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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Learn Something New, Teach Everything Better

Summer is the perfect time to recharge. Several teachers tell how they make good use of their break—and bring their learning back to students.

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This summer, shift your perspective and reconnect with the strategies you use in the classroom. Take time to reflect. What works, what doesn't, and why? More important, what can you do now to help you connect with a new crop of students in September? Most important, can you devote time to preparing for the coming school year without it feeling like "work"?
Too often, we assume the only way to become more effective teachers is to brush up on the latest research, master the latest instructional mandate, or immerse ourselves in the latest set of standards. Yes, these are all essential steps to take. But there's another, arguably more vital, step that we often overlook: Reverse the roles and learn rather than teach.
The best professional development is personal development. To become a better teacher, it's crucial to take time to become a better student. With this in mind, consider dedicating a portion of your summer to learning something new—a foreign language, a computer program, a craft, a fine art. Alternatively, take time to learn about something new—a historical period, a scientific breakthrough, a current event, or an international movement. Does it need to be directly related to the subject you teach? Not necessarily. Ideally, it should be something that's personally interesting but also somewhat relevant to your students, their interests, and their environment. In short, it should be something that helps create common ground.

Unlimited Possibilities

With a little thought and creativity, there is no limit to the possibilities for learning. Read a biography. Take a tour. Visit a museum or local historical site. Read a genre you've never tried before. Teach yourself how to use that software you've heard so much about. Attend a rally. Experiment with different mobile apps. Listen to historical speeches online. Become active on a new social media site. Take a class on green design. Learn to cook an international dish. Each of these (and so many more) involves skills and knowledge that are transferable to the classroom.
Rebecca Schilke, a middle school reading specialist in North Stonington, Connecticut, takes a direct approach:
Read for fun. Read the stuff you've always wanted to have time for. The less demanding pace [of the summer] and the opportunity to read and reread lead me to naturally reflect on how to improve my instruction in the fall. In addition, my summer reading reminds me why I love my job. Connecting students with texts that intrigue, instruct, and inspire them is ridiculously rewarding!
Put yourself at square one and start from scratch. What's it like to stare down a topic or skill of which you have little or no knowledge? Is it overwhelming? Challenging? Exhilarating? When you recognize and embrace the unknown, it becomes easier to understand how your students feel at the beginning of almost every lesson or unit—a feeling that's all too easy to forget after several years of teaching the same material.
Cleveland, Ohio, language arts teacher Mark Barnes spends his summers using social media sites, such as Twitter, as professional development tools:
Following other educators and reading their daily posts has led me to many articles on best practices in education and a wide array of [new] digital learning tools that I could use in the classroom. I believe social media sites offer the best free PD available. Plus, you can learn from home, at a coffee shop, or even on the beach.
Two other teachers chose to learn more about the world around them and then focus that new knowledge on a specific and valuable target—their students. Heather Anderson, an English teacher in San Diego, California, found motivation and inspiration by engaging in new experiences alongside her students:
Traveling with 13 of my high school students to Spain during spring break was not only a cultural experience but also an opportunity to view the world through my students' eyes. The fact that I need to do a better job incorporating global issues into my English classroom was never more apparent than when I spent eight days in a foreign country with inner-city youth.
Likewise, her colleague Javier Vaca, who teaches U.S. history, spent the summer learning about the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, which sought to strengthen Mexican American political power and achieve equal education for Mexican Americans. This social and political era was not only personally interesting to Javier but also professionally relevant. He comments,
The summer is a time to recharge my personal love of learning. When I took the time to look more into a historical period I wanted to learn about, the Chicano Movement, I was able to use my newly acquired knowledge to better relate to my students. In previous years, my teaching of the Civil Rights movement had focused on the African American experience. Now, I can present a more thorough overview of the time period by incorporating the Mexican American experience.

A Time for Good Teachers to Get Even Better

Good teachers aren't born—they're made, and they're continually getting better. It's important to remember that teachers are not created (or limited) by their degrees or salaries alone. They're constantly developing and refining themselves. They're constantly learning—and their students reap the benefits.

Jamie Greene has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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