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A Secret to Great Teaching: Maintain a Beginner’s Mindset

April 18, 2014 / by Sarah Brown Wessling

"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." -- Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki

Twenty-eight boundless students have just left my classroom. Some of their energy still hangs in the ceiling tiles after 48 minutes of planning, plotting, and scheming to carry out their idea to put on a Literary Character Dinner Party featuring figures we've read throughout the year. With my head spinning and my hand frantically capturing a list of all the details to work out in the next couple of weeks, I sent a message to a colleague: "What did I get myself into? This Literary Character Party is taking on a life of its own!" He quickly responded: "You knew this was going to happen. It always does." Right. It does.

It happens because I leap. There's an idea, a need, a way to turn senioritis on its head and with an amateur's heart, I jump right in. Of course, that means I might kill myself working through all the details, but I think this is what keeps me growing and getting better as a teacher -- the belief that I'm not an expert, I'm an amateur. And this is how I like it: seeing possibility in new places, asking questions, throwing out ten bad ideas to find the seed of a good one. Herein also lies a crucial misconception about teachers who have been recognized for their practice: it's not because they're perfect or experts, it's because they embody Shunryu Suzuki's Beginner's Mind and possess an aspiration to see infinite possibility.

I've been binge-watching videos of four teachers with "beginner's minds." They are about to be recognized by President Obama for their unique and passionate work in the classroom. Dorina Sackman, Sean McComb, Ryan Devlin and Melissa Porfirio are the four finalists for the prestigious National Teacher of the Year honor. Teaching Channel took our cameras into their classrooms to capture what makes them so exceptional. Each of these teachers brings something special to our profession, but I think it's the things that make them similar that will remind you of your own practice:

They care. A lot. You can see it in their faces when they work with students. You can hear it in their cracking voices when they talk about students. These are teachers who care. Profoundly. The young people they work with each day aren't numbers or names on rosters, they are people with incredible potential -- people who need to see in themselves what these teachers already believe about them. But here's the coolest thing about the way they care: it reciprocates, it creates culture, it makes learning part of the human experience.

They are passionate. Their passion certainly stems from the way they care, but it's more than caring. These teachers are present. Every minute, it's clear there's no where else they'd rather be. Call it teaching with your hair on fire, call it being in the zone, call it zeal, but whatever we call it, I want to channel that kind of focus in my days too.

They are distinctly different kinds of teachers. And thank goodness. I think we teachers too often get the complicated message of standardization, of sameness. Watching these teachers who approach their craft and their students in incredibly different ways reaffirms what I've long believed: our spectrum of students needs a spectrum of teachers. There's never a best; maybe only a best for this child at this time. This maxim makes me appreciate and rely on all my colleagues, not just the ones in my hallway, but in every building of our system.

They are pedagogues. Don't let their passion and personalities delude us. These are deliberate and precise practitioners. They copiously plan, they revise, they assess, they think about every move and every decision. Everything has a purpose: the words they choose, the way they talk, the groups they make, the texts they choose, the place they put their desk, the way they cover their walls. You will see laughter and joy and chaos, but believe me, it's all part of their greater purpose.

They see "through" and "to." They see through the noise and chaos of systems and see directly to the heart of what's important. This is not to say these teachers, and others like them, don't understand the system. They do. It's not to say they don't participate in the system. They do. But it does mean they know when and how to let go in order to focus on a particular student, a skill needing more practice, or a crucial step of learning that's not outlined in any document. They establish that crucial culture of learning that must flourish in order for learners to do so.

They don't call themselves experts; they embody a beginner's mindset. Ask any of these teachers how they ended up being a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, and their response will be a humble head shake, shrugging shoulders, and a quiet, "I don't know." Perhaps this is the beauty and the paradox: you can only be great when you don't think you are. Because if we let go of that beginner's mindset, that restlessness for growth and possibility, we are letting go of what keeps pulling us along, what propels us to leap.

Celebrating these four teachers is about elevating all teachers. Let them inspire all of us to cultivate a beginner's mindset, to teach with presence, and to nourish our passion for the profession. Enjoy!

Topics: Professional Learning, New Teachers, Growth Mindset, Motivation

Sarah Brown Wessling

Written by Sarah Brown Wessling

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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