How to Make Better Teachers

Cross Posted at the Huffington Post

Want to instantly create better teachers? I know how. One word. Blogging.

Now before you roll your eyes or accuse me of oversimplifying the very complex issue of teacher evaluation and monitoring hear me out.

I began teaching in 1988. It was a tough job and thinking about getting better was superseded by survival instincts. Early on in my career, there were several documents that the province produced in support of improved professional development. I didn’t pay much attention to these but one phrase I saw in those documents some 20 years ago stuck with me. Reflective Practitioner.  I sort of understood the concept but other than simply thinking about what you did in the classroom, I wasn’t at all sure what to do with this term.
When I discovered blogs almost 5 years ago, I soon figured out what that term meant. Since that occasion I have sat down to write close to 1,000 pieces of reflection. While not all would be considered deep, most take me anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to craft. It may not always look like it, these are generally borne out of the times I spent observing, thinking and working in classrooms. The reflective writing has been valuable but definitely the nearly 4,000 comments have been even more of a learning experience. This is the single best professional development experience I’ve had.

Dan Meyer, a Mathematics teacher in California

…blogging was the cheapest, most risk-free investment I could have made of my personal time into my job. You start by writing down things that are interesting to you, practices you don’t want to forget. And then you start trying new things just so you can blog about them later, picking them apart, and dialoging over them with strangers. Periods of stagnancy in your blogging start to correspond to periods of stagnancy in your teaching. You start to muse on your job when you’re stuck in traffic, in line for groceries, that sort of thing. That transformation has been nothing but good for me and it all began on a free Blogspot blog.

Thousands of other blogging educators could echo similar words. In fact, I’ve yet to hear anyone who has stuck with blogging suggest it’s been anything less than essential to their growth and improvement. I’ve no “data” to prove this but I’m willing to bet my golf clubs that teachers who blog are our best teachers. If you look at the promise of Professional Learning Communities that our schools have invested thousands, more likely millions to achieve, blogs accomplish much of the same things. The basic idea of the PLC is to have teachers share practice/data and work in teams to make improvements. A good blog does this and more. While the data may not be school specific, great bloggers know how to share data and experience that is both relevant and universal so any reader can contribute and create discussion.

There’s a natural transparency that emerges. The teachers who blog as professionals in this reflective manner in my district invite anyone to look into their classrooms and you can get a picture of what happens on a daily basis. This goes a long way in addressing accountability concerns.

Teachers have for years had to fill in a plethora of reports and forms which in essence are accountability papers. For the most part they are of no use teacher and in most cases aren’t very valuable for administration either. Busy work.

So here’s my plan. Hire a teacher, give them a blog. Get them to subscribe to at least 5 other teachers in the district as well as 5 other great teachers from around the globe. Have their principal and a few central office people to subscribe to the blog and 5 other teachers as well. Require them to write at least once a week on their practice. Get conversations going right from the get go. Watch teachers get better.

Try that. If it doesn’t work after a year, you get my golf clubs.

PS. The only people allowed to criticize or challenge this idea are people who have blogged for at least one year and written at least 50 posts. The rest of you can ask questions but you can’t dismiss it.

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  • So that description leaves me entitled to criticize. I’m game.

    I agree with most points stated here. Particularly the description of advantages we can observe in blogging;or rather, good blogging from teachers. I think you’ve summarized the essence of informal learning.

    The idea of a plan is what makes me feel far from agreeing. I find it more of a push method than actually pulling somebody into vibrant networks that already exist and there ‘get conversations going right from the go’. Let me ask you the same question I asked Downes in Buenos Aires last May:
    To what extent can we plan instances of informal learning? Is this very question pure fallacy?

    Answer me that and you will automatically give me a compelling need to go back to my May draft post, publish what he answered me and reveal how clueless I still am about it all.

    • Claudia,
      Point taken and I’ll agree the implementation leaves something to be desired and certainly not able to accomplish a giant shift of culture in one blog post. But if the culture values and in some ways insists on reflection there has to be some way to make it happen.
      Could we agree that reflection is integral to improvement? Can we also agree that everyone needs some way to be accountable, even if that’s to yourself? If so, I can’t find a better solution than blogging. I’m not suggesting that teachers didn’t reflect and collaborated before blogging but today it’s certainly the most efficient, I dare say effective way to accomplish this. But I’m open to other ideas, given you’re a blogger yourself.

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  • Okay, you have re-inspired me! I am a teacher of 32 years, a lifelong learner and still am excited to go to work every day to help students learn in ways that help them to make connections between the information and their world. There isn’t a class that I teach on any given day that I don’t reflect about in some way- improving on a strategy, questioning techniques, integrating technology more seamlessly, etc. I find myself re-inventing ways to deliver the curriculum to keep students engaged and to promote “thinking about thinking”. I tweet about what I do, I have created blogs for my students, and while I have thought about a blogging my day to day educational experiences, I wonder where I will find the time. So, I am going to create a blog and take it a step at a time. Maybe I won’t blog each day, but I will try to blog at least once a week. I love the idea of collaborating with other teachers both near and far- so now I have to recruit some!

    Improving teaching practices improves student learning…and we certainly need to do both. Wish me luck!

    • Go get ’em Gayle! Once again proving my point that many of our best teachers have been around for a while.

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  • Dean, if I were a principal, this is exactly what I would do. And with sites like Posterous, blogging is as easy as sending an email to yourself.

  • What sort of golf clubs are they? Sometimes I’m not sure that blogging has made me a better teacher but maybe more acutely aware of how many shortcomings I have compared to others. BTW, I have a new Taylor Made R9 driver but my irons are getting a little long in the tooth. Regular shafts? Hmmm, air freight could be pricey for you ……

    • Graham,

      Interesting you question its role in making you a better teacher. I agree that it might be difficult to pin point it a a singular contributor. So I’d ask you, do you think you’re a better teacher today than you were before you began blogging? The other perspective is that blogging has likely helped you connect with others and I’m sure you’d attest that those connections have contributed to your growth even if it’s the simple sharing of a few resources.

      I’d like to hear more from you before I send over my clubs. (they are stiff shafts by the way)

  • I have been blogging for about 3 years now and I agree with you that it can make a better teacher, but sometimes I wonder how much of a better teacher I am if my posts are never commented on. The posts become glorified journal entries or internal thoughts posted on a page, but really only become more valuable to me once a dialogue gets started. There are some posts I make that is not necessarily a benefit to me, so much as wanting to share happenings with others. There is reflection for sure but not always at a higher level that maybe I should be aiming for. Maybe my network needs to expand but since I have only been teaching for 5 years I find it harder than it should be to expand my PLN/PLC with others. I feel like a better teacher when I am sharing with others via my blog, and reflecting on issues that come up in my classroom and in my district that affect my teaching. I guess if I keep posting, the comments will come – more time may be needed. Ultimately I am trying to say that commenting is one of the most important parts of being a blogger – it helps not only you as a teacher grow when there are comments on your blog, but also helps others who blog and you are commenting on theirs, to keep the ball rolling and keep the dialogue going forward. Great post! Thanks Dean!

    • Thanks Priscilla,

      I agree that blogging represents a multi-faceted experience that includes both the personal, private exploration of ideas but indeed, it’s true power comes in the conversations. I’m so glad to know you’ve been trying for 3 years and the developing of those key voices, critical friends, readers, colleagues is a big part of making blogging most effective. I do believe that given the vast amount of bloggers and even edubloggers, there is still something to be said for those that can warrant readers with excellent writing and ideas. But if we understand and embrace the idea of the Long Tail, we know that even a small number of dedicated readers can make a big difference.

      I hope that no one who has blogged for a time would see it as a waste but having a few powerful, important conversations makes a world of difference. In the same way that not every staff room or meeting has a great discussion but those that do can be integral in a person’s growth, understanding and improvement.

  • Dean,

    blogging is so much fun, it reminds me of how fun learning is and makes me want to teach forever becuase I see the potential for our young people in classrooms and out. PLC’s on-line give me great hope for our disengaged kids in classrooms.

  • Julie Robison

    First, thank you for the push that I needed to start actually writing. I read ISTE’s article last summer about starting a PLN, and I’ve been slowly gathering blogs to read (including following yours), but have been reticent to put my own thoughts out there for scrutiny. So yesterday I made my first post to my blog.

    Second, thank you for the inspiration. I am using blogs in my classroom with my kids, but this made me realize that we as teachers should be using blogs to communicate with each other, possibly as an alternate form of portfolio or formal professional development, or as a support tool for new teachers.

    • Great to hear Julie,

      I also think it’s important to know that while those deeper reflections are critical, the habit of sharing and asking questions varies in intensity and significance. As well sometimes those seemingly casual conversations have deeper meaning that we often give them credit for.

  • Dean,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your post. I think one of the reasons my classroom practices have changed so much, in the past few months, is because of my blog. In order to tell others what is going on in my classroom, and with my pedagogy, I need to have wrestled with it myself. It’s hard to explain what you, yourself, don’t know. Blogging requires me to know what I think. I know that when my class ends in two weeks, I will continue to blog because of the immense benefits I have received from it.

    • Shelley,

      There’s is certainly a tipping point when the blog you start as an assignment becomes something you continue. You’ve always had some great things to post about and have generated some critical conversations but I’d also suggest that you may not always be at the same stage in your career and life. You need to give yourself permission to post content that may be less intense but regardless, I would encourage you to be consistent. Post a good link, a great video but do it regularly. I think that’s important.

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  • Yes indeed blogging enables teaches to share their experiences and learn from each other. This platform enables us to seriously interact with people with whom we can not meet in person. I’ll come back for discussions in the future.

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  • I think that REFLECTION is really what makes a better teacher. (And… blogging is a form of reflection, of course) But… there are many great teachers that reflect on their practice and have an inner voice going on while driving in their car, loading the dishwasher, showering, etc. They may not take the time to blog. When they share with their PLC, colleagues and PLN in whatever fashion is when they go deeper and they are stretched by the conversation. Blogging again is a way to do this… but not the only way to reflect. So… is a blogger the best… not sure. It’s the REFLECTOR that’s the best… and again, we all have different ways to reflect on our practice.

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  • Dean Groom

    I think, before making better teachers – we need to think very carefully about creating effective ‘teacher educators’ and in that, be very clear about what “IT” is that we are planning to do for teachers. We can’t take techie teachers, and assume that blogging is going to change any belief that non-blogging teachers hold. There is very little research as to why a teacher becomes a teacher-educator let alone what works in teacher-education itself.

    I’d argue that if you give me 10 teachers, and I teach them to play Warcraft, they’d become better teachers. I’ll stack them against your bloggers my friend, but then again, selling that idea into edumaction is a whole new mind.

    • Dean,

      Interesting. Sounds like a great action research project. You take 10 and I’ll take 10. 😉

      I think I”m making the assumption that we have many good teachers and that blogging can make them better. I’d be interested more in your thoughts on why WOW would make them better. Having never played but only watched my son, I can see the teamwork, collaboration which are certainly essential habits of a good teacher but you’d need to enlighten me more. I think blogging is a more natural, easier sell because it’s largely about moving reflective practice, a more understood habit, into a new space with new affordances and possibilities.

      Seriously, I want to know more.

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  • I totally agree. Blogging helps me reflect on what I am doing and helps me learn and grow!

  • My question then is “Is Blogging Enough?”

    Does blogging alone create reflective teachers? I think it’s the contributions of your readers that make the blogging useful.

    Personally I wouldn’t have the inclination to blog if no one was reading it but me. I would write a Word document and file it in my workplan and it would never see the light of day!

    We have been asked to make a digital portfolio. Would that make me more reflective or suck my time so that I don’t blog publicly. Or is a digital portfolio by definition a private thing??

    I’m just wrestling with that one now!

    • Allanah,
      Clearly the difference between blogging and journaling comes in the conversation and simply realizing that it’s a public form of reflection. That’s key. As far as a portfolio, I think your blog is your portfolio. Perhaps not in the traditional sense but if you use your blog to reflect and share, I think it would simply be a matter of pulling out salient pieces that would serve to display your work over time.

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  • Liz Daley

    I work with high school students with learning disabilities and all the baggage that goes along with that classification. I haven’t started blogging but I’m interested and feel that there would be a great deal of value for my students. Two questions: How do I set up a blog situation that limits the public’s access to my students until my students get to the point where they respect the tool? What is the current research on blogging for students who are at risk of drop-out and failure because of academic deficits?

    • Liz,

      Most blogging platforms have the option of private or members only. This becomes difficult as you try to grow you reach since logging in can be a barrier for some. As far as research goes, I don’t have any on struggling students but there is a fair bit suggesting its impact on learning in general.

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  • N Shehadeh

    From an individual point of view, the blogger needs to be given more factual statistics than what has been included in the current information. This will go a long way in accrediting or validating the mentioned concerns.

    Can blogs benefit teachers in their classrooms and among their students?
    The benefits blogging for teachers include the ability to carry out learning at any place and time, enhancement of active learning due to the fact that students have a chance to make contributions accordingly and improvement of the quality of the learning process through encouragement of self reflection. The disadvantages of blogging for teachers include poor expression of ideas and interests and inability to maintain blogs accordingly. What do you think about this issue?

    • Nina,
      Facts and research are important. I have collected some and you’ll find them here.
      The research I’m most interested in which has been proven over and over is that reflection is a key ingredient to improvement and blogging does this almost better than any mechanism I can think of.

      I’m not sure I agree with what you state about poor expression. Teachers/students can use poor expression using any medium. What do you think blogs necessarily promote poor expression? I’ve never written as well since I’ve started blogging. Maintaining a blog is one of the reasons I advocate it. Technically, it’s dead simple. Adding regular content is simply about regularly reflecting. That’s the challenge.

  • N Shehadeh

    Hi Dean

    I think that just like other social networking sites, regular blogging is likely to
    result in employment of slangs that undermine effective

    I like to mention that the disadvantages of blogging for teachers include lack of privacy because of the fact that blogs are a public forum. In addition, subjective comments regarding personal reflections can influence decision making of other participants.

    • I will continue to argue that blogging need not result in that at all. I for one, take great pride in using my blog to effectively communicate and hopefully showcase my best work. Given that I know others will read it, why would I use slang? Even with students, the conversation about context, understanding there’s an audience, usually leads them to write better, not worse.

      Again, I don’t see the public nature as a disadvantage but as an advantage. I value those comments and yes they influence me, as any good and meaningful piece of feedback should.

      I choose to use this platform in its most positive and powerful way. Like any tool, it can be used well or poorly. It’s not inherently good or bad. But if we recognize its affordances and leverage them, I still can see no better way to reflect, converse and learn on a regular basis, with a wide variety of people.

  • N Shehadeh

    Hi Dean

    I have a question for you: Do you think that blogging will help in improving teachers’ performance and duties in their classrooms? with their students?

    • Nina,

      It has the potential. It’s not really blogging itself but the mindset that reflection, asking questions and having relevant conversations with yourself and others will improve practice. One of my favorite examples is Dan Meyer who regularly posts lessons, ask questions that he in turn takes back to his teachers. THat’s a mindset, the blog is one of the best ways to facilitate that mindset.

  • N Shehadeh

    Hi Dean

    Through blogging, teachers have a chance to sharpen their reflection skills. Ultimately, this develops communication skills and a mindset that blogging is essential for the above mentioned improvement.

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