Teachable Moments

2nd Gr Cox 001Teachers pay attention to teachable moments, those moments when conflict arises, someone makes a mistake, someone demonstrates grace under fire, someone recognizes a paradox or spots an opportunity. When you work with children, you spend your day noticing such moments; you seek them out because they are how the world supports your work. Sam trips, and the response of his classmates shows their capacity for and skill at caring. Susan and Sally both want the same seat, and their next actions show their competence with problem solving and compromise. Stan makes a mistake at the board, and the teacher’s response shows her skill at making things safe and clarifying the problem, so Stan can find his mistake and learn from it. Teachers are sensitive to the manifold opportunities for teaching in the moment.

As a school leader, I also seek to discover the teachable moment, with students, of course, but also with teachers and parents. In these moments, we may all grow. When I meet with eighth grade students at Leadership Council (all students are welcome, but each must write a letter to me nominating himself or herself and giving evidence of his or her leadership potential), I listen to their description of their experiences at school. I tell them that I do not live in their daily lives, exactly – they are living in ‘kid world’ – but in my own, parallel adult world, and that I need them to tell me what it is like to be one of them. If they trust me enough, they will tell me where their problems are: when homework is overwhelming, when teacher communication feels unclear or unkind, when a student is trying to gain power by being unkind to others, even when the lunch line isn’t working efficiently. These are all teachable moments, and together, we move from identifying them to figuring out what we can learn from them, what the students can change in the world and what they can change in themselves.

Eighth grade students at James River also have opportunities to serve as tutors and mentors to younger students, simply by wanting to do so and being willing to give up some of their study time before or after school, or during study hall. They go to work with Kindergarten, first, second, third, or fourth graders who might need homework coaching, buddy reading, notebook organization, study skills, and they pass along what they have learned from their teachers and peers. They find teachable moments with the younger children and share their wisdom.

All students in grades five-eight belong to small, multi-age group advisories, which meet every day after lunch for study hall. Older students set the example for younger students in organization, homework completion, studying for tests and quizzes, and time management. They remember what it was like to be younger. They remember struggling to learn how to keep up with something or how challenging it was to learn how to take notes, and they share their experience with the younger children, taking the moment when the child is really ready to change something in his or her behavior, and then guiding him or her toward success.

I believe in school as a learning community, where each of us has myriad opportunities to gain knowledge about ourselves and the world around us, every single day. When I speak with students, teachers and parents, I am listening for their deepest selves: what they fear, what they wish, what satisfies them, and then I am looking for that teachable moment when my listening and reflecting can help them learn how to move forward. The teachable moment can be painful and powerful, but at heart, it is joyous because it is about fulfilling potential in the present.


School/Home Communication in the Digital Age

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Schools are in the midst of radical upheaval due to technological innovation. The bastions of writing neatly on lined paper are facing a “paperless” future. The time-honored tradition of students keeping a hand-written agenda or planner, neatly copying each assignment from the board in the classroom, and then checking off each assignment as it’s completed, no longer reflects a world in which people keep their to-do lists electronically. As teachers begin to use electronic classrooms to create and post assignments, information becomes immediately available to students. As students begin to use electronic calendars and to-do lists to keep track of independent work deadlines, they no longer need to carry an agenda, but only need to keep track of their electronic device.

Some schools are now using software that allows parents to see each teacher’s gradebook — every assignment, as well as every test and quiz grade. I have heard parents say that they like having instant access to their children’s information. They know immediately if their child missed a homework assignment or bombed a quiz. Teachers and students, however, find this to be stressful, as you can imagine. When parents expect immediate feedback on their children’s work and question why their child earned a specific score, that requires teachers to place grading and communicating with parents at the very top of their priority lists, as opposed to planning or reflecting on the day’s lesson. When parents can micromanage their child’s homework and performance, students lose the opportunity to learn from making mistakes and managing their own day-to-day work.

I question the benefit of instantaneous feedback and heavy accountability for both teachers and students. I am concerned that parents having complete, instant knowledge of everything about their child’s school experience puts assessment performance too high on the list of priorities and robs children of independent learning opportunities. I want students in middle school, especially, to learn how to be responsible for their own to-do lists, to be able to make the mistake of not planning ahead, to feel the disappointment of earning a poor grade resulting from insufficient preparation. If parents always know every single thing their children need to prepare, and then ensure that the preparation happens, children will never learn from their mistakes or lack of preparation. I worry that parents’ insatiable need for information about their children’s progress actually hinders that progress.

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Discovering the New Literacy

I just read a blog series by Kathy Schrock on “literacies in the digital age,” and I’ve adapted it for use at our faculty fall professional development meeting. This is one of the most useful summaries of digital literacies that I’ve seen to date. I want the teachers to read about these literacies to see where and how they already incorporate them into the curriculum and to speculate on where and how they can add guidance for students to learn about them, when it’s meaningful and appropriate. Here’s my adaptation/abridgement:

Kathy Schrock’s Discovery Education Blog (Katch of the Month) on Literacies for the Digital Age. (excerpts from September 14-June 15; http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/blog/category/kathys-katch/)

(Ms. Schrock writes a monthly blog on educational topics for Discovery Education. She did a series last year to identify and help define “literacies for the digital age.” Her choices are interesting, and each blog contains a plethora of useful information on how to teach that specific literacy. I highly recommend the series! Mary)


  1. Economic/financial literacy

Economic literacy, often called financial literacy, according to Atomic Learning, “targets the importance of making appropriate economic choices on a personal level, and understanding the connection personal, business, and governmental decisions have on individuals, society, and the economy”. The report of the NASBE Commission on Financial and Investor Literacy also offers a useful definition: “Financial literacy is defined as the ability to read, analyze, manage and communicate about the personal financial conditions that affect material well-being. It includes the ability to discern financial choices, discuss money and financial issues without (or despite) discomfort, plan for the future and respond competently to life events that affect everyday financial decisions, including events in the general economy”.

  1. Visual literacy

Visual literacy, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries, “is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.”

  1. Media literacy

There are many areas of media literacy.  Media Literacy Project has a wonderful document that presents the components of media literacy in a straightforward fashion and includes useful lists of the various concepts of this literacy. Their definition of media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media messages of all kinds.” They go on to state that media literacy skills can help students–

  • Understand how media messages create meaning
  • Identify who created a particular media message
  • Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
  • Name the “tools of persuasion” used
  • Recognize bias, spin, misinformation and lies
  • Discover the part of the story that’s not being told
  • Evaluate media messages based on our own experiences, beliefs and values
  • Create and distribute our own media messages
  • Become advocates for change in our media system

The modern study of media literacy is not new. The Museum of Hoaxes site includes timelines of historical media hoaxes from as early as 1874 and photography hoaxes from 1861 and everything in-between! The ability to make a viewer or reader believe a fabricated story still exists today. And, as technology evolves. there are many more ways to fool the viewer with mash-ups, video and audio editing, and fabrication of images.

  1. Historical literacy

The Hyperhistory site from the National Centre for History Education in Australia is a wonderful site for learning about all aspects of history education, including historical literacy. They have a teacher’s guide which contains information about the nature of historical learning, historical literacy, history education and ICT, and more. Their overview of the key elements of historical literacy include:

  • Events of the past: knowing and understanding historical events
  • Narratives of the past: having time to think about how the past can be explained through a variety of perspectives
  • Research skills; gathering, analyzing, and using artifacts, documents, and graphics
  • The language of history: interpreting words in history
  • Historical concepts: understanding the cause and motivation of historical events and to understand events from the point of view of participants
  • ICT understandings: how to identify bias, authority, and reliability in online information
  • Making connections: thinking about the present and the past
  • Contention and contestability: understanding about debate and discourse in a historical perspective
  • Representative expression: understanding history through art and media of the past (and visual media literacies are important here)
  • Moral judgements in history: dealing with the moral and ethical components of historical events
  • Applied science in history: facial reconstruction, computer imaging, DNA testing, forensic science, satellite mapping, etc.
  • Historical explanation: the ability to reason historically based on a foundation of evidence
  1. Numeracy

Numeracy is the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts. This includes, among other things, mastering of basic math, number sense, computation, measurement, and statistics

The document entitled “Standards for Mathematical Practice” provides an extensive overview of the “varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students”. These standards “describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years”. It is about being able to take their mathematical skill set and use higher order thinking skills to evaluate, experiment, and reason. The Standards for Mathematical Process are:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them: students analyze, conjecture, monitor and evaluate, transform, and conceptualize
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively: students decontextualize and contextualize as well as creating a representation of the problem
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others: students can justify, reason inductively, and compare and defend
  • Model with mathematics: students use their math skills to solve problems in everyday life
  • Use appropriate tools strategically: students can pick the appropriate tool to help them
  • Attend to precision: students label and present their mathematics in a way that make it understandable to others
  • Look for and make use of structure: students can recognize mathematical patterns
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning: students notice when calculations are repeated and use that information

In order to develop these levels of expertise in students, educators need to be able to connect the mathematical practices to the mathematical content in mathematics instructions. There are various ways to help this happen. There are the commercial textbooks and online products that can support student mathematical understanding. There are online mathematics informational sites to provide students with another “voice” to help them understand the basics a bit better and there are stand-alone software programs and apps to provide additional practice.

  1. Data literacy

According to Dr. Milo A. Schield, students must be able to read, interpret and evaluate information. They must also be able to analyze, interpret and evaluate statistics. And they must be able to gather, assess, process, manipulate, summarize, and communicate data. These three skills collectively comprise data literacy.

One way to have students gain data literacy skills is the student creation of an infographic as a creative assessment. This assessment process includes practice with the information, visual, and computer tool literacies, too. An infographic is a visual representation of data that allows the viewer to understand a topic, get another view, or persuade them to research further. Infographics fall naturally into categories such as statistical infographics, timeline infographics, process infographics, and research-based infographics.

In the Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, a McGraw-Hill publication by Tim Harrower and Julie Elman, they provide some thoughts on why one might use an infographic.

  • To complete the “story” for those who are interested
  • To draw in viewers from those who might skip reading the information
  • To pull out salient numbers, details, and comparisons
  • To clarify with statistics, geographical detail, or trends
  • To help insure the viewer “gets it”
  1. Information literacy

Information literacy forms the foundation for all of the other literacies. Students need to know how to state their information need, search for it effectively, evaluate what they find for validity, and utilize the information they find.

There are many information literacy models available and many include a component of the best ways to conduct research on the Web. Let’s look at one of these processes.

In order to begin their research, students need be able to ask the right question. Of course, the overall context of the research will be determined by the unit being studied in class, but there are some standard information literacy steps students can use to develop the query they will research in order to gather their information.

  • Students should create a list of keywords about the topic
  • They should then create a question that is not too broad or too narrow.
  • Students should list the places for gathering their information. This may include the Web, subscription databases, or experts in the field.
  • They should conduct some cursory research to make sure there will be information available for their topic.
  • If necessary, they should re-work their question.
  • Once they begin the research in earnest, students need to become familiar with the critical evaluation of information in order to determine the credibility, validity, and authority of the information they locate.
  • Students also need to gather their assets and remember to cite their sources.
  • NoodleTools has a wonderful flowchart-like, hyperlinked page, Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need, which allows students to consider the type of thing they are looking for (i.e. controversial topic, background information, primary sources, etc.) and leads them to specialized search engines and directories to use.


The development of the essential question that will guide the student through the research process is also an information literacy skill. How do you engage students with questions and, at the same time, encourage them to think about using this technique when determining their information need?

Grant Wiggins describes what an essential question entails in an article on his Authentic Education site. Wiggins states essential questions…

  • cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content
  • provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers
  • stimulate vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons
  • spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences
  • naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects

Teaching students how to develop an essential question to articulate their information need can help.  ASCD offers a chapter from the McTighe and Wiggins book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, on their site, which provides a practical way for teachers to learn the best ways to create these questions, and can help you explain the process to students.

Having students look at samples of essential questions can be useful, too.  Here are some resources to help.

  • Each day, the Essential Questionssite presents visitors with a random list of twenty-five essential questions.
  • The TeachThought blog has a giant list of essential questions by broad subject area, such as social justice, adversity, conflict, and utopia/dystopia.
  • Check out Wonderopolis.net for lots of questions on nonfiction topics.
  1. Tool literacy

Tool literacy, the ability to manage and create information, is all about using software tools to help support the other literacies. This is sometimes called computer literacy or technology literacy.

Managing information using online tools in a digital space is an important skill. Here are some quick tips that can help students (and you) manage their information overload using Web clipping tools, curation tools, RSS and newsreaders, and synchronous communication and backchannel tools.


  1. Civic literacy

Civic literacy incorporates the use of 21st century skills for staying informed about local, regional, and worldwide events in order to be able to participate and make informed decisions. As with any current news and information, students must be on the lookout for bias and omission of relevant information. These skills can be practiced as outlined in the Information and Digital Literacy blog post in this series.

10. Global literacy

Global literacy, according to a professional development publication by Atomic Learning, “incorporates the use of 21st century skills and tools for understanding and addressing issues that have global impact. This includes raising awareness about cultural differences, demonstrating tolerance and respect for differing opinions, religions, and lifestyles, and learning to work collaboratively with others.”

   11. Health literacy

The World Health Organization’s motto is “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And, according to UNESCO, infusing “health learning in subjects across the curriculum should not be a substitute for a comprehensive, sequential course of health education, but doing so can significantly support the learning that takes place in a health class.”

Youth Leadership

Yesterday as a member, I attended the Optimist Club luncheon. The program was a recognition of Youth Leaders for Neighborhood Excellence. In our town, the City Parks and Recreation Department staffs six different Neighborhood Centers where students can go after school. We are also fortunate to have two non-profit centers that provide similar services: the Boys and Girls Club and the Jubilee Family Center. The centers offer well-supervised and staffed preschool, senior, summer, and school age programs.

The students who were recognized were nominated by the staff from each center. The youth demonstrate a strong degree of volunteerism and achievement at the various community centers and are recognized for their family responsibilities, moral character, school/community activities, services provided, life goals, and/or obstacles overcome. As I listened to the letters of nomination and watched the recipients who stood proudly before their parents and community leaders, I was struck by the kinds of leadership they had shown in their lives: raising younger siblings, being responsible for their entire family’s laundry, involuntarily inspiring all around them, seeking the welfare of others over themselves, influencing others for good.

Then I thought about my own school. We seek to create leaders. We give our students opportunities to open car doors, help with recycling, be older buddies to younger classmates, to serve on the eighth-grade Leadership Council. We want our students to demonstrate the same qualities of consistency, respect, and caring that students from the neighborhood centers demonstrate. I believe that adults hope all children will develop these qualities and be recognized for them, and I am so proud to see children from all neighborhoods showing the world the kind of leadership that will bring our world peace and life satisfaction.

Technology and Education

Teachers want children to be able to use new technologies, but we don’t know how to teach them to use devices, applications, and programs that haven’t yet been invented. So we must teach them the habits that will allow them to learn how to use new technologies quickly and confidently. We recognize that in this age of unlimited information, all learners need to be able to recognize reliable information and organize that so it can be found again (the new buzz word for this is “curating” information). We recognize that all learners must be good citizens, whether in face-to-face reality or in virtual reality, using good manners and demonstrating good character. Finally, we recognize that learners need to be able to use technology to create effective ways of sharing their ideas. Now that it is possible to use sound, image (both still and moving), as well as text, not to mention links to others’ work, tremendously powerful created content is within each learner’s reach.

The habits learners must have in order to tackle our new world are these:

  1. Don’t believe everything you read.
  2. Be fair, honest, and polite.
  3. Ask for help.
  4. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
  5. Ask questions.
  6. Work hard.
  7. Write clearly.

Those are habits teachers know how to teach students. Teachers, even though you do not know all the latest technologies, you DO know what is important. Jump into using new technologies with both feet, teaming up with your students to create presentations never before possible. Do not despair that emerging technologies keep changing the game; change IS the game.

What makes an independent school independent?

When families send their children to an independent school, but those families did not attend an independent school, they aren’t always sure how independent schools and public schools are different, other than the fact that you must pay tuition (in addition to your taxes) to attend an independent school. There are two main differences:

Independent schools are governed independently.

Independent schools are financed independently.

Independent governance means that a group of volunteers, called “trustees,” meet regularly to ensure that the mission of the school is clear and that the mission of the school is carried out. The Board of Trustees is self-sustaining: nominating and ratifying new members to serve for a set term of service. The Board of Trustees hires a Head of School to oversee the day-to-day operations of the school. The Head of School is the Board’s only employee, and the Board is responsible for evaluating the Head, who must hire the rest of the school’s employees and ensure that those employees are qualified and evaluated. The Head is responsible for administering the academic and extracurricular programs offered by the school, in accordance with the school mission. The Board of Trustees is responsible for planning for the future of the school and for ensuring that the school has the financial resources it needs to carry out its mission. An independent school does not follow the state’s Department of Education standards of learning or any other policies, unless that school chooses to do so. Independent schools develop their own academic and extracurricular programs and may choose to be accredited by an independent school association.

Independent schools must pay their own way, through tuition, charitable giving, and alternative revenue streams, like facilities rental and summer programs. The Board of Trustees sets tuition each year, based on an operating budget that includes teacher salaries and benefits, as well as the expenses of maintaining the physical plant and providing the resources needed to carry out the program of the school. When an independent school needs to build new facilities, the Board of Trustees embarks upon on a capital campaign to raise money through charitable giving to pay for the construction of those facilities. The state does not provide financing for the running or the improvement of the school. Most independent schools seek to build an endowment that can support the operating budget with income from investments. Good financial management is essential for the sustainability of an independent school. Private schools that are affiliated with churches usually receive financial support from the church, but truly independent schools do not receive support from other institutions.

Teacher Self-Evaluation

The following is a tool for teachers to do a simple, “gut-check,” self-evaluation at the start of the school year. It serves to remind teachers of the various parts of their job, and it sets the stage for a conversation with the Head of School about possible targets for the teacher for the year.


A NISE Evaluation!

Read the description of each element of teaching. Decide where on this scale you are for each of these elements of teaching. Rank yourself. None of the rankings are “bad,” they are indicators of level of expertise and passion for a particular element of teaching. Don’t perseverate, but go with your gut instinct when you choose your level.

N – Novice: I’m just learning how to do this. I need more practice and guidance with this.

I – Intermediate: I understand this and I’ve had some successes. I still need practice and guidance.

S – Skilled: I have strong skills in this area. I can do this quite well. In this area I am reliable and competent. I could advise someone else.

E – Expert: I am so good at this that I could teach a course on it. I am tremendously passionate about this aspect of teaching. If you filmed me doing it, I would be proud to show the results. I have a strong reputation for being really good at this.


Elements of Teaching

The descriptions of each element aren’t meant to be complete, but should help define and illustrate that element.

_____Content Knowledge: I have deep factual and conceptual knowledge about the subject matter I am teaching. I continue to increase my background knowledge systematically in this area.

_____Pedagogical Knowledge: I have many tools for instruction, including, but not limited to: direct instruction, collaborative instruction, differentiated instruction, coaching, individualizing, scaffolding, using a variety of technologies, understanding how to make things “sticky,” having clarity of purpose of the lesson.

_____Assessment: I know the difference between summative and formative assessment, and I use both appropriately. I refer to standardized testing results as appropriate to ensure I meet the needs of my students. I have tried and true assessment strategies and a sense of “with-it-ness” in the classroom that, together, tell me which students understand and which still need support. I provide regular, useful, timely feedback to my students on their work.

_____Educational Technology: I am able to use technology easily to present material to students and to design activities in which students will practice using technology. I understand that technology is constantly changing, and I have an open mind to possible new applications of technology to enhance and accelerate learning. I continually study “cutting edge” technology.

_____Educational Innovation: I believe that it is my responsibility to be aware of current educational research in pedagogy, assessment, and core content, and I read widely to ensure that I know of new developments. At the same time, I do not innovate simply to do something different, but instead, I innovate when I think it will result in more effective enduring understanding in my students.

_____Planning and Preparation: I start my unit planning from my ultimate curricular goals. I know the enduring understandings (factual, conceptual, and skill-based) that I expect my students to gain from my teaching. I plan backwards from those ultimate goals. I make plenty of space in my unit and daily lesson plans for serendipity/student passion/teachable moment, and I balance that with “sticking to the knitting” and accomplishing my goals. My goals are connected to the essential topics listed in the school curriculum guide. I bring my instruction back to essential questions that lead students to enduring understandings. I am ready for each day with thorough plans, and I provide regular, useful, and timely feedback to my students.

_____Child Development: I have a deep understanding of the developmental needs of the children I teach, and I ensure that the activities, readings, and materials I provide are appropriate for them. I refresh my memory of child development on a regular basis.

_____Classroom Culture: I establish a trusting, safe culture in my classroom where no one fears intimidation, embarrassment, or humiliation from anyone. My classroom routines are purposeful and serve to reassure students that I understand them, respect them, and have been thoughtful about the activities we will do each day. I encourage collaboration, questioning, and curiosity in my classroom.

_____School Culture: I am invested in the entire school culture. I want each child, whether I teach them directly or not, to feel safe, cherished, and challenged each day at school. I am willing to intervene when students from another grade or area of the school need social or behavioral coaching. I respect my colleagues and treat them as I would wish to be treated. I am a team player and volunteer to help when practical and possible, while maintaining a balance in my life to be as effective as I can be.

_____Student Relations: I treat all students with kindness, and I model the character traits of: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship in all my relations with students. I take advantage of conflicts to coach students on how to repair social mistakes and how to treat each other using good character. I believe all students can learn.

_____Parent Relations: I treat all parents with kindness, and I model the character traits of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship in all my relations with parents. I do not gossip. I share with parents difficult information about their child, when necessary, but in such a way that they can “hear” it and still know that I care about their child. I do not allow parents to treat me unkindly, but I do understand that most poor behavior on parents’ part springs from anxiety, and I have a bias toward forgiveness. I see parents as essential partners in education.

_____Collegial Relations: I treat all colleagues with kindness, and I model the character traits of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship in all my relations with colleagues. I do not gossip. If I am a parent, I do not take advantage of being at school to ask a colleague to do a ‘drive by’ conference, nor do I take advantage of being at school to initiate an impromptu conference with a colleague who is the parent of a student I teach. If I have a concern about a colleague’s behavior, I address it directly with my colleague before going over his or her head to the administration.

_____Professionalism: I dress like a professional. I am on time for work. I am on time for meetings. I meet my deadlines for academic comment writing and for comments for parent conferences. I treat everyone I meet at school with respect and friendliness. I follow policies and procedures and don’t ask for special, last-minute favors for scheduling or purchasing or field trips or facility use. I read the hand-books and I know the safety procedures. I never leave my students unsupervised.

_____Communications Skills: I am able to articulate my thoughts and ideas clearly and understandably, to students, to colleagues, to parents. I write clear and appropriate academic comments. I share good news and concerns with parents promptly and honestly. I share good news and concerns with the administration often.  I am a good listener. I participate appropriately in meetings.

_____Professional Development: I am a life-long learner. I seek to develop the elements of teaching on a regular basis. I have a network of experts whose work I admire and to whom I go for advice and counsel. I take classes, attend workshops and conferences, read, and study. I present what I am learning, either formally at a meeting, or informally in conversation with others. I try new things in my classroom, I’m willing to take a leadership role with my colleagues, and I am not afraid to fail.