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Learning to Learn

So after the disastrous informal observation with my principal and wrestling with my ego for a few days I managed to turn things around. Coming to the rather obvious conclusion that I needed get over myself and use the criticisms I received to help my students was a powerful realization. Since then I have pushed myself to refine my planning and prepare myself better for each lesson. With a week of this newly found focus and drive under my belt, I felt more confident when my principal returned for a follow-up informal observation.

My principal sat through my entire literacy block which included about 25 minutes of word study and my readers’ workshop. I was proud of the lesson and the ways in which I thought I’d implemented my principal’s feedback. I looked forward to a conversation about it and proving that I could listen to criticism without getting defensive.

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to have that conversation, and I sat quietly and dutifully and listened to my principal’s feedback. Once again, there seemed to be a disconnect between my impression of the lesson and my principal’s. However, having identified the obstacles of my defensiveness and my ego, I swallowed my pride and thought about how to make the necessary improvements.

Hours later, there was still an internal struggle in my mind. For each of the criticisms I received I thought of a rebuttal. Thankfully I had the sense not to try this approach in the meeting with my principal, but I think it’s equally important not to allow this way of thinking frame my teaching and planning as I move forward.

I think one of the major challenges I’m facing as I receive some of the most brutal feedback of my short teaching career is learning how to listen to it and use it. For most of my first two years of teaching at my old school I hardly got any feedback. I had four official observations by my administration and I can’t remember any informal observations. I received feedback from mentors and consultants, which after my first year was overwhelmingly positive. During the course of my “formative years” of teaching, I wasn’t given consistent, critical, constructive feedback. In some ways I think this has led to my resistant way of thinking today.

Several of my students face the same problem. In their formative years of learning they didn’t receive enough feedback and consequently they’ve developed some poor academic habits. They spell their names with capital letters in the middle and they continue to forget basic rules of punctuation and capitalization. It isn’t until someone constantly calls them out on it that they will fix these problems.

Another similarity between some of my students and myself is our ability to fool the people meant to identify our weaknesses. Some students can appear academically proficient simply by sitting quietly and doing their work without asking questions. I appeared proficient to visitors to my classroom by having good classroom management.

In both cases my students and I needed someone willing to dig deeper, look closer and give specific, critical feedback. For me (and I imagine for students too) the first experience with blunt criticism has been unsettling. But no matter how unnerving it may be, it is necessary for us to get better. I look forward to starting that process right away.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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