Growth and change are at the heart of the teaching profession and at the center of being human. As I craft this essay, I sit with the statement of philosophy I wrote in 2006. What an opportunity to be able to reflect of my beliefs then and what I now hold true. There is nothing in that old essay that I refute, but there is so much missing. A decade ago I had little sense of how my lived experience influenced my teaching decisions, my interactions with my students and their families, and my sense of the world. I didn’t know then about the privilege I had grown up with seeing myself (over)represented in the books I read, the schools I attended, and the schools where I taught.
It is never too late to learn, to change, to grow. My world view was turned upside down in 2015 when I participated in Dismantling Racism training, and my work has not been the same since. I still believe in the relational nature of teaching, social constructivism, learner-centered classrooms, workshop models that use the gradual release of responsibility, and the power of choice. The change, however, is in the materials I use in the classroom, the questioning stance I assume with my students, and the language I use to frame my instruction.
I’m not content to let my evolution as an educator impact only those students in my classroom. It is my responsibility to nudge my colleagues, to work on teams to create diversity and belonging curricula, to share tools with coworkers so they, too, can ensure classroom libraries create windows and mirrors for students, and to impart this work to educators from other schools. Like Maya Angelou, “I did the best I could with what I knew; now that I know better, I will do better.”
The role of the school media professional has also seen a dramatic shift. Gone are the days of simply providing story time and maintaining book collections. The school librarian is now valued as an instructional leader, collaborating with teachers across the school during the planning and teaching of inquiry units. School media professionals support students, faculty, and families by curating responsive collections, both physical and virtual. They engage colleagues through professional development in information and technology literacies.
Choice continues to be one of the most powerful tools in my teaching repertoire. I have always believed in the value of choice as a path to engagement and stickier learning, but I now recognize that through choice students will leverage their own strengths. It is my job to discover the teaching opportunities that chosen topics or texts present. I learned this lesson from a student whose reading assessments indicated deficits in word attack and fluency skills. During readers workshop he frequently chose to read graphic novels. Through repeated thought-filled readings, he engaged in the work of synthesizing the text and identifying repeating motifs. Quite frankly, my visual literacy pales in comparison to this young man’s understanding through visual images. Had I required him to read books that matched the instructional level of his assessment results, would he have had the opportunity to think so deeply about his text? I don’t believe so.
Much of who I am as an educator stems from my training in Reading Recovery. At its core, this early intervention model is built of a belief in leveraging students’ strengths while scaffolding and instructing in areas of weakness. The goal of Reading Recovery is to build self-extending behaviors so that students learn new skills and strategies when they independently engage in literacy activities. I don’t need to explicitly teach each spelling rule, for instance, when students have learned strategies for working on words independently.
One of my greatest teachers about the conditions necessary for learning was one of the first graders for whom I provided reading intervention services. I was one of several adults serving this young boy who was managing emotional and behavioral challenges in addition to cognitive differences that impacted his memory. Frustration frequently led to emotional outbursts; he would crawl under the table and sob. Helping him cope with the challenges that our work would necessarily present became the priority. Through collaboration with the school counselor we implemented routines including mantras and behavior management tools linked to simply trying something when he faced difficulty. Until this boy’s needs for emotional safety were met, we could not focus on his literacy growth.
The information age presents the education community with new challenges. In order for students to fully participate as citizens of the world, they need to be able to locate, evaluate, use, and synthesize information. Inquiry-based learning also fortifies the importance of asking good questions, makes research meaningful, and develops research skills. Classroom teachers are specialists in content, pedagogy, and the developmental needs of their students. School media professionals are specialist in information. When best-practices are implemented, school media specialists collaborate with classroom teachers and technology specialists to identify learning outcomes and design lessons to teach content, information literacy, and technology skills. Within these collaborations, formative and summative tools are developed to assess information literacy and technology skills. Additionally, as part of this collaboration, the media specialist would assist by gathering physical and digital sources to support students as they engage with their research.
As we in the field of education accommodate new standards, curricula, and edicts from on high, one thing doesn’t change. We must know our students as the individuals they are. When we keep their needs, experiences, and futures at the center of our work, we are able to foster cognitive, emotional, and behavioral growth.