So here is what I've come up with, when thinking back on those years:
How I became a better teacher:
- I asked for and was receptive to help. Seems simple, right? I remember asking the other kindergarten teachers and my assistant principal (a former K teacher) for help often in my first year of teaching. Mostly it was about behavioral things that I was nowhere near ready to handle on my own yet! I can remember I had no idea how to help this little dude named Christopher. Someone along the line had told Chris that when he flushed the toilet, he would get sucked down and swallowed up forever (must've had older brothers, right?). Well he would freak out about it every day. He wouldn't go to the bathroom without me, he had to have the door wide open... this was a big issue! I couldn't leave the whole class alone every time he needed to go and at age 5, the rest of the kids don't need to be watching you in there. So I asked the other K teachers what to do. They helped me help Chris by letting him have small successes which eventually led to him being able to conquer that fear. That's just one small example. One thing that is tricky about this is that it's one thing to ASK for help, but it's entirely another to be open and receptive to that help. Without the second piece, you'll never improve. Be receptive to others' knowledge!
- I had to make my own stuff. When I got to my first classroom, there were very very little materials. I had to scrape together books by going to yard sales, my Mom donating a bunch, and going to the library every single Sunday to borrow tons of books for the coming week. I had to create alphabet songbooks and print them out and bind them for every student. I didn't have the means to go and buy posters- I made them (and I am the opposite of artistic...trust me!). Now, how did this force me to improve? Pretty straightforward, really- I had topics/content I needed to teach, and had to come up with fun ways to do it. My kids needed to learn how to tell time by the hour and half-hour, so I was forced to come up with my own way of doing it (a giant clock and cardboard long and short hands- every half-hour the clock helper kid was responsible for stopping the class and leading us back to the big clock, where he'd stand and put his arms in the right spot- totally fun stuff). That's just how it went- every Sunday at the library I got to sit and pore through books that were interesting and hit the letter of the week or some other science/ss concept. I became better because I was forced to make my own stuff. I worry about all of these canned instructional methods these days mostly because of this fact- we improve when we're challenged to do so (just like our kids, right?)
- I began to be able to visualize a lesson as I was planning it. This was huge and is something that helps me stay connected to the classroom now, even as I've been out of it for almost 6 years. As I was planning lessons, I started to play it out in my head- how the kids would react, how complicated the directions were, which kids would need an extra hand right away, how the transitions would work (or not work), how I could prep the materials so that the materials wouldn't distract from the actual lesson... everything. Actively practicing this visualization led to my lessons becoming much more effective. Plus I had already done the lesson in my head a few times, so when it was time to actually do it, it was like an old shoe- nice and comfy.
- I was forced to see my kids for who they were. One thing I loved about my first school, Vass-Lakeview Elementary, is that for the first two weeks all the teachers had to man a bus route. The stated purpose of this was to help the bus drivers maintain control for the first two weeks but the underlying purpose was much more powerful- we all got to see firsthand exactly where our students lived and the environments they were coming from. I won't go into the squalor and living conditions, except to say that if you haven't seen poverty before- when you see it up close and personal and experience it in your classroom, you will never be the same if you truly care about kids. But seeing these conditions and then many more as they walked about my classroom every day didn't sadden me as much as inspire and embolden me. It made me want to do more, to teach better, to be warmer and more kind. That was probably the single biggest way I improved- being able to see my kids for who they were, what they were coming from, and what they were dealing with.
So those are the thoughts that jumped out at me, as to how I personally improved as a teacher. Hopefully they make sense to someone out there reading, and I'd love to get more folks together to reflect on this question so we can have something to hold onto and share with other teachers to inspire them to improve as well!