Perceptive readers of this blog (er, maybe using the plural there is presumptuous) will notice that the tagline has changed. Though I will still have a bent towards technology and gifted education here, because both of those are passions of mine, I decided the change was in order for two reasons.

First, from the start my posts have often ranged beyond those two topics into other areas of education, and I always felt awkward writing outside of my declared focus area. The new tag more accurately reflects what I write about and why.

Second, I have begun to realize that teachers can no longer afford to be just teachers.

[Cue Don LaFontaine:] In a world where tests reign and textbooks rule, one tireless soul has the power to turn a ragtag bunch of kids into a lean, mean, learning machine: The Teacher. [Thank you. That will be all, Mr. Fontaine.]
Before we can be teachers, though, we must first add two other titles to our resumes: learner and designer.

Learner

Any teacher today who believes that learning ended after graduate school needs to take another look at the profession and the world. The pace of change is accelerating. The students who sit in our classes are needier and more diverse than ever. Information and knowledge are growing exponentially, far faster than anyone can possibly keep up.

As a teacher, I was asked daily to teach things to my students that I knew little or nothing about before I had to teach it. As an administrator, I’m asked to run programs about which I know far less than I need to. New ideas about how to teach appear in journals and blogs every day. Scientists have learned an enormous amount in just the last ten years about how the brain learns.

If I am not before anything else a learner, if I do not dedicate myself to always getting better at what I do and how I do it, I have already lost before I even start. I can’t afford to rest on “it was perfectly fine last year.”

Consider this: the primary thing we want students to get better at is not multiplication or grammar. It is learning. If we’re not learning experts ourselves, how can we possibly expect to teach someone else how to do it well?

Designer

We can’t leap from being a learner to being a teacher, though. That’s like leaping from “I want to build a house” to buying lumber and a hammer and starting to nail things together. We might get a workable structure out of it in the end, but it’s going to take far too long and cost far too much.

In the middle is of course a design process. For years, teachers have left the design to others. We use curricula designed by curriculum experts, textbooks designed by publishing companies, classrooms designed by architects, and procedures designed by administrators (or perhaps worse, committees).

I don’t believe this is practical any longer. All of those designers know their particular fields. But few of them really focus on students, and none of them know our particular students. Teachers have to have the understanding—and the guts—to take charge of the design process.

So much of what we do with kids is available for us to mold to meet their needs. I’m not suggesting we throw out everything and begin completely from scratch. Although that might be reasonable if you are starting a new school, for example, it isn’t practical for most of us. Instead, I look at everything I have been given as a work-in-progress rather than a finished product. The curriculum is a framework, the textbook is a resource, the classroom is an open space. Before any teaching can take place, the environment, the materials, the lessons, the content must be thoughtfully and deliberately designed with a particular group of students in mind.

Students stand outside our classrooms, waiting to enter a place where their unique qualities are celebrated and where the teacher has taken the time to create something that fits them, that works well, and that leads to better understanding. Only The Teacher, with her new alter egos, The Learner and The Designer, has the power to make that all happen.

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