A few years ago, I had a conversation with my assistant principal that I’ve thought about many times since.
We loved to sit in her office and grapple with big educational questions, such as issues of equity and access, as well as the smaller stuff, like when the copier paper would be delivered.
In this particular conversation, she asked if I could be an effective teacher if I wasn’t so relational with my students.
I gazed at the teapot that sat on the credenza behind her desk while I thought about the question. After all, I was (and am) an extremely relational teacher. If I had an education philosophy, it might go something like, “Teaching my students and loving my students go hand-in-hand.”
From the moment I stepped into a classroom, my relational teaching style was obvious. I simply loved my students and being their teacher. I eagerly wanted to understand who they were — their dreams and fears and learning styles and histories — so I could do a great job teaching them. I didn’t see any other path to success. Loving my kids and doing everything I could to reach them was never a decision for me. It was an instinct.
This style looked like showing up at their baseball games, spending my Sunday afternoons calling their parents to talk about progress, staying up late to devise lessons they would find engaging, and on and on.
My colleagues, to my embarrassment, noticed this and often commented on it. They worried I was going to burn out. Or that I was “trying to make the rest of us look lazy.” They thought I was working hard, not smart.
But I just couldn’t fathom any other way. Plus, this approach was a joy to me. Being relational with my students gave me energy and passion for teaching.
Without question, this style worked well for me.
Right up until the moment it didn’t.
I needed a change…but a change in my teaching context, or in how I showed up?
Imagine another conversation with a different assistant principal, this one only a year ago. I liked this leader very much, too. I knew I could trust him with the truth.
I confessed I was getting a little bored. I assured him I loved my job and our school. I just felt … squirmy. Our team had tackled and conquered serious issues and navigated our school through some of the weirdest and most troubling times we’d ever experienced, professionally, personally, and (honestly) globally. And yet, look. Our kids were thriving.
Still, I felt restless. Even a little glum. I thought less and less about what my kids needed and more about just doing what I had to. I often looked forward to the weekend first thing Monday morning. Not a good sign.
I wondered if it might be time for me to switch schools or leave education altogether.
But I wasn’t sure. The much-needed change, I felt, was me. Not my school or my projects, but rather my approach to teaching.
It was time to switch up my teacher type.
The 5 (very unscientific and completely made up) teacher types
Teacher type is a phrase I made up. It is backed by exactly zero professional research and is nothing more than a short-hand way for me to quickly categorize teachers. I do this in my brain alone, partly for fun, but mostly to better understand my colleagues’ approaches to teaching.
Teacher typing is a little bit like some of the goofy personality quizzes I used to make my journalism students take at the beginning of the year as part of our team-building process. “Oh, so you’re a blue paperclip! That makes so much sense! Me? Gold folder, thanks for asking.”
But teacher types are much more than a little mental silliness. I deeply respect, and am indeed envious of, teaching styles that are not my own. I look at my colleagues’ gifts with awe.
I also don’t think of teacher types as stereotypes. I understand them instead as instincts, the various ways teachers lean into reaching students. It is all about exactly that: reaching students.
In brief, here are the teacher types I’ve identified:
#1: Relational, as described above, and happily embraced for over eighteen years.
#2: Tech-savvy teachers have a near-savant ability to exploit digital resources up to and beyond their intended purposes. Consider a teacher I worked with a few years ago I’ll call Mrs. Vasquez. Her virtual learning management system was so gorgeous, interactive, and efficient that her students’ learning stayed completely on track during lockdown teaching (What?!)
When some students returned as others stayed at home, she quickly got hold of some kind of fancy voice-activated camera she attached to a tripod and set up in the middle of her room. That thing swiveled at the sound of voices. At-home kids were one-thousand percent engaged in her lessons because they felt like they were right there in the classroom.
#3: Professional teachers are all about improving their practice. They are the first ones to show up for professional development opportunities, whether offered in the teacher lounge or at a conference several hundred miles from home. Professional teachers can (and do!) tout the latest research about effective teaching strategies. They read professional books, blogs, and newsletters and are eager to try out what they’re learning … and enthusiastically tell their colleagues all about it.
#4: Community builders are a bit like relational teachers, except that they take all their warmth and concern outside the walls of their classroom. This kind of teacher understands the value of parental involvement and in fact, prioritizes home communication over nearly every other task on the agenda.
Community builders can be found partnering with organizations outside the school, too. A local ice cream shop brings treats to your school on Friday afternoons? Your community building teacher probably established that partnership, along with another one that resulted in a new floor in your school’s gym. Your community builders collaborate extremely effectively, and if your PLC is lucky enough to have this kind of teacher on your team, those meetings are one of the most rewarding hours of your week.
#5: Content area experts know and deeply love their curriculum. When I think of content area experts, Mr. Jones, a twelfth-grade English teacher, comes to mind. Man, does he know his Shakespeare. And the transcendentalists. And also the twelve (or is it thirteen?) literary theories, how iambic pentameter elevates speech to poetry, and the ways in which voices of protest shape literature. Mr. Jones doesn’t say pride, he says hubris, and he displays absolutely none. He simply adores English language arts, and his passion is contagious.
These approaches to our profession are instinctive and individual. While I naturally prefer the on-ramp of being relational, the teacher down the hall from me is a content area expert. We both love what we do, and we both get great results.
What happened when I tried switching up my teacher type
When I decided to explore a new teaching style, I knew I had the capacity to build another strength. I’m not exactly sure why, but during that conversation with my administrator, I instantly knew which teacher type to try out: professionalism.
For one year, I decided, I would say yes to every professional development opportunity that came my way. Every book that a colleague recommended, I’d read. Every class required by the district, I’d take right away instead of putting it off until the last minute. I would study teaching topics I’d been interested in but hadn’t found the time to explore, specifically teaching gifted kids and adding a reading endorsement to my license.
However, I knew that to make capacity for all this extra focus on professional activities, I’d have to ease up on my relational style. Under normal circumstances, that would never have been an option. A new teacher had just joined our team, though, and she is extremely relational. I could relax, knowing our kids would get all the emotional support they needed.
Off I went into the land of professional development, not exactly excited, but at least curious.
One thing happened that didn’t surprise me: my teaching got better. All the practices, strategies, and ideas I was learning about went straight into my classroom. My lessons improved as I polished up my instructional practices.
But something else happened that surprised me enormously.
My passion came back. My energy and enthusiasm for teaching bubbled up over. I thought constantly about, well, teaching.
In particular, I found myself thinking — a lot — about how to help my colleagues. I began daydreaming about professional development sessions I could create and new ways to communicate with my PLC members. I wanted to co-host an internal podcast for my consortium of schools. Almost every day on my way to school, I left voice messages for our area’s curriculum resource teacher, with one idea after another.
I felt my excitement for teaching return. It was a sensation I hadn’t had in years, but it was expressing itself in wholly new ways. Instead of dreaming up lesson plans, I was dreaming about ways our entire school system could grow.
My principal noticed. One day, he walked into my classroom and offered me a job. He had seen my focus expand from my classroom to our whole school, and he was impressed. One year after I decided to focus on professionalism, I became an instructional coach.
Am I suggesting you switch up your teaching type or explore a career change? Well sure, if that’s what you want.
But the big idea here is that leaning into a new teaching style can have enormous implications for your passion and your energy. And in these days of wild uncertainty and rampant burn-out, what could be more important than re-invigorating your love of education?
Want to try out a different teaching style?
Here are a few suggestions for ways you might lean into a new teaching style if you want to try out something different:
- Read a book that discusses early childhood trauma and how that impacts student learning.
- Attend an event that students specifically invited you to.
- Explore social emotional leaning and inject what you find into a lesson. This can look as simple as students pointing to a smiley face, sad face, or angry face to let you know how they’re feeling.
- Add class meetings to your daily routines.
A word about this before I dive into ideas. It is easy to get completely overwhelmed by the plethora of available resources and completely shut down. This has been my experience, anyhow. If this is you, too, focus on small, incremental steps.
- Befriend a tech-savvy teacher and ask them to tell you all about a favorite digital tool.
- Use the technology you are already familiar with in a new way. Think about phones, social media, or software applications you already use, and ask yourself how you can bring one of those tools into a lesson.
- Commit to trying one new digital app with your students per quarter. Just one.
- Move a paper-based tool you already use (interactive journals, dry-erase boards, planners) into its digital counterpart. Not sure how? The Internet will be more than happy to help you—or that tech-savvy teacher you eat lunch with.
- Sign up for virtual classes that present innovative teaching practices. You’ll know them when you see them, I promise.
- Read a book or two that address issues around learning, such as why kids don’t like school or how the adolescent years affect concentration.
- Been thinking about adding a subject or endorsement to your license? This is the year to do it. Be sure to ask your administrator about getting reimbursed for the cost.
- Volunteer to lead a professional development activity at your school. Better yet, pair up with a colleague to lighten the load.
- Seek out volunteers for your classroom.
- Communicate more frequently with parents — in a way that doesn’t keep you working nights and weekends. Ask an administrator at your school if you have access to email or auto-phone message lists for your students’ families.
- Have your students create a parent newsletter showcasing the activities in your class.
- Speak with neighborhood businesses about your school. Keep it casual. Be ready with contacts or ideas if a business owner asks how they can become involved.
- Find (or create!) a group of teachers who love your shared content area. Commit to meeting monthly.
- Take a college class or attend a conference on a topic within your curriculum. Again, ask about reimbursement.
- Subscribe to a professional journal for your subject.
- Take a personal field trip to enrich your own learning.
- Let your administrator know you’d like to be considered for teaching advanced students.
It’s important to recognize that it is our responsibility as educators to pay attention to all five of the teacher types. We can’t ignore technology or get loose with our content area just because those are not our strengths.
But with all the priorities clamoring for our attention, we cannot be fabulous at everything, all the time, either. It makes sense to rely on our innate abilities where we can because doing so is efficient and also feels great.
And listen, I am not suggesting that you give this a go if you’re a brand new teacher or your administrator just moved you from earth science to marine biology. Your plate is full.
But if you’re a little bored, kind of restless, or even wondering if teaching is still right for you, consider a shift in your approach to teaching. What a gift this could be to your students, your school, and most importantly, to yourself.
Instructional coach, MTSS coordinator
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