The first time I ever taught full-time, I began the year with no student-teaching experience and no real background in education. It was sort of a baptism by fire. Thankfully, I had a lot of teachers in my family and in my school to help me become better at the job as time went on. I recognized that first year that every teacher has his or her own style. I realized I could take something away from each of those styles. Here's a few things I pass on as advice to those trying to learn from the different teaching styles around them:
- Be open-minded. When I started teaching, I was a blank slate. I was also nervous and knew I had a lot to learn. These things worked to my advantage as they made me receptive to help. Even without formal training in teaching, I still had ideas I wanted to try, but I know that being open to suggestions was one key to actually learning from people with more experience. So that is a good place to start. Unsolicited advice can be a pain, especially if it's delivered the wrong way, but if you're new, take advice into consideration, and be willing to try new things. And by all means: Ask questions!
Honestly appraise your weaknesses and strengths. You may be great at creating group projects, not so hot at managing the small groups. You may have a way with high-achieving kids but not know how to handle learners who need more help. Another key to learning from teaching styles around you is to know what it is you need help with. I am disorganized, so my sister's advice--get folders--was maybe the best thing anyone ever told me. And yes, even when we're strong in an area, we can benefit from considering a new approach. But if there are things in your teaching repertoire that aren't broke, you don't need to start with fixing them. Instead, look at what you need help with and see what works for your colleagues. Also knowing what your natural abilities are makes it easier to decide what strategies work best for you.
For example, I had a degree in film, so when teachers suggested using film to get certain things across to students, it worked for me. When I heard about other teachers' ideas for letter-writing, journaling, and other literary-related projects, I said, "Hey, I can handle that." I also am not very good at disciplining by nature, so teachers who had a gung-ho discipline style were not as useful to me as teachers whose style involved staying low-key while implementing a structured set of rules. Know what your gifts and your personality type are and look for strategies that complement those gifts and that personality. Like we tell our kids: Don't try to be something you're not.
Use those critical thinking skills. Speaking of knowing your strengths and weaknesses...it's important to keep a sense of self as you learn about different teaching strategies. There are always people who swear by one method and will go all out trying to make you the latest adherent. Be open-minded, yes, but also use those critical thinking skills you tell your students to use! You're the one in your classroom: You know what you want to get across and what your kids need. Don't dismiss your own gut reactions. Just remember, your first responsibility is to your kids, not to pleasing a pushy senior teacher. And trust me when I say for every person who says, "This is the only way to do it," you will definitely find someone who is as deeply committed to the exact opposite strategy.
Also, keep in mind that just because some teachers have been at it a long time, that doesn't mean their method is best. There are plenty of teachers whose style is abrasive, condescending or mean (and that's just with their colleagues). These are obviously things you don't want to incorporate into your own style.
Observe and be observable. Another way to learn from different teaching strategies is to actually watch them in action. You can read or hear about a new technique or even an old technique, but seeing it put to use is of great benefit. "Oh, so THAT's how you do that..." You can see what works and what doesn't and incorporate what you've seen in your classroom.
Another good idea is to let people observe you as you try a different strategy. For instance, if you're having trouble running collaborative learning groups, maybe another teacher offers an opinion on a new, more effective technique. When you try it, ask that teacher to come back if possible and watch you put it into action. A trusted observer's opinion can help you become better at what you're trying to do. He or she can offer you suggestions.
All teachers know we never stop learning. It's not always easy, though, to ask for help, to accept criticism or to try something new. But by doing so, and learning from different teaching styles, we know we will be better equipped to serve our students.