Teacher as Learner

This weekend I had the powerful and humbling experience of reading the proof of my teaching memoir. Seven years in the making, twice as long since I retired… reading it all in just two days offered a fresh and more complete perspective on my career. The stories share the lessons I learned as a teacher, for all good teachers must be learners first. Rediscovering my own learning experiences reminded me of my evolution from naïve idealist to more competent instructional leader. I confess I’m proud of this book, and the reviews might just give me a swelled head. Here’s one:

“Teaching is hard. Anyone who has spent any time in the classroom knows what it is like. Those first years are particularly challenging, but they can lead to an emancipatory journey. Ellen Ljung captures this experience in a way that will resonate with anyone that has ever taught, but also illuminates a path for those that are just starting their own career. From the early days of navigating the bureaucracy of schools and the dated expectations of its leaders to a more established position of understanding, Ljung details her own development, striving to serve her students, and herself, better. There is much to learn here for all. Tales Told Out of School raises important questions for teachers, administrators and those who care for them about the nature of teaching, the challenges of work in schools, particularly as a woman, and what it takes to truly master an incredibly demanding profession. Ljung’s wit, humility and humor bring to life the experience of the classroom at an all too important moment in our history.” ~ Bob Regan, Director of Education at Gates Ventures

Sadly, the current supply chain issues mean the book probably won’t be published and distributed until early in the new year. And I still have work to do: fixing the final editing errors that my weekend read found despite multiple proof sessions earlier, agreeing on a cover design, and setting up a book launch. All these efforts make the eventual advent of the book feel more real.

It has been over thirty years since I published my second textbook, and I wrote both of those texts by dedicating a year of Sundays, a much faster process than this one. I will never forget the elation I felt holding a book I had written for the first time! This time feels different, though. This time is so much more personal. This time I’ve shared my own stories and vulnerabilities. This time also offers overdue closure, a letting go.

Decades ago teachers at my school explored “writing to learn,” a movement that asserted that we could best understand our thoughts and ideas by writing about them, that the writing itself would bring clarity. This teaching memoir has taught me so much about myself, about my strengths and weaknesses, about my passions and beliefs. I can’t wait to share it!

Strategies to Support Learning

I know I must sound like a broken record when I keep returning to social and emotional learning as a pandemic priority… but I found more support in an Education Week piece by Stephanie Jones, “4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now” [EdWeek]. The Gerald S. Lesser Professor in early-childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, she affirms the imperative that teachers and parents work to “help children feel stable, safe, and ready to learn.” Jones offers four specific strategies:

  • “Ask questions and listen actively.”

Jones describes the disappointments and traumas of the last two years and the intense pressure that children [and parents] feel about catching up academically. She urges adults to check in with children and have conversations about how they’re feeling.

  • “Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.”

I have always seen value in this approach, but it becomes even more important in times that feel unstable. Jones urges teachers to establish concrete and predictable procedures, and to give students more time when they need it. She encourages families to develop predictable rituals and routines at home, and to invite conversations with prompts like “What was the hardest and easiest for you today?” or “What are you grateful for today?” Students need to be seen and heard, especially when they are under stress, and adults need to provide those opportunities.

  • “Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.”

Helping students thrive in the current climate requires more support for emotional development and stability. Jones urges “respectful, open, and accepting learning environments.” She offers several strategies, including journaling, daily greetings, and open discussion about how students are feeling. Neuroscientists tell us that students’ readiness to learn is highly correlated with their emotional well-being. “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior” [Frontiers in Psychology]. Investing time and energy in the emotional well-being of students ultimately pays off in their learning.

  • “Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.”

Jones asserts that the responsibility to support students and their learning should not depend only on teachers. “Parents and other guardians can play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort” [Op.Cit.]. She suggests that parents share their own feelings and sense of vulnerability, then listen actively and affirm what their children say.

I loved Jones’ closing statements: “…it is only when students feel safe, listened to, and supported by adults in their life that they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do” [Op.Cit.]. I couldn’t have said it better myself!