Teachers As Learners...
by Hal Portner

Teachers Have Two Jobs

Material for this article is adapted, with permission from Corwin Press, from Portner, H. (1998, 2002). Mentoring new teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press, Inc. and Portner, H. (2002) Being Mentored: A Protégés's Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press, Inc.

To paraphrase the title of an article in a 1989 issue of Elementary School Journal,1 teachers have two jobs: teaching, and learning to teach better. "What?" you might ask. "Learn to teach better? I have already spent a lot of time and energy -- not to mention money -- and earned lots of college credits learning how to teach. Now you want me to learn to teach better?!"

Okay, okay, calm down. Yes, many of you are adept at job one: teaching. Your college experience probably included an in-depth study of a particular subject area and provided an extensive repertoire of instructional theories and strategies. But as you gained experience, you no doubt realized that a college degree only takes you so far. It prepares you to become a beginner in a complex world. Over time, as you become experienced, you acquire case knowledge. You can go back into your memory banks, compare situations and figure out what to do . . . you know from references stored in your memory how to get from point A to point B.

Most of us realize, however, that years of experience alone is not enough. Alas, although I have been a painter for years, I am not a Rembrandt. Successful teaching is an art that takes insight and knowledge, in addition to time, to develop. One reason teachers find job two (learning to teach better) so frustrating is that they are literally isolated -- or they isolate themselves -- behind classroom doors with little opportunity for feedback or help. Another reason has to do with the nature of staff development programs in many school districts, specifically those that rely on occasional "professional development days" without much input or follow through by either the district or by individual teachers.

How can you, the individual teacher, remove the isolation and put much of your professional development within your own control? This article is the first in a series about how to do just that -- and in the process, learn to teach better. Each month's article will offer suggestions and strategies that will help you be proactive in directing your own professional growth. Focus will be on seeking out and/or creating opportunities to get what it is you have determined that you need in order to grow professionally. Also, because teaching is a job demanding much time and energy, the suggestions and strategies will be those that can be carried out at your own pace.

First, however, a little soul searching. Are you willing to take responsibility for your own professional growth? Are you willing to put in the extra time and effort that learning to teach better will take? Being willing means: (1) you believe that you need to learn to teach better. When you are doing something you believe in -- when what you are doing sits well within your set of values and is relevant to your life -- you will do it better; you will do it with passion; (2) you have confidence that you can learn to teach better and that your efforts can make a difference between success and failure in the classroom; and (3) you truly want to be the best teacher you can be.

Finally, are you able to tackle job two? Being able means you have the knowledge, skills and understandings necessary to be a proactive learner. Being proactive means you are not only willing but that you are also empowered.

That is the purpose of this column; to empower you with skills, knowledge and understandings to help you learn to teach better. Over the next several months, I will offer specific ways that you can be proactive in your own professional growth.

1Wildman, T., Niles, J., Magliaro, & McLaughlin, R. (1989). "Teaching and learning to teach: The two roles of beginning teachers." Elementary School Journal, 89,(4) 471-492.