Originally published on October 6, 2018
When my kids were younger, and it was time for them to head up to their rooms for bed, I would attempt to encourage their get-to-it-ness by saying, "Who's going to get to the top of the stairs first?" They would immediately bolt to the stairs in a frantic and frenetic furry laughing and flailing as they raced to be the first. My oldest son, Nolan, who is would often be the first one, however, there were times when my daughter was the winner. In these instances, he would exclaim, "First is the worst, second is the best, third is the one with the hairy chest!!!" Of course, he was just engaging in sibling rivalry, but there is something to this saying about first not always being the best.
I'm not just using the term teacher in a professional way here, but also for anyone who is in a position of being the "example," model, expert, and/or source of knowledge. When you are in this position, it is only natural to feel like you should be capable of helping others because you are able to do what you need them to do and show them how they can do it. As a teacher, you feel like people rely on you to be at your best and your best means that you know what you're doing.
In Danielson's Framework for Teaching, the very first element, "Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy" in the very first Domain, "Planning and Preparation," states that Distinguished teachers are able to "anticipate student misconceptions." That can only happen when/if the teacher is in a position of being and feeling like s/he has a deep understanding of what and how to teach what is being taught.
While teachers enjoy teaching, I also believe that that they love learning.
Teachers are curious and spend so much of their professional and personal lives thinking, talking, and reading about what they teach, who they teach, and how to teach the who and the what better.
They are driven to have their students succeed. In the field of education, however, it is really hard sometimes to keep up with all of the things you may want to learn more about because you have to learn about things that have changed and something is always changing. The curriculum changes. The standards change. The tests change. The administration changes. The grade level you teach changes. Your students change. The culture changes. Everything changes. And, that means that even though teachers are life-long learners, they would also welcome the chance to not have to be life-long FIRST-learners when they also want to have some degree of confidence as teachers.
I use the term "first-learner" to describe someone who is learning something that they then have to teach to someone else, i.e., the "second-learner." Anytime anyone has to show someone else something that they had to learn to do first, they are a first-learner. Another way to think about this is a drop of water and the concentric circles it makes. The drop is the information. The first ring is the teacher. The second ring is the student. The information first has to be understood by the teacher and, only then, will it impact the students.
So this is what I mean. It's all fine and dandy to be a learner if you don't have to get in front of people in a high-stakes environment and then teach others to do what you just learned. However, it's ridiculously hard to teach confidently if you, as the teacher, are still learning the content or the best way to teach the content. And this is why sometimes "first is the worst."
I am writing all of this now, I think, because I am in the position of being a first-learner in my new job. My title, "Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology," is one that I have always wanted...or at least the curriculum and instruction side of it. Though I feel pretty good about my ability to lead instructional technology integration, the technical assistance side of technology is brand new to me. I am a first-learner. Though I really am someone who loves learning, I am also someone who is a service-oriented leader, meaning, I see my job as helping others do their jobs to the very best of their abilities. When someone reaches out to me because they need technical assistance and I am not able to help them, I do not feel efficacious in my work. Rather than being of service, I am a speed trap, at best, or a burden at worst. Further, because I feel discouraged by my inability to assist those looking to me for help, I find myself resenting this part of my role, rather than embracing it.
I hope all of this does not sound like I am complaining or that I believe that we should just let people stay in their comfort zones. Neither of these things are true. I love learning, but the pace at which we are expected to implement what we learn is what I'm thinking about. People need time to digest what they have learned and connect it to what they already know. Remember when we were in teacher preparation? We spent months (even years) taking classes about teaching psychology, sociology, and methods. Then when we started our student teaching, we spent days or weeks just observing. That likely happened after we had already had to do observations of a variety of teachers. All of that meant that we were chomping at the bit to implement what we had been taught. We went from first-learners to eager-implementers.
So, what I want to convey today is that I have a new-found appreciation for the position that we are constantly putting ourselves in and I wonder how we can change our thinking and feeling when there are natural transitional phases between old and new learning. Further, how can we guard against resenting the new thing even when it's hard, we liked the old thing, and we're tired? Finally, even when we would treat someone who is experiencing this with grace and understanding, how can we provide that same kindness to ourselves?