Read an Excerpt
TEACHING THAT CHANGES LIVES
12 Mindset Tools for Igniting the Love of Learning
By Marilee Adams
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Marilee Adams, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
THE ALCHEMY OF INQUIRY
Not just part of us becomes a teacher. It engages the whole self ... Sylvia Ashton-Warner
I leaned against the kitchen counter at our home on Cedar Avenue, gazing out the window into the backyard. Since it was during the Thanksgiving break at my school, our cherry tree was bare, the grass lifeless and brown. But inside, sunlight streamed through the stained glass artwork which hung in the kitchen window behind the sink, sending little rainbows of light all around the room. Tiny facets of color danced over my arms and apron. The real magic to me, however, glowed through the big question mark at the center of this artwork. Set in a simple wooden frame, a bit larger than a 3-ring binder, that colorful stained glass image was a poignant reminder of Sophie Goodwin, who had been my teacher in the sixth grade, a year that dramatically changed my life. Much later, when I myself began teaching, Sophie became the most important mentor I could ever have wished for.
At the bottom of the frame was a small silver plaque that Sophie had had inscribed years before. She said this quote had been a guiding principle throughout her life:
The important thing is to not stop questioning. Albert Einstein
Why that quote was so important to her was a mystery at first. As a child, I couldn't have begun to imagine the essential relationship between Einstein's words and what Sophie would teach me about questioning, mindsets, thinking, learning, and listening. What I did know for certain was that Sophie had a miraculous ability to create a safe, open, and inviting climate for learning. She connected with her students in ways that awakened our minds so that we became more engaged and successful learners. I had experienced something in Sophie's very being, that is, in who she was when she walked into the classroom, that changed how I thought about myself and how I felt and thought about the world.
Many people said her abilities were a gift one is born with, the way some people say that a gifted artist's or musician's or scientist's gifts are innate and not something one can learn. However, Sophie would clearly show that her gift and her impact on students could be learned. After retiring from classroom teaching, she earned her doctorate, became a professor in a school of education and began mentoring other teachers, teaching them the tools she had developed over her lifetime as an educator. Veteran teachers, those just entering the profession, administrators, and educational leaders were soon finding their way to her classes.
As important as she'd been for me in the sixth grade, I had lost touch with Sophie until my second year of teaching, when I was facing a crisis in my profession, and was on the verge of quitting. As a child, Sophie's influence changed how I thought about myself and my capacities as a student. Now, as an adult and a teacher, her wisdom helped me avoid what would have been one of the most disastrous decisions of my life. Only as an adult would I learn from her how to apply her wisdom and tools in an intentional and systematic way. And I believe I changed the person I am whenever I walk into a classroom. That's what this story is about. But more than that, this book is my way of honoring Sophie's dream of making her innovative and practical teachings widely available and easily accessible to others.
Sophie's work is not part of any formal curriculum you might run across. But I believe it is fundamental to helping teachers manage the incredible pressures they experience while also reaching their most gifted students as well as those who are struggling. Today, thanks to Sophie's methods, I am able to be the teacher I've always dreamed of being, leaving the classroom at the end of each day satisfied that I've made a valuable contribution.
This book has been a labor of love as I relived my experiences as Sophie's student and recorded what she later taught me about teaching when she became my mentor.
To give some background: Right after my graduate training, and eager to start teaching, I spent the whole summer job-hunting, but jobs were scarce for new teachers. I was on the verge of giving up and applying for a job at a coffee shop when a friend suggested I look into Greenfield Elementary, a school in transition, thanks to budget cuts and certain problems they were experiencing. There had been school closings in the district and several teachers had quit. The principal, Dr. Malstrom, who'd been there for years, had recently taken early retirement. Class sizes had been increased and non-academic programs dropped. The school district was looking for teachers who would come in at the bottom of the scale, with minimal benefits. It didn't sound great, but at least I would be teaching! I'd figure out how to make it work for me.
On the plus side, the school had a new principal, Dr. Bob Marshall, who had already made a name for himself in education. I'd be co-teaching a combined fifth and sixth grade class with an experienced teacher's assistant, Mrs. Santiago. I accepted Greenfield's offer and my husband Jared and I rented a small house just a few miles from the school.
My first year at Greenfield went well enough, thanks to my own idealistic exuberance and Mrs. Santiago, who had four years of experience managing the classroom under the teacher I'd replaced. She had also been studying nights and summers to get her teaching certificate. I liked Mrs. Santiago, but felt she was clinging too much to methods she'd learned from Mrs. Peterson, and it seemed like she resisted almost any change I wanted to make. This became a growing source of conflict between us.
Like most schools in transition, morale had been low at Greenfield, though in the time he'd been there, Dr. Marshall had brought us a long way. He had secured additional funding, including a grant for a new computer lab, and we'd had a small increase in enrollment when a charter school merged their program with ours. Dr. Marshall's predecessor, Dr. Malstrom, had left behind more than a few wounds and antiquated policies that some of the staff didn't want changed. Dr. Marshall definitely had his work cut out for him. In spite of the progress he'd made, there were some teachers, Ms. Privet chief among them, who were still fighting to retain the old principal's methods and considered Dr. Marshall too nice. He seemed to take this resistance in stride, winning over his adversaries one by one, patiently, confidently, and with great skill. His plan was to build a collaborative learning community at Greenfield and he knew this couldn't happen by forcing people to immediately comply with new ideas and policies.
Mrs. Santiago and I had a combined class of 34 students, many of whom required more individual help than we had time for. I worried about the underachievers, of course. But I also worried whether our more eager students, even those who earned excellent grades, were learning how to think. As for discipline, we were still limping along with Dr. Malstrom's archaic point system that was posted on the bulletin board. The best kids got stars after their names; those who misbehaved got big Xs after their names and were threatened with calls to their parents, which most kids dreaded. Being a particularly regressive system, this chart was one of the few things Mrs. Santiago and I seemed to be in agreement on. We both wanted to change it. But there always seemed to be more pressing issues, so discussing it was put on hold.
In spite of it all, our class was doing okay. Our achievement scores were acceptable but this wasn't any great comfort to me. What bothered me most was what I was not delivering to our kids. By the middle of my second year of teaching, I was worn down by all my doubts, the burgeoning, distracting incidentals, and the extra duties I had to fulfill that had little to do with teaching. I felt overworked, stressed, and certainly underappreciated.
I often recalled how excited and engaged I'd felt in Mrs. Goodwin's class and longed to be able to create that same experience with my own students. Why did so many of our students seem unenthusiastic and disengaged? What was I missing? Education had to be more than what Mrs. Santiago and I were providing. Was it the kids—too much TV, too many hours playing electronic games, lack of parental guidance, a system gone awry? Regardless of the answers to those questions, I knew one thing for sure: what I experienced as a teacher fell far short of what I'd dreamed was possible. I had never been so discouraged and disillusioned. There were days when a job at a coffee shop began to look pretty good to me.
One afternoon Jared picked me up after school. We'd made a date to shop for a new sofa, our first major purchase together if you didn't count the car we'd bought the year before. After that we had planned to treat ourselves to dinner at our favorite restaurant. But I wasn't feeling enthusiastic about anything. It had been a particularly frustrating day at school, culminating in an argument with Mrs. Santiago over practically nothing. I'd ended up apologizing but I was sure it was going to leave bad feelings.
Jared and I pulled into the parking lot at the mall and he shut off the engine of the car. Instead of getting out right away he reached over and lightly rested his hand on my shoulder.
"What's going on with you lately?" he asked. "You seem a million miles away."
I wanted to lean over, lay my head on his shoulder and have him assure me that everything was going to be okay. But I knew he couldn't fix what was wrong. I admit I can get a little edgy when I've reached my limits, and this was one of those days. I just wanted to go home, climb into bed, and pull the covers over my head.
"I'm wondering why I ever got into teaching," I blurted out. "It isn't turning out the way I expected. Not at all."
Jared looked shocked, and a bit irritated.
"But that's been your dream for as long as I've known you," he said. "Can't you talk to a supervisor or something? Maybe your principal? There have to be other teachers who could help you."
Truth be told, I desperately wanted to talk with other teachers, but it seemed like everyone had their own problems. And anyway, why would they care about me, a relative newcomer? If I told Dr. Marshall about my dissatisfactions, I was pretty sure he'd dismiss me on the spot, or at least start looking for someone to replace me. Sitting there in the car, I tried to tell Jared about what was bothering me and he did his best to understand. I had a long list of grievances. Mostly, however, I had questions: Why did I feel so dissatisfied and down on myself about being a teacher? Why didn't I feel excited about teaching? Why didn't I feel more connected with my students? And why couldn't I make things work better with Mrs. Santiago? Most of the time, I just felt annoyed and resentful toward her.
These thoughts and feelings plagued me even more than the escalating pressures of too much paperwork, too little time, and too little money in the budget for some of the things Mrs. Santiago and I wanted for the classroom. Not to mention the omnipresent awareness that both of us were technically on probation. Any day we could get the news that we wouldn't be hired back for the coming year. I had tried to remind myself to take it one day at a time, but that old adage was wearing thin.
Jared and I sat and talked for a long time, and he did his best to be helpful. The only thing that came out of it was the decision to put off buying a new sofa. Taking on another big expense when I was so unsettled about my job didn't make sense. We cancelled our dinner reservation and picked up a pizza on our way home. I felt terrible about spoiling the evening but couldn't pretend any longer that everything was okay.
My self-doubts gnawed at me more each day as I racked my brain for solutions. Maybe I just wasn't cut out for teaching after all. I couldn't go on the way things had been going. It finally came to a head late one Friday afternoon as I sat alone in my empty classroom. In the distance I heard the whine of the janitors' vacuums and the shouts of children out on the playground. I stared off into space, feeling like the dark cloud hovering over my head would be there forever. Where was the excitement about learning I'd experienced as a young student? Mrs. Goodwin had worked her magic on all of us when we were kids, but it was painfully obvious I didn't have her gifts or her patience. I wasn't as good as she was, and never would be.
What happened next certainly wasn't a plan on my part but a reaction to the dissatisfaction and frustration I'd felt building up in me. As I was leaving school I noticed that Dr. Marshall's door was open and he was doing some paperwork. He looked up as I knocked lightly and apologized for disturbing him. He smiled and gestured to a chair across from his desk, inviting me to sit down.
I knew I needed to say what I had to before I changed my mind or lost my courage. Once I got started, the words came out in a rush. "I thought I should tell you that I'm seriously considering leaving teaching. I'll finish out the year but if someone comes along to replace me, I'll step aside."
As these words left my lips I felt a big knot twisting in my stomach.
"Every Monday morning when I walk into school," I continued, focusing my eyes on a light-colored rectangle where a picture had once hung on the wall behind Dr. Marshall, "I just feel hollow. I know it's because I'm not delivering what these kids deserve and what they need. Isn't that proof that this isn't where I belong?"
When I turned my attention back to Dr. Marshall's face, I was startled to discover that he was actually smiling, not unkindly, but as if he just had some brilliant insight.
"Emma," he said, "this may sound crazy to you right now, but I believe your misgivings say something positive about you. I hear your concerns, and I've observed your teaching. I can tell how much you care about your students and about teaching. Believe me, I would never have renewed your contract if I hadn't been pretty sure of you." He paused, I guess to let his words sink in. Then he added, "Fortunately, I know someone who may be able to help you. I'm sure she'd be willing to speak with you if I ask her."
He told me that some years ago, he'd been at a similar life impasse. He'd almost left education until he learned about the importance of mindsets and asking new questions that transformed what he thought was possible. He said that some kind of alchemy happens when we change the questions we ask ourselves. My face must have expressed bewilderment because he chuckled and added, "You'll find out what I mean soon enough." He didn't go into details, but tapped a few keys on his keyboard, then jotted something on the back of one of his own cards for me.
"I'm sure you'll like this woman very much. Please speak with her before you make a decision. She's semi-retired but teaches at the university and still mentors a few teachers. I'll give her a call and let her know you'll be contacting her. After you've met with her, let's get together and discuss your next steps."
I took the card and nodded, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I thanked him, went out to the parking lot, and climbed into my car.
I slumped behind the wheel and wondered if I had made a big mistake by talking with Dr. Marshall. Had he been nice to me, bolstering my morale, only because he didn't want to bother looking for another teacher? Would admitting my shortcomings hurt my record? No matter. What's done was done. I glanced down at his card, stared at his name for a second and then turned the card over.
This had to be a mistake! The name he'd written on the card was Dr. Sophie Goodwin. Could this be my Sophie Goodwin, my sixth grade teacher? That would be too much of a coincidence.
Driving home that afternoon, I kept seeing Mrs. Goodwin's face in my mind's eye and remembering moments from her classroom. What a wonderful year that had been in my life. I'd been this plugging-along kid before that, making do and just getting by. During her class I came alive to the experience of thinking and learning, even enjoying working on projects with other students. Mrs. Goodwin had been the first person to plant ideas in my mind of going into teaching someday. Who am I kidding? She was practically the first person to recognize that I even existed. At least that was how it felt at the time.
At home, I did a computer search for the university where Mrs. Goodwin taught, then clicked through to the faculty bios. My heart skipped a beat as Mrs. Goodwin's picture came up on my screen. Though she looked older than the idea of her in my mind, there was no mistaking that smile. It really was her. And she really had become Doctor Sophie Goodwin!
Excerpted from TEACHING THAT CHANGES LIVES by Marilee Adams. Copyright © 2013 Marilee Adams, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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