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that is the title of a keynote address given at the end (that is NOT a mistake) of a Forum today at St. Mary's College of Maryland.  The title of the forum, was "Teach for Excellence! Teach for Change!" and it was sponsored by the College's Student Education Association, which includes students who are as undergraduates taking course to become certified (there is no Education major, only a minor) and those in the Master of Arts in Teaching program.

There were a total of 6 guest speakers.  One was the 2010 Maryland State Teacher of the year.  Four were County Teachers of the Year from Calvert (2 from different years), Charles, and Prince George's County, and another award-winning teacher, about whom more anon.

Each gave a Workshop session  - a sample lesson.  The idea was to walk students through different ideas about teaching.  There were two sessions, each with three workshop sessions.  Then the students debriefed what had been learned, and this will be shared within the department.

So will the keynote address, given by the aforemention award-winning teacher, who was invited for his role because of a column he had posted at Huffington Post.  It turns out there are students in the program from the school in which he teaches.

So Kenneth Bernstein, 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher for Prince George's County, both gave a session, and delivered a 30 minute keynote address -  in which he talked fast because it was about 4600 words.

I have pasted -his- my remarks below the fold.  Sorry I cannot include the handouts.  And you were warned how long it is.

The students and faculty liked it.   Perhaps you will as well.


Good afternoon.   I want to thank Julia Bates, the Department of Educational Studies, and the Student Education Association for inviting me to address this forum.  Let me begin by apologizing.  If one views this as an instructional endeavor, what I am doing right now is entirely opposite to my approach to teaching and to my title.  If our focus is that it’s all about the students, the last thing I should do is lecture for 30 minutes!  However, I was asked to deliver a keynote address, and I’ve yet to figure out how to do that without talking.  

Also, it’s beyond my pay scale to tell other teachers how to teach.  

I do believe the most effective way to serve our students and to make a difference on their behalf is to be honest with and trust them.  That means being oneself, for if you can’t be honest with your students and have to be in “teacher mode” I suspect you’ll find, at least with the adolescents I teach, that they have remarkable detectors for Baloney-Slicing -  consider the first letters of those two words - and you may quickly lose the opportunity to really connect with them.

This is a personal exploration, drawn from my experience and observations.

Why are we teachers?  I’m not sure I was completely clear in my own mind when at age 48 I left a long career in data processing to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching at Johns Hopkins.  Years before I had briefly taught in a Quaker secondary school, and in a long career in data processing had instructed adults.  

At a college reunion I encountered a friend about to be a principal. We swapped teaching stories, his from his long career, mine from my 6 months.  Later my wife noted that my eyes lit up when I told those stories. Since I was clearly not all that fulfilled in what I was then doing, she suggested I consider becoming a teacher.   Eventually I deferred to the wisdom of her words and pursued the career that brings me here today.  

I thought I went into teaching for myself, but quickly realized my greatest satisfaction came from seeing minds overcoming difficulties, eyes lighting up, students offering questions and insights I had not considered.  In short, what mattered for me was making a difference for them.  

It did not matter how well the lesson was prepared.  What mattered was whether it served the students.  

I quickly learned that two apparently similar classes for one course might have very different needs because of the individual students and the collective dynamics of the class.  I began to realize I needed to know my students, and to apply that knowledge to my planning and instruction.

The wisest piece of teaching advice I have ever received, came from Leroy Tompkins, at the time an Assistant Superintendent. He said “If the horse you are riding has died, beating it will not make it go any faster.”  

No matter how well planned a lesson is, no matter how well it may have gone last year or even last period, there are two things to remember:

First, you’d better pay attention to how the students before you are responding, and be prepared to move away from plans if they are not working.  And second, because you might have to move away from Plan A, it makes sense to have at least the outline of a Plan B in mind.

The focus of this conference is on professional development.  One great misunderstanding about teaching can be seen in recent words by Bill Gates that teachers reach their full level of competence by three years and really do not improve after that.  I believe most teachers, because of how poorly we prepare them for the reality of the classroom, are lucky to keep their heads above water the first year, the second year attempt to do lessons that worked well only to discover that even the best lessons from the past need to be rethought for the students before you in each class. Most teachers only begin to become fully competent and comfortable in their third year. Then they are able to fully develop professionally.  

A teacher who does not continually seek to improve, to understand not just the differences of the students arriving in one’s room but the changes in society that they bring with them, will be decreasingly effective in serving the needs of those students.  Professional development only begins with our training to become teachers.  It should be continuing as long as we remain in the classroom.  

I am Nationally Board Certified.   I sought that distinction after almost a decade in the classroom.  I had almost completed a doctorate in Educational Administration and Policy Studies because I wanted to have a voice that could help influence our discussions about educational policy. But with my dissertation half written, I realized several things.  

First, I would only earn $600/year more than I was making with a Masters + 60 credits, and it would cost me almost $6,000 to complete and defend the dissertation.  Second, I already had recognition as an educational blogger/writer, and was beginning to be able to have some influence on educational policy, both by writing and by serving as a resource to those holding or seeking political office.  Third, all my fees for the National Board would be paid for by Prince George’s County Public Schools and the Maryland Department of Education. And fourth I would be paid 5,000/year more for achieving National Board status, important when I realized that I was still making less than I had when I had left data processing to become a teacher.  The financial reasons were sufficient to convince me to pursue National Board certification.

Let’s take a brief detour.   I have always continued my professional development. The Hopkins MAT program required doing an action research project after beginning teaching.  We had a weekly seminar where we shared our teaching experiences.  This was very helpful, especially since I did not get my own classroom until December 8th of my first year when I got a job as a long-term sub.  I was certified, but inexperienced.  Before that I sold cars for several months.  I was quite good at it, because I learned to listen, learned that the best selling occurred by letting the customers sell themselves.  This is parallel to understanding that much good teaching occurs when we get the students taking ownership of their own learning.

After getting my own classroom, I’d go to weekend seminars, evening and work-week sessions, and each summer I’d find some sort of seminar, sometimes more than one. I preferred those that did not cost me money, and might even give me an additional stipend!  I went to the Dirsken Institute’s Congress in the Classroom, two week-long seminars put on by the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, a 5 week institute at William & Mary sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, multiple one-day workshops sponsored by the Center for Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia, or the Maryland Department of Education, even professional development sessions put on by my school system.   Many increased my content-area knowledge.  The best required participants to work on developing and sharing curricular materials. Before teaching AP Government, I attended a superb training session at Towson without which I might not have been properly prepared to serve my students.

Through these and at sessions at which I presented,  I increased my content knowledge and learned approaches to teaching that content. Teachers shared ideas about lessons, about handling different kinds of classroom situations.

But this pales compared to the National Board process.  Simply put, the process of becoming a National Board Certified Teacher was the best professional development I have had.  It continues to influence my teaching.   I’d like to explain why.

In your resource packet, you will see the five Core Propositions of the National Board Process.  They are

1. Teachers are Committed to Students and Their Learning.    We begin with the students, and our focus must be THEIR learning.

2.  Teachers Must Know the Subjects They Teach and How to Teach Those Subjects to Students.  We must know our content, that goes without saying.  It is not content-area knowledge that makes one a teacher, it is the process of connecting students with that content that is the task of a teacher.  Pedagogical skills also matter.

3.  Teachers are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning.   We have to assess whether students are learning what we think we are teaching.  We cannot learn this merely by successful student completion of unit or end of course tests.  We must be checking as we explore and instruct the content and the skills applicable to the class and the students.

4.  Teachers Think Systematically About their Practice and Learn from Experience.  While listed as the fourth of five, it is in some ways the most important, so I will momentarily defer discussion of it.

5.  Teachers are Members of Learning Communities.  As a high school teacher I have students in my classes for one of as many as 8 or 9 periods of instruction -  we have students who skip lunch and/or take a zero period.  My class is part of their instructional and learning experience.  It doesn’t occur in isolation.   Even at the elementary level or in the self-contained classroom, teachers shouldn’t teach in isolation.  Hopefully with our emphases on reading, math and science and technology we will not forget that we are educating the whole child, which is why we have specialists in art and music, why we should have physical education, why we may offer electives in theater, TV production, and other non-core subjects.  

One resource I suggest you explore is the Association for Curriculum and Development’s Whole Child Initiative, which is why I have included the link for it in your resources.  

Further, we should remember that the learning community in which we operate includes the extra-curricular activities in which students participate.  It includes their families and their communities.  It definitely includes the society and world in which they live, and in which most are attempting to find their places.

Let me now return to the Fourth Proposition, which  reads:  “Teachers Think Systematically About their Practice and Learn from Experience.”    The best teaching requires one to think reflectively.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the structure of the day for many teachers makes this difficult, if not impossible.  I teach 6 out of 8 periods.  In the five minutes between classes I have to check for parental or administrative emails, try to address absence notes and field trip permission forms so that those tasks don’t take away instructional time. I’m supposed to stick my head in the hall to help keep order, to remind students to put on their ids, put away their electronics - a subject to which I will return soon.  

I am reflective by nature. Since adolescence I have kept journals.  My Hopkins MAT trained us to be reflective about teaching.  The National Board process requires reflection upon the meaning of what we do, and how it has worked, as one can see from the example I have offered in the resource packet.   One needs time to think about the students, to learn about them, to consider how to include that knowledge in preparing lessons. Hopefully one learns to function on a meta-cognitive level simultaneously while teaching and listening to the students.  

Along the way we need to time to step back and debrief ourselves:  

What worked and what didn’t?  
How should that inform our planning and our practice?

The National Board process requires submission of artifacts. I included examples of professional participation, samples of student writing, two video tapes of lessons with different requirements, examples of parent/community contact, etc.  For each artifact I explained how it connected with student learning: that was always the baseline.  The video-taped lessons did not have to have been perfect.  What mattered was my ability to analyze what worked, what didn’t, why, and what lessons I could draw for being more effective in the future.

It is useful periodically to video or audiotape of lessons, to take the time to go through and reflect on them.  I am in my 16th year of teaching, and am by nature reflective and able to function on several levels simultaneously -  

 perhaps because I am a Gemini?  -

Even with meta-cognition being one of those levels, I know I miss things.  I am aware that the presence of a camera can distort both one’s own behavior and that of the students, although I would argue no more than having an outsider in one’s classroom to observe.  If one has built up a positive relationship with the students one may find as I have they will do their best when there is an outside observer - I’ve experienced that many times with my adolescents.  On more than a few occasions when - with or without an observer present - I was struggling to make a lesson work, my students would carry me and the lesson because they understood that their learning was a shared responsibility.

While not part of our formal professional development, independent reading of relevant material should be an essential part of our ongoing consideration of our professional lives.  Thus I suggest a book I believe educators at every level should read.  Written by Parker Palmer, it is titled The Courage to Teach and subtitled Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.  Your hand-out includes resources on Palmer and his work.  The Courage to Teach is the most important book on teaching I have read.  I return to it regularly, and I give it to student teachers upon their completion of their internships.  As Robert Coles said, it “evokes the heart of what teachers really do, and does so in a vivid, compelling, and soulful way.”  It reminds us our task in teaching inevitably involves relationship -  with our subject matter and our students, them with the subject matter and with one another.  We need to reflect upon what we are doing because each relationship is unique and is entitled to respect in that uniqueness.  Perhaps it is not a coincidence that both Palmer and I became Quakers.  George Fox, the man most responsible for the Religious Society of Friends, once said that we walk gladly across the Earth answering that of God in each person we encounter.

Walk gladly across the earth - we should always be joyful in our teaching.  Putting it bluntly, if we’re not enjoying what we’re doing, will not our students view class as a burden to be endured rather than as something exciting to be experienced?  I tell my students I plan to enjoy myself, and I invite them to come along for the ride.

Answering that of God in each person we encounter -
If you want, replace “that of God” with “that of value” -  we need to honor “that of value” in each person.  This uniqueness of each student is entitled to our respect.  It should inform how we approach teaching.  It is why we need first to know our students - and if you examine the standards for National Board, you will find such knowledge is supposed to be extensive - and then to constantly reflect on whether our instruction is meeting that student first where she is while keeping in mind where we hope to assist him in being able to go.  

Words of Jerome Bruner are relevant: he opined every student is capable of some level of mastery in every domain.  That means our task as teachers is not to bring students to some artificial standard.  Rather it is to empower and assist each in improving his or her performance in that domain to some point beyond where they are when they arrive in our presence, even if their current levels of mastery exceed our own.  

I have outlined an approach, one strongly supported by the National Board process.   One need not seek national board certification to follow such an approach.  In fact, beginning teachers are not eligible to apply.  Still, much of the approach is applicable even at the beginning of one’s professional life, and should be constant throughout even a 4 decades long career.  It can start with a simple question:

How does the professional development I propose to take on positively affect the learning of my students?  

We should keep that in mind for individual courses and workshops, and for the process of developing an ongoing plan for our professional development.  We should constantly assess where we need assistance -
  in content knowledge
  in pedagogy
  in meeting the needs of particular groups of students -  
gifted,  learning disabled, English language learners, from a very different cultural background, or combinations of any or even all of the foregoing!  

If we really want to make a POSITIVE difference for our students, we have to always connect our professional activities with our knowledge of them.

I teach sophomores.   I completed my sophomore year in 1961, half a century ago.  I began teaching in 1995-96.  The society and culture in which my students live is very different than the upper middle class environment in which I lived when I was their age.  Even in the shorter period of time I have taught, the society in which we find ourselves has changed radically. I think it incumbent upon us to recognize the changes, to adapt what we are doing to include that recognition.

Here, however, I am going to tread onto the area of policy, because what I am going to suggest is not currently within the power of many teachers, even though I think it should be.

Our students connect with the world in ways very different than did my generation.  They read, but in different fashions.  They communicate with one another, but not by what they call snail mail.  They seek out information not through encyclopedias and newspapers, and often not even by watching television in real time.   They are used to multi-tasking, to using technology and social media in fashions that shape and influence how and what they learn, no matter how strictly adults attempt to restrict their use of the devices - smart phones, MP3 players, and the like - that are essential to how they relate with others and the world around them.   I think we make a serious policy and pedagogical error in attempting to keep students from how they normally function, by insisting they attempt to learn in isolation from how they live. Instead, I think we should be working with students so that they learn the appropriate use of technology.  

Please note how I phrased that.  < b>Working with students   I did NOT say “teaching students” - for the  simple reason that they often know far more about the technology and how it works than do their  teachers, even those still in their 20s.  

Learning is most effective when it meets two criteria, when it is

-  the learning of something that can be immediately used and applied, and

-  relevant to the lives and tasks of the learner

It is high time educators learn to use such technologies and social media rather than attempting to restrict their use.  I know from my time as a teacher in business and industrial settings how important the two principles I just mentioned are.  That understanding is why I argue we need to stop being restrictive - as unfortunately my school system is - and learn what some educators have already achieved in working with their students to use the technology to which most have access, and with which many are already comfortable.

I am a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, a group of about 300 teachers around the country who take responsibilities for our profession beyond our individual classrooms and schools. One of my compadres, Bill Ferriter, blogs extensively about using Social Media in the classroom.  This can be as basic as using Twitter instructionally.  I’ve provided a link to his writings.  

He is not unique.  You also have a Google search providing a ton of material on using social media in the classroom.

I am partial to Google in part because one co-founder, Sergei Brin, is a graduate of our high school, although from before I arrived.  When students ask me a question for which I know they are capable of finding an answer, I often  remind them of Brin and point them at the nearest computer in my classroom.  I expect them to take ownership of their learning.

If I expect that, should not I be utilizing tools with which they are already comfortable?

Yes, I know noALL students have equal access to technology, but instead of limiting use to provide equity, would it not make more sense to provide the technology, as some school systems are already doing?   Perhaps a school-issued laptop or I-pad like device that can be used for researching, for communicating, for writing?  Already teachers are exploring how to use such devices in classroom instruction and in support of instruction outside of school.  They use sites like MOODLE, they establish classroom blogs, they encourage students to use classroom-related sites to discuss coursework, to share ideas.  

After all, we really can’t prevent students from using social networking to communicate with one another.  I experienced this recently when I posted a blog entry reflecting on a variety of happenings in my class during the previous week,  including sharing the trailer from the film “Race to Nowhere” with my AP students.   Some students regularly read what I post online, and while I do not “Friend” current students -  a policy I may rethink -  they have older siblings and acquaintances who are former students that are my “Friends” -  a few of whom quickly found the blog entry. Within several hours of its posting, it had been shared over 100 times, mainly among my current AP students.

I finally joined Facebook because it was essential to my participating on the steering committee of a professional effort organized through a Facebook group.  I included where I teach in my profile, and within 15 minutes I had almost a dozen “Friend” requests from former students.  Of my more than 900 “Friends,” more than 1/3 are former students who wanted to stay in contact.  

Our professional development should include learning how to use the new technologies and social media that are an essential part of our students’ lives, and helping them learn how to use such appropriately.  After all, if our goal is making a positive difference in the learning of our students, if we are helping them learn how to own their own learning now and in the future, is it not incumbent upon us to take full advantage of the skills they have? Shouldn’t we help them apply those to the learning we think they should achieve?  Isn’t that part of knowing our students, helping them become more productive in their own lives?

I am nearing the end of these prepared remarks.  I look forward to hearing what you have to say in response.  I hope that you will feel free to ask questions, but also to offer your observations and insights.  I have spoken from the perspective of my experiences and observations.  You may not YET be professional educators, but you have experiences, observations, and insights from which I can learn.  

It’s what I expect in my classroom.  I listen to my students and respect what they have to say to me.  

Many years ago during that six months in the Quaker school, a student gave me an answer that seemed totally off from the question. Rather than merely saying that it was incorrect, I asked her why she had given that answer.  I thus learned an important lesson about listening and clarifying:

When a student gives an answer that seems wrong, it might be important to ask why the student gave that answer.  The follow-up may enable me to help the student identify and immediately correct the misconception or misunderstanding that led to the ‘wrong’ answer.  

Here I note parenthetically that I have ceased “curving” my AP tests, but instead give back the tests and provide students an opportunity to figure out - by research or sharing among classmates - the correct answer, and then explain why their original answers were wrong and the newly provided answers are correct.  I give half credit for each answer properly corrected, and feel justified doing so because they are correcting their wrong understanding.  Part of assessment should provide students the means of doing that kind of corrective learning.

Another reason for an “incorrect” answer may be that the way I phrased the question was unclear or misleading.  That gives me an opportunity to clarify what I was asking.

But the most important reason of all is what I learned many years ago in that Friends School.   When I asked the young lady why she had given that answer, she offered an insight that I had never considered.  That was the most important learning that occurred in that classroom that day.  Not only did she offer the insight to her fellow students as well as to me, she demonstrated something equally important, at least in my understanding of the nature of teaching -  that the teacher should not be seen as the sole source of knowledge and insight.

My favorite poem is the last of the Four Quartets, by Thomas Stearns Elliot, “Little Gidding.” The final lines of the poem are for me very relevant to the nature of teaching and of living.  They are also quite relevant to this lecture, now about to conclude.

I began by talking about the focus on the students, on knowing the students.  I have explored how I think professional development needs to be tied to that.  I have further attempted to tie in the use of social media as a way of connecting better with how our students learn and function.

But even that requires us to return again to our primary focus, which is and should be the individual students.

The words from Eliot that I think apply begin like this, at the start of the final stanza:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

There is more in that final stanza, the complete text of which is on the final page of your handout.

 8 lines from the end we read:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

That is a description of the nature of teaching - our techniques will change as the times change, as our students change.  But ultimately the task before us is very simple, even as it is total in its demands:  how do we best make a difference for our students, those who should be our primary focus.

The final five lines read:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

We operate in hope that what we do can and will make a difference in the lives our students.  We may never know the end result, but we are aware of the words offered by Henry Adams that a teacher affects eternity.

Believe with me, no matter how endless and frustrating the tasks of teaching may be, that if we focus on our real obligation to our students, our joint journey of learning will be worth the devotion we give to it.

Thank you for listening.  


Originally posted to teacherken on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 06:28 PM PST.

Also republished by Educator Voices.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 06:28:19 PM PST

  •  glad to see it is being read (11+ / 0-)

    although I can only tell that from how it is being shared!  Odd, but I am not complaining.

    I put it up because I thought it might be of interest.

    I will be around for a while if anyone does care to comment.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 06:56:13 PM PST

  •  Thanks Ken n/t (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    texasmom, JanL, ER Doc, LWelsch

    "There must be more to life than having everything" -Maurice Sendak

    by lilypew on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 07:42:42 PM PST

  •  Some things I noticed... (7+ / 0-)

    and some things I loved. of course there are more but here are my highlights:

    One great misunderstanding about teaching can be seen in recent words by Bill Gates that teachers reach their full level of competence by three years and really do not improve after that.

    What a bunch of Baloney-Slicing.

    The best teaching requires one to think reflectively.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the structure of the day for many teachers makes this difficult, if not impossible.

    I don't think one can be a teacher without reflecting.

    I expect them to take ownership of their learning.

    I love intellectual curiosity developed within a student - when their "Well, what about this?" questions never stop.  

    Part of assessment should provide students the means of doing that kind of corrective learning.

    Student reflection, that metacognition you spoke of, is also huge. To understand their own habits as students, their own ways of learning, makes them better learners.

    Another reason for an “incorrect” answer may be that the way I phrased the question was unclear or misleading.  That gives me an opportunity to clarify what I was asking.

    What a great reflection. Another reason I admire and appreciate your teaching - because even though I've not seen it in the classroom, I can see it quite clearly here.

    "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

    by Shakespeares Sister on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 08:21:30 PM PST

  •  Thank you, Ken (5+ / 0-)

    I would have loved to be in the group attending the forum.  There is a lot to digest in your presentation - I just printed it our to mull over when I'm not so tired.  (major yard clean-up today.)

    Your emphasis on questioning and then listening to your students seems to be too often pushed to the side in the race to raise test scores, but that is another subject.  We always encouraged our sons to think beyond the obvious and consider a situation from all angles - not always the best approach to standardized tests, for sure.

    Thanks again for all that you do and for sharing it with us.

    Sometimes it's better to individually address a problem rather than just criticize our politicians for failing to do so.

    by texasmom on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 08:26:49 PM PST

  •  Most of my working life (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, ladybug53

    was spent as a psychotherapist, largely with children.  I used to think of it as being a teacher of emotional learning.  This speech shows me why I was right - the process, when done right, is the same.  Thank-you.

    When shit happens, you get fertilized.

    by ramara on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 09:03:42 AM PST

  •  Awesome. Thanks for sharing. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    If you think investing in education is expensive … consider the cost of not investing

    by iTeachQ on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 10:35:37 AM PST

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