Two years ago, I temporarily stepped away from a twenty-year career as a high school English teacher to serve as the continuing improvement specialist (and sometimes kindergarten teacher) at Northside Elementary in St. James, Minn. As this position (which has been funded through a school improvement grant) winds down and I prepare to head back to the high school next fall, I want to share a few lessons I’ve learned during my time at Northside and other opportunities that have come up along the way.

Kindergarteners taught me more than I taught them.
Next fall, I’ll return to the high school, which is quite different from my occasional stints covering kindergarten classes this year. Kindergarteners’ educational targets may be small, but their energy can be downright daunting and it is amazing to think of the leaps and bounds (both figurative and literal) they make in the classroom. Nearly a half-century since I was one of them, I find myself feeling like they are WAY ahead of me.

What messages do our students hear, what practices do they adopt so that energetic learning machines often become jaded high school students? I don’t think this energy is entirely lost, but I know it will take hard work for me to inspire in my secondary students the kind of enthusiasm for learning that I saw with my kindergarteners. I’m excited for the challenge.

We should listen more to students.
As part of our Teacher Development and Evaluation plan, we administered student engagement surveys last fall and again this spring, and teachers and students were equally curious about the process and results. For teachers, students’ feedback resonated in important ways. Tired of hearing “experts” who render opinions about education? Listen to what your students—the real experts—have to say about your craft. It will no doubt help you grow as an educator.

A committed group of people working for the same goal can accomplish great things.
A few months ago, I had a chance to visit a Hiawatha Academy campus, where an associate was kind enough to show me around the Minneapolis charter school, about which I had previously known very little. What I found was an impressive level of commitment among Hiawatha teachers, working to serve the present needs of their students and prepare them for future success.

They have made it work through extra hours and a clear, worthy focus that staff and parents alike hold in high esteem. Parents are so impressed by Hiawatha, they’ve asked for the charter network to accelerate plans to build a high school.

I walked away from the day inspired to think about what practices and strategies I could bring back to my own community and craft. I don’t believe Hiawatha is successful simply because it is a charter school—it’s successful because of the commitment and vision of its staff, and my school can certainly learn from that.

Knowing EVERYTHING is not what is important, knowing what is IMPORTANT is everything.
Want to improve your teaching? The first—and most important—step is to adopt an attitude of continuous improvement and reflection. When it comes to communication, grading, mentoring, goal-setting and everything else, use that lens to constantly question, “Is this what is important?” Take the time to ask and answer this question, and to consider what will really help raise student achievement.

Above all, my time at Northside confirmed for me that when it comes to teaching, I certainly do not know everything. But as long as I’m open to it, I can keep growing in my craft. Kindergarteners, student surveys and educators from another school all have something to teach me about my teaching.


Lee Carlson taught high school English for over twenty years before becoming the continuing improvement specialist at Northside Elementary in St. James, Minn. He’s a former national director for the Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation and state corporate president for Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, and currently serves as a board member of Education Minnesota, the Minnesota Rural Education Association and Minnesota Education Equity Partnership. Lee’s interested in just about everything—especially hanging out with his wife (who teachers fifth-grade) and three children—but mostly blogs about equity in education, teacher development, leadership and building partnerships.

The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows' views and opinions are solely their own.


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