Why I Teach

Our head asked if any of us would like to write something with the title “Why I Teach” for our school’s weekly newsletter “The Sunshine” which went out earlier today. Of course, there are a number of reasons why I teach, but here’s what I wrote:

The date was 9/11/2001, and I was awoken by a phone call. Bleary eyed, I was instructed to turn on the news. To my horror, I watched the twin towers fall. Many thoughts rang through my head that morning. What would I say to the children? How would they react? It was my first week at Epiphany. I arrived at school, and prepared for the day. Parents, faces pale, dropped off their children. I rang a bell signaling the students to gather around me on the floor. I told the children that something terrible had happened, but we would have a normal day of school. I also assured the class that, no matter what, they would be safe.

The backdrop of this tragedy made the importance of what I do clearer than ever. In the rhythm of the classroom, emotionally devastating news gave way to the ordinary business of learning. Creating age-appropriate teachable moments gave me a renewed sense of purpose in teaching. It reminded me that learning never ceases, and that every day I too could learn something new from my students. It also gave me hope that these children had the opportunity to shape the future of the world.

In order to learn, we all must feel safe. That day taught me that creating a safe environment, not only for the children’s physical needs, but also for their social and emotional needs had to come first. It is only after those needs are met that children can feel safe to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and possess the freedom to think for themselves. I teach because I want my students to feel safe enough to voice and assert their ideas and opinions while being able to defend them respectfully.

I teach in hopes that I can foster and develop my students’ empathy, so that they feel secure in themselves to recognize when they make mistakes and to understand the point of view of others. It’s often the ability to grapple with conflicting ideas that allow students to come up with novel ones. I also strive to foster collaboration, have students learn to work well with others, engage in civil discourse, and respect that diverse ideas and cultures enrich our own lives.

Jean Piaget once said, “The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers.” I work towards inspiring all of my students to be innovators in the spirit of Piaget.

Teaching is where my heart is. When I hear the phrase, “Those who can’t, teach,” I shake my head, because I think of all the talented and caring colleagues who chose to spend their days in the classroom. I prefer another saying that begins, “It takes a village….” I am humbled by our own community, and the caring environment they provide for these children. It is clear where all of our hearts lie.

I teach because it gives me hope – hope that these young minds will lead us toward a better world.


“I Believe We Can Be Better.”

How many books about differentiation can Carol Ann Tomlinson write. Here is a list:

  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners (1999)
  • Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms (2001)
  • Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom (2004)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Contents and Kid
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning (2008)

Well – she’s got a new one out called: Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. At first I rolled my eyes and thought seriously, another one?

Differentiation continues to be a big buzz word in education these days and truly, you can go back to the title of her first book and see that differentiation is simply ‘responding to the needs of all learners.’ Those needs are going to vary a lot among students and change from year to year. Being able to adapt to your students’ learning needs is the essence of differentiation. Those of use who realize this, get it. Now what more could she possibly add. But then I opened the book and read the preface which began with this quote:

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.  – Louisa May Alcott

For some reason, that resonated with me. It had “Growth Mindset” written all over it. The author then began to tell a story. An autobiographical account of her epiphanies (many which she didn’t even realize until much later in her career) regarding differentiated instruction. Some she realized on the spot. “… I understood at that moment that an effective teacher is not someone who just teaches content. He or she is someone who teaches content to human beings, and the classroom has to work in such a way that each individual in it has a legitimate opportunity to grow as much as possible from his or her starting point.” Classroom management is not about keeping kids in their seats but about giving good directions, providing an engaging curriculum, and adapting to individual and group needs. She ends the preface by saying that the book is an aspirational guide. “We have no illusions that any teacher — even the best among us — reads a book and emerges with radiclly different teaching style in tow. We do believe, however, that there are many teachers who aspire to grow as professionals every day.” And that was just in the preface.

Then, in chapter one she calls on classroom teachers to be leaders for change, and she says in order “to achieve such a level of leadership we must

  • Work from and aspire to an objective that is an improvement over the status quo.
  • Articulate this vision so that those who are asked to follow have a compelling reason to do so.
  • Move knowledgeably toward this vision while simultaneously attending to the voices and needs of those who will necessarily help enact it.
  • Be patient with and supportive of followers, yet impatient with artificial barriers to progress (I was so glad to see this as this describes me quite well – I thought my impatience with those barriers was a flaw. Woo Hoo! Carol Anne Tomlinson says it’s ok to be impatient with certain things).
  • Maintain a pace that consistently ensures visible progress without pushing the system beyond it’s capacity to change. (Well here’s where I could learn something – As a wise colleague once said to me, “It’s a marathon and you can’t sprint the entire race.”)
  • Monitor outcomes of the change and be willing to adapt, when necessary to achieve desirable outcomes and eliminate undesirable outcomes.

The rest of the book helps define what differentiation really is, uses it as a philosophy, clears up many misunderstandings about differentiation, discusses how to be a more reflective teacher, and how to begin that journey.  The second half of the book focuses on the mechanics of managing an effective differentiated classroom. There are some excellent ideas posed. She then ends by responding to almost every possible resistance in order to go on this journey.

Perahaps that earlier quote resonated with me because earlier I was reading the president’s speech regarding the recent tragedy in Tucson. His words were simpler, but echoed the earlier quote of Louisa May Alcott. He said, “I believe we can be better.”

Maybe Carol Ann Tomlinson did have more to add on differentiation. Teachers can learn to differentiate well, adapt to the needs of their students, and continue to grow.

Being Welcome into Another’s Home

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending my very first Bar Mitzfah, a former student of mine. Without ever stepping inside a temple before, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. And if you try to search the internet and do a little research, the variety is almost endless.

I think it’s a great growing experience to step outside ones familiar surroundings, and I think it varies what each person learns.

Detail of a window at the Temple Di Hirsch Sanai in Seattle

First, my anxiety was eased by a feeling of welcome. There was never a feeling of ‘you’re not one of us’. The synagog/temple was stunningly beautiful and did not look too different from some of the Catholic churches I grew up with.

Second, the ceremony was clearly a rite of passage steeped in thousands of years of tradition, and one that obviously involved a lot of preparation on the part of a 13-year-old.

What I really noticed was that all the passages and readings from the Torah (even if you took out the religious references) were ones that any human could relate to. Having faith in oneself to take risks, make good choices, and learn from mistakes were a common theme. Another message was that we strive to do good with the intention to leave the world a better place than how we found it. Yet, we  are human and will sometimes make mistakes. In essence – we learn.

I was really touched throughout the ceremony, but mostly because I was very proud of my former student’s success and his mom’s as well.

Finally, the reason this experience is appearing here on this blog is because it reminds me of the importance of the tenets of multicultural and diversity education. Whether that diversity is in religious beliefs, culture, orientation, political ideology, the most important thing is to ensure a feeling of belonging. Today I was a little worried that I was going to be an outsider peering in, but I felt welcomed instantly.

Our schools, classrooms, and curriculum need to be places where everyone feels like they belong. The act of learning itself, from taking risks and making mistakes, or wanting to work to make this world a better place for future generations, are values that cross cultures and beliefs. The more we explore differences, it’s not surprising that we often find many similarities.

CS and MS thanks for always being so welcoming and including me in your special day. It was wonderful and I enjoyed every minute of it. You both should be very proud.

Shabbat Shalom!