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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

My Nine Principles


by Sheila Levine Gale

The Nine Principles of War
are the first lessons learned by military officers. There are also Nine Principles of Journalism, which capture communication’s highest standards. Economists have their Nine Principles of Economics. That got me thinking. What are my Principles of Teaching? 

Looking over my 35 years in education, from my very first day teaching fourth-graders in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant to my current Reading Specialist role, what principles have guided me? To my total surprise, nine principles also emerged. They were not whispered in my ear, found on some digital bulletin board, or from Facebook. The truth is that they are just a mix of who I am, where I came from, and what I learned along the way from valued teachers, parents, administrators and, above all, from students.

1.  Respect. You can’t teach successfully unless you respect children. While that sounds obvious, it is easy to forget, especially on a bad school day. Some children you will love immediately, others will drive you absolutely wild, but all children deserve your full respect. Respect may not be reciprocated, but you can never lose respect for those you teach. Respect for children radiates into a wider respect for all people.

2.  Individuality. Every child you meet is unlike every other child you have taught. Every child has his/her own talents, needs, desires, etc. If you can’t see the individuality in your students, then you are just “wholesaling” your teaching. Seeing students as individuals permits you to become a better, more effective teacher.

3.  Opportunity. No matter the child, his/her social or psychological makeup or achievement level, all students deserve the opportunity to realize their goals. Teachers shape the future. Our students must get every reasonable opportunity to be successful, happy and good citizens. If you shortchange students, you are not living up to your best teaching potential.

4.  Reading. As a reading specialist, I’m biased, but mastering reading is absolutely vital. If a child can’t read, his/her options for school and lifetime learning will be extremely limited. Reading is fundamental to learning and good living. It unlocks doors to a world of intellectual, social and emotional well-being that has no parallels anywhere else.

5. Teaching Profession. Teaching is a higher calling, not a job. You are not making widgets or ending your day when the school bell rings. Instead, you are always thinking what will interest your students, searching over summer break for new approaches, and so on. Where the school day ends and your home life begins is never clear. If you’re looking for a job, teaching is not for you. If you’re looking for a career, teaching is a great choice.

6.  Preparation. You can’t go into a classroom unprepared any more than a commercial pilot can fly a plane without adequate training. Preparation is the best way to have a stimulating and educationally rewarding day. Lack of preparation is a recipe for a disruptive class, diminished learning, and disillusioned parents. You’d be surprised how far a little preparation takes you.

7.  Active Learning. Lesson plans may drive the teaching opportunity but the real challenge is to create a classroom full of active and inquisitive learners who add their own insights, questions and perspectives. The teaching experience should be a two-way conversation.

8.  Change. When I began teaching, phonics was totally “in.” Over time, phonics was seen as less important, even “out” in later years. Small reading groups were all the rage once, while one-on-one sessions were seen as wasteful. The best teaching approaches came from Europe, then from Asia, now from New Zealand, and tomorrow from who knows where.  The best teachers try out new techniques, experiment and adapt, rather than cling to old approaches.

9.  Improvise. The best lesson plans and a top-performing class are only the “ingredients” for a successful teaching day. They don’t guarantee it.  No one can predict just how your teaching day will go any more than one can predict the daily stock market. The answer is to improvise. A student has an interesting idea the class wants to talk more about, a child you were counting on is suddenly absent, a school-wide speaker captures your classes’ interest, etc.  Good teachers sense when they need to switch gears.  Great teachers take the unexpected and build on it.

Whether 8, 9 or 10 is the magic number of teaching principles is your call. Something beyond numbers that worked for me was my own immigrant heritage and knowing how important it is for children to be wanted, accepted and loved. My parents -- my first real teachers -- taught me this timely lesson many years ago and I put this into practice every day.

Gale, a member of the Arlington Education Association, is a Reading Specialist at Campbell Elementary School.


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