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One Teacher’s Advice to New Teachers

August 28, 2014

Last week, Bill and Melinda celebrated teachers on The Gates Notes in honor of “back to school” season and all the hard work that teachers do. We are continuing the conversation on our blog—highlighting teachers from across the country who know best what it takes to make a classroom successful.

Leigh Pourciau, an 8th-grade teacher in New Orleans, shares why she became a teacher and gives some great advice for first-year teachers!

Why did you want to become a teacher?
I always identified as a teacher. As a kid, I remember trying to teach my dog to read through our living room’s French doors. Then, when the dog wasn’t attentive enough, I talked my sister into playing school, but always forced her to be the student. As a teenager, I took makeshift lesson plans and activities when I babysat. Teaching is in me. It’s what I’m supposed to do.

When people ask why I keep teaching, my answer is that I have always felt compelled to teach.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a first year teacher?
I recently heard someone say, “A skillful teacher is made, not born.” More than any nugget of curriculum advice or managerial trick, I think that this understanding is the most empowering thing I could share with a first-year teacher. There is such relief and opportunity in realizing that your mentor teacher or the master teacher whose blog you follow did not walk into the classroom fully capable, churning out beautiful lessons to fully-engaged students.

The most important thing you can do as a first (or second, fifth, or tenth) year teacher is to see yourself as a student – to view every moment as worthy of further reflection and to rabidly beg, borrow, and steal methods and materials from every teacher you encounter.

How have new standards changed your teaching practice or your classroom?
The authors of the standards created a really useful artifact when they were writing them. You can find a clear description of what a college- and career-ready student looks like. This clear portrayal of our end goal for students transformed my practice. It gives me a critical lens with which to view every lesson and activity that I plan for my classroom. If my lesson doesn’t help contribute to that holistic student, is it really worthy of students’ time? Does it really satisfy the standards?

Previously, state standards I had encountered seemed to try to isolate and disconnect reading from writing from language, and they ignored speaking and listening altogether. I appreciate that these standards see literacy as holistic. A student’s listening affects his speaking, affects his thinking, affects his reading, affects his writing, and so on. All the elements of literacy are interconnected. For instance, I’ve yet to meet a “natural” writer who wasn’t first an avid reader.

These elements contribute to each other to make us fully literate. Because of that vision, these standards have made me view the elements of my class as inseparable. When I’m teaching writing, we’re reading first. When I’m teaching writing, we’re paying attention to the author’s craft as we read. In one mini-lesson, I might touch on several different categories to teach one strategy. Because of that, my students have begun to see the connections among the skills, which has made them more fully literate thinkers, speakers, writers, and readers.

In this video, Leigh talks about how she works to help students find their own voice.

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