This week on the podcast we’re joined by Berit Gordon, author of The Joyful Teacher: Strategies for Becoming the Teacher Every Student Deserves. Berit’s book focuses on reflection and self-agency by providing readers with clear and focused strategies that can be adapted into an individualized practice.
We started our conversation by focusing on the challenges many teachers face when making the shift from pedagogy to practice.
Below is a full transcript of this episode. This transcript is machine-generated.
Brett: I like how right out of the gate you address, in your introduction, the worries that every teacher faces as they shift from being in school, learning the pedagogy, to then, okay, now it's real. I'm in front of students regularly, and I'm now officially teaching. From your experience and your perspective, what is that recipe for finding the joy and feeling, "I've got this?"
Berit: I think it's elusive for teachers, whether they're brand new to the profession or they're veterans, it can feel like that sense of, "Yeah, I really hit it out of the park today," is so rare. And I find even in our best of circumstances in a normal school day, I know very few teachers who drive home at the end of the day and they pat themselves on the back and say, "Yeah, job well done."
No, they catalog all the things that they didn't get to. And now in this time of COVID and online instruction, it's even more profound, this hair shirt that so many of us wear as educators that we are really skilled at thinking about all the things we're not yet doing well. And right now, especially, we could be thinking about that kid on the Zoom meeting who wasn't talking, or that kid who didn't show up at all.
And then we're also trying to find toilet paper, and we're trying to figure out breakout rooms. And we're often feeling like we're not measuring up. And it's sad to me as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers because we would never do this to our students. We would never be so tough on them and look at all the deficits and all the gaps. But we tend to do that as teachers. And I wanted to give teachers a way to, not just a fluffy feel good, but a genuine way to mark progress toward becoming an expert teacher wherever they're at in terms of their own professional journey.
And so, I wanted to take the guesswork out of what it means to be an expert teacher. And so, joy, of course, is part of it. We need joy now more than ever. But also apart from joy, a sense of competence, a sense of confidence. Like I am seeing progress. It's not ageist of whether or not I'm doing a good job.
And that's why I wanted to give very concrete strategies and indicators so that if you try something and you have a teaching goal, you know exactly what tried and true methods will help you get there. And then you have very clear indicators of whether or not that worked and if you need to go back and tweak it instead of hoping you're doing well, or waiting for that letter 20 years from now from a student who says, "You made a profound impact in my life." Instead, we could know right away. Yes, what I'm trying is working.
Brett: You alluded to this, but the book itself has such a tremendous wealth of knowledge and resources. What was your goal for teachers in writing this book and who is this book for?
Berit: My goal was to help keep teachers in teaching first and foremost. Over 40% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. And everyone goes into it with the most noble intentions because they care about students. And yet they get in there and they find it so tremendously challenging that they leave and go into a different profession.
So, my goal and my audience was for teachers to be able to stay in teaching and to find ways to feel successful at it. So, that applies, especially of course, to new teachers, but to any teacher who feels overwhelmed or unsure, or maybe they're not getting all the professional support they need.
I know teachers who are on Pinterest, and Teachers pay Teachers, and they're just searching and they're getting professional books and they're going to their own professional development and they have mentors and still they're desperate for the answer. And I wanted to give them very, very practical, concrete steps to work toward their own professional learning.
Brett: I want to ask you about the structure, which I am in love with, in just a second. But I also want to just lean into what you just said there for a second about, there's so many people that can access this book. What you've done, you've broken it down for new teachers, experienced teachers, and then any other ways to access this. Can you talk a little bit about why that was so important to have so many entry points for educators into this and into the resources you're presenting?
Berit: I think a lot about what we know works for students. So, we know when we're working with a group of students that there's not one path for them to all learn and to grow that we know we need to differentiate for them, we know we need to help them set goals and that they have a voice in choosing goals and that they have ways to track their own growth as students. And similarly, there's no one right path for teachers. The expert is in them and they need to have some voice and choice in figuring out how to grow.
And so, I wanted them to have a lot of autonomy and ways to differentiate for themselves, because there's never going to be, and this book isn't either, there's never going to be one certain way to feel better at teaching. So, there are lots of ways for teachers to come in and out of the book as they choose. They don't need to read it front to back. They can dip in and out as they want. And then there are lots of ways for them to see, "Well, this strategy speaks to me," or, "This one, not so much." There's a lot of choice.
Brett: You note in the introduction to the book that the structure borrows from Jen Serravallo's Reading and Writing Strategies book. Jen even writes the foreword to your book, which is incredible. Talk a little bit more about how the book is organized. You've got a lot of great breakdowns in the different chapters. Is it really a jump in anywhere that you find the right spot or do you advise people to start in one place and move towards another?
Berit: I think the reason Jennifer Serravallo's Reading and Writing Strategies book spoke to so many of us is because of the way she structured the books into a progression of goals for readers and for writers. So that for instance, engagement is the first goal. Because if a reader isn't actually engaged with sitting down and reading a book, it's going to be incredibly hard to feel success at a goal further along the hierarchy such as analyzing theme.
And I thought of that in my work with teachers that, for instance, it's very difficult to see success when we're trying to get students to work together collaboratively if we haven't first developed a strong classroom community and relationships with students and among students. So, I designed the book with a similar to the Reading and Writing Strategies books, a progression of goals that teachers can look at and they can think, "If I'm experiencing success with a goal that's earlier on in the hierarchy, I'm setting myself up for success with a goal later on."
And one of the earlier goals is, for instance, relationship building with students. Because without that, it's so hard to feel success with other focus areas. And of course, the very first goal, which is so relevant to us right now is how to stay happy and healthy in a demanding job. Because if we are experiencing burnout, or we just are seeing all of our gaps, or we're feeling really overwhelmed, we are likely to risk burnout. And then it's tremendously hard to do what we need to do for students.
And so, I think that is as relevant as ever is how do we, even if not staying happy, at least staying at a point where we're taking care of ourselves and can offer the support to students that they need.
Brett: I encourage people to check out the sample chapter on heinemann.com, because it bursts with color, lots of brilliant organization and structure. I commend you on just how accessible this book is and all of the resources within it. As we record this conversation now, we're finishing week 11 of remote learning, remote teaching for most schools across the United States.
For some schools, they're starting to wrap up now, and they're starting to think about the fall. We know the fall will look pretty different. But through that lens, I was particularly drawn to chapter one, your section on staying happy and healthy in a demanding job. How do you think teachers can best address both their students' needs and their own needs through this remote learning situation?
Berit: I think the teachers I've been working with are letting me know loud and clear that they are stressed. They are mending on the brink of burnout. There used to be a delineation of at least getting in your car and driving home and being out of the classroom. And now the classroom is our kitchen table. And teachers are doing Zoom sessions, and office hours, and planning, and feedback until the wee hours of the night, or they're getting up so early before they're homeschooling their own children.
And so, this seems highly relevant now that we're thinking about how to protect ourselves or make sure that we are coming to our teaching life with enough stamina and good spirits that we can reach our kids. So, the strategies in that chapter, in that very first chapter, are very concrete ways that might feel like common sense but are actually teachers are letting me know that they're very helpful reminders to them to do things like, think about what your core values are and what you care about most and make sure that you're prioritizing those in the decisions you make so that you're not just doing endless lessons or hours and planning.
But you're thinking about, "If my core value is that I care about students, am I making sure that my actions back that up?" So, reminders and ways to feel success, feeling healthy right now so that we can then do things like design engaging and motivating lessons and we can give meaningful feedback.
Brett: And sticking with that perspective, classroom environment, you have a whole chapter on classroom environment. It's going to, again, look so much different in the fall. In some cases it might be blended, in some cases it might be different from where kids left school, whatever week or month it was in this school year. How can we best think about our classroom environments as we start to prepare for the fall?
Berit: Classroom environment, when we think about the traditional classroom means that students can come in and feel safe and feel like they're in a place that is organized, and makes sense, and allows them to thrive. So, even if we're not in a traditional brick and mortar school in the fall or we're in and out of those environments, creating that safe, nurturing space where students feel like they can thrive is going to be just as fundamental a goal before we can do things like get to that content learning.
And there are many ways that teachers can still think about prioritizing that environment, whether we're making sure that our modules are well-organized, and that students know where to go, and that there are predictable places and spaces for them to interact. And whether it's making sure that Flipgrid is up and going and everyone knows how to mute their microphone, or they're all going to be simple moves that we can make so that students do feel like this is a place where I belong.
And now more than ever, we have to think about making sure that we're creating environments where students feel like, "This is a home for me. This is a place where I want to show up every day."
Brett: You also have a section about classroom norms over classroom rules. How should we be thinking about classroom norms over classroom rules?
Berit: So, the way I organize the chapters was that, instead of thinking about management in a traditional way, I first looked at how we can establish routines and rituals because without those, again, we don't have that foundation on which everything else rests. And then I also looked at relationship building. And in there you're referring to one of the strategies that we can create norms instead of rules.
And this is a wonderful thing that I've been researching and I'm so thrilled to see. And again, that will be a great strategy for teachers to check out, to think about how are we going to co-create norms together with our students in the fall, instead of teachers top-down presenting the rules of the road.
And it is a whole way to look at, instead of compliance, really thinking about how we can together grow, again, that safe space where students feel like they belong and they feel like they have a voice and they're invested in making it a community where everyone wants to and can learn.
I feel so much affection for teachers right now. And especially now when I think these inequities are being further exposed in our world of education when we see Black and brown communities further suffering because of COVID. And I know teachers are always aware of this and feeling like there's so much we need to do. And we do. It's a call to help them.
And what I want teachers to feel is that there is a way to do this. It's manageable, but we have to work at it incrementally. And that if we try to do everything and try to keep this learning curve of, for instance, learning how to do digital instruction all at once, we are setting ourselves up for a lot frustration and feeling of failure.
And so, what I really want teachers to do is to be able to think "What's my goal and how can I work toward that step by step? And how can I also celebrate every bit of accomplishment along the way? Because our students are going to feed on that and they need us to be there and to be feeling positive and competent so that they also can take part.
Berit Gordon brings many years of teaching experience in New York City high schools as well as in the Dominican Republic to her literacy coaching work. She is a graduate and former instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Berit is the author of No More Fake Reading, which offers solutions for boosting stamina, joy, and skills among adolescent readers. Whether running workshops, leading literacy coaching sessions, or working in classrooms, Gordon strives to help students fall in love with reading and writing, and to lay the groundwork so they are experts at both for life. She lives with her family in Maplewood, New Jersey.