, Austin, et al., 2002, p. 233)
Mary decided that her learning had to begin with an awareness and reassessment of who she was, an examination of the unearned privileges she had as a white teacher of mostly students of color, and her unexamined preconceptions of the community in which she was teaching. She threw herself wholeheartedly into this work because she knew that her effectiveness as a teacher of children of backgrounds different from her own depended on her doing so.
Being open and willing to learn about their students is a key component of teachers' learning. But this does not mean simply reading a book on cultural differences or adding a unit on different family traditions. Although these can be helpful activities, they may do little to inform teachers about the students in their classrooms.
Teachers need to learn about the sociocultural realities of their students and the sociopolitical conditions in which they live. The late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire addressed this question eloquently when he wrote,
Educators need to know what happens in the world of the children with whom they work. They need to know the universe of their dreams, the language with which they skillfully defend themselves from the aggressiveness of their world, what they know independently of the school, and how they know it. (Freire, 1998, pp. 72–73)
A good example comes from Juan Figueroa, a young Boston public high school teacher who knew "what happens in the world of the children" because he shared similar experiences as an urban student. Juan said,
These kids were me. You know, I grew up in the city too, and that's what keeps me going. All the other stuff you had was crazy, but it's when you make that one-to-one connection with a kid, and a kid finally says, "Now I get it!" that makes everything else seem so right. (Nieto, 2003, p. 42)
Knowing "what happens in the world of the children" is also necessary for teachers who do not share the realities of their students. Mary Cowhey, a 1st and 2nd grade teacher, makes it her business to learn about her students before the first day of class. For many years, I have asked students in an education course I teach to write a letter to Freire explaining how his ideas had influenced them and their practice (Nieto, 2008). Mary wrote,
You write about reading the class. I guess I jump the gun. Part of how I address my fear about the first day of school is to face it, as you suggest. I spend the week before the first day of school visiting my students' homes, meeting the students and their families. I can't wait for the first day of school, and so I go out and read the students in their neighborhoods, their homes, with their families. That way I know where my students are coming from, literally. I know who their people are. I know the names their families call them. I know what they are proud of and what worries them. I begin to trust these families. My students and their families begin to trust me. (Cowhey, 2005, p. 13)
According to Mary, her August visits to students' homes are the best investment she makes all year because this is how she begins to really know her students.
Novice teachers often ask me for advice to help them get through their first year of teaching. My answer always is, "Make a friend." By this I mean that they should work to create a community because teaching, besides being tremendously difficult, can also be an incredibly lonely profession. I have found that when teachers develop allies, they remain fresh, committed, and hopeful.
Stephen Gordon, one of the teachers in the Boston inquiry group, stressed the significance of collaboration and relationship. I had asked the teachers in the group, most of whom were veteran teachers, to write a letter of advice to a new teacher. Stephen wrote,
To survive and grow, I had to find colleagues who share my anger, hopes, beliefs, and assumptions about students and teaching. When I discuss my teaching with these caring colleagues, I work to specify exactly what troubles me; I fight the fear that having problems means I am doing something wrong. Sharing difficult truths and emotions has been necessary for my personal and professional development. (Gordon, 2003, p. 98)
After hearing Stephen read a particularly moving piece he wrote about the uncertainty of teaching, another teacher expressed a feeling that all the teachers in the group shared. "You can kind of see why lots of people don't do this [work]," she said. "It's so painful" (Nieto, 2003, p. 89). Yet this kind of collaborative work is necessary for teachers to learn and grow.
Taking these actions is essential for thriving in the classroom. Nevertheless, teachers cannot do it alone. They need the respect and support of administrators and policymakers, who nowadays sometimes treat teachers as little more than test givers. Teachers also need the support of the general public, which seems to have lost its belief in the centrality of public education in a democratic society. Instead, there is often a general mean-spiritedness when it comes to teachers and students and an indiscriminate belief in privatization schemes.
In spite of the current climate, I have found that many of the most dedicated and caring teachers have a deep reverence for the significance of public education in a democratic society. Perhaps Jennifer Welborn, a middle school science teacher, sums it up best. In an essay about why she teaches, Jennifer wrote,
I may be naïve, but I believe that what I do day in and day out does make a difference. Teachers do change lives forever. And I teach in public school because I still believe in public school. I believe that the purpose of public school, whether it delivers or not, is to give a quality education to all kids who come through the doors. I want to be a part of that lofty mission. The future of our country depends on the ability of public schools to do that. (Welborn, 2005, p. 17)
Too many teachers are leaving the profession because the ideals that brought them to teaching are fast disappearing. In addition, the status of teachers has eroded tremendously in the past few decades, and the conditions in which they work are often trying. If we are to keep good teachers in the classroom, school administrators and policymakers, among others, need to find ways to create environments in which teachers can form strong collaborative relationships with their peers and in which they can continue to learn about themselves, their students, and their students' communities. Until these things happen, survival will be the most we can hope for. And survival is simply not good enough—for teachers, for their students, or for the United States.
Cowhey, M. (2005). Reading the class. In S. Nieto (Ed.), Dear Paulo: Letters from those who dare teach (pp. 10–16). Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Gebhard, M., Austin, T., Nieto, S., & Willett, J. (2002). "You can't step on someone else's words": Preparing all teachers to teach language minority students. In Z. Beykont (Ed.), The power of culture: Teaching across language difference (pp. 219–243). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Publishing Group.
Gebhard, M., Habana Hafner, A., & Wright, M. (2004). Teaching English language learners the language game of math.
Harvard Education Letter, 20(6), 5–7.
Gebhard, M., Harman, R., & Seger, W. (2007). Reclaiming recess in urban schools: The potential of systemic functional linguistics for ELLs and their teachers. Language Arts, 84(5), 419–430.
Gebhard, M., & Willett, J. (2008). Supporting teacher learning and the academic literacy development of ELLs in changing times. Journal of Staff Development, 29(1), 41–45.
Gordon, S. (2003). Letter to a new teacher. In S. Nieto, What keeps teachers going? (pp. 97–99). New York: Teachers College Press.
Lima, A. (2005). Teaching as a spiritual journey. In S. Nieto (Ed.), Why we teach
(pp. 87–96). New York: Teachers College Press.
Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going?
New York: Teachers College Press.
Nieto, S. (Ed.). (2005). Why we teach. New York: Teachers College Press.
Nieto, S. (Ed.). (2008). Dear Paulo: Letters from those who dare teach. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Parsad, B., Lewis, L., & Farris, E. (2001).
Teacher preparation and professional development: 2000 (NCES 2001-088). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
Peterson, S. (2005). Always another beginning. In S. Nieto (Ed.), Why we teach (pp. 156–165). New York: Teachers College Press.
Welborn, J. (2005). The accidental teacher. In S. Nieto (Ed.), Why we teach (pp. 15–22). New York: Teachers College Press.
Sonia Nieto is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; email@example.com. She is the author of numerous books, including Dear Paulo: Letters from Those Who Dare Teach (Paradigm, 2008), and coauthor with Patty Bode of Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (5th ed.; Allyn and Bacon, 2008).
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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