Becoming an Intentional Learner

How intentional am I in growing as a professional educator? This is an important question each of us must ask ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of our profession (low pay, lack of support, politicizing of education, lack of respect, etc.), but our responsibilities demand we continually seek to improve our craft for the sake of our students.

Early in my teaching career, I loved going to conferences and would attend as many as my school would pay for. I wasn’t an avid reader. In fact, the only piece of literature my eyes would see outside of school was the sports page of the newspaper. Hindsight, if I would have had the same desire to learn back then that I do now, I would have been a more effective teacher…. and more prepared for the principalship.

My initial career goal was to become a school counselor. However, the principal during my second year of teaching (Jerrod Wheeler) saw something in me that caused him to say I was a future principal. I don’t know what he saw, but it did prompt me to redirect my aspirations towards administration. Fast forward ten years…. I went from high school algebra teacher to elementary principal. (What was I thinking?!?) I quickly realized how much I didn’t know; it was either sink or swim. The guy who grew up preferring a basketball over a book soon became an avid reader. I had to. Elementary was not algebra. I didn’t know anything about phonics, Dolch or Frey, handwriting styles, running records, etc. Reading became about survival. It was necessary to become the leader my staff and students deserved. It was necessary for contract renewal.

There are definite challenges to being an intentional learner. Responsibilities at home, school events, meetings, kids’ activities, church and civic events, and being a husband, father, etc. all compete for what little time is left after school. It is true that we find time for what’s most important. However, I’ve caught myself watching a few hours of television during an evening only to realize I could’ve spent a few minutes connecting with my PLN (professional learning network) on Twitter, reading a blog post, listening to a podcast, or reading the next chapter of an educational book.

I don’t always feel guilty, though. Sometimes I just have to unplug and not think about anything regarding school. I have to protect myself from burnout, too!

Learning soon moved from survival to responsibility. I am a professional. This is not a label given because of my level of education, position, or place of employment. I am a professional because of the incredible responsibility I have to educate today’s youth. We expect our doctors to continue learning to be more effective in their profession. Same for engineers, scientists, attorneys, etc. The responsibilities they have demand it.

Aren’t we thankful dentists no longer use a turnkey to extract teeth?

It would be inexcusable for any of the careers above to not be learning new and better ways to perform their responsibilities. Same for those of us in education. It’s malpractice if we don’t. Our students deserve to have educators who are professionals by practice, not by title.

I’ve also learned that I cannot wait for learning to happen to me. I have to pursue it and own it. I recently wrote a blog post titled Striving For What Could Be. That friction between what is and what could be drives me to constantly be searching for ways to be more impactful in my responsibilities as superintendent and principal. I’m so fortunate for authors such as Todd Whitaker, Mike Schmoker, John Hattie, and Douglas Fisher. Their work has transformed many of my philosophies and values regarding education. I’m envious of undergrads and new teachers who are entering a profession full of resources available from Dave Burgess Consulting - books such as Teach Like a Pirate, The EduProtocol Field Guide, Kids Deserve It, and more. I wouldn’t have known anything about these resources had it not been for Twitter. Twitter allows me to discover the best books out there to read. It also allows me to connect with incredible educational minds who challenge me and cause me to grow as an educator and leader. I learn so much from chats such as #TLAP (Teach Like a Pirate), #LeadLAP (Lead Like a Pirate), and others.      

We have such an advantage in today’s time to be able to access and learn from these fabulous resources. It doesn’t end with books or Twitter. There are many incredible educational minds who share their thoughts and practices through blogging. Jennifer Gonzalez, Matt Miller, and Alice Keeler come to mind. Have a few moments in your car? Need something to listen to during your workout or while doing dishes? Podcasts are another terrific way to further professional learning. I currently follow about 40 of them. (I don’t listen to every podcast which gets published, but I watch for those which may be of interest.)

The possibilities are endless. The great thing is that we live in a time where we can customize our professional learning. We can pick and choose what we read, who we follow, and what we listen to. And most importantly, we can utilize these sources of learning when it’s convenient for us. It doesn’t have to be every day, or even every week, but we do owe it to our profession to pursue professional growth. Most importantly, we owe it to our students. Sometimes there are days (even weeks) which go by where I’m unable to find the time. This is okay. The most important thing is making a purposeful effort to become a professional through practice.

Finally, becoming an intentional learner will challenge our views, methods, and philosophies. There will likely be a great deal of time spent in reflection. This is a good thing! Ultimately, this learning will translate to trying new things in our classrooms and schools.

It is important to become courageous enough to allow ourselves to become vulnerable in front of staff and/or students. Risk-taking is a must in our profession.

Sometimes we fail, but sometimes we win - and we win because the kids win!

If you are interested in finding a book, learning more about Twitter, or discovering a podcast, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can provide some resources to get you started.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.