Recently, we were reflecting on a conversation we’d had with a colleague about how we cultivate our intellectual lives. Maybe it’s by poring over books, watching a YouTube video, studying game footage, walking around a museum, or stopping to watch a bird sing on a telephone wire. Because it feels so effortless when we do these things, we don’t tend to think of them as intellectual pursuits, but they are. Our interests and curiosity compel us to act or attend to what’s going on around us, and we value what we learn. So, as educators, this immediately got us thinking. In the K-12 education space, how can we better support teachers and students to bring that intrinsic spark so essential to cultivating a rich learning life into the classroom dynamic for the benefit of all?
Let’s face it. For many of us, the bulk of what we do every day in school does not reflect the ways people learn best. In traditional teacher professional learning especially, we rarely see approaches that approximate those experiences that we associate with rich and authentic intellectual growth. Teachers pour into students from the overflow of their curiosity, joy, and passion. The cultivation of a rich learning life creates and ensures that teachers never run dry, always have overflow. It’s what is necessary to sustain themselves. If teachers’ own learning experiences don’t provide models, the chances that they will be able to facilitate rich learning experiences for their kids are slim.
Teachers who have chosen to remain in the classroom are exhausted by the last few years of navigating extreme circumstances that can make it hard to remember why they wanted to teach in the first place. Already stretched and stressed to the limit, how can we help them draw on their own inner curiosity and joy to reprioritize what matters most? How can we support them to tap into their students’ energy and engagement around their own intellectual pursuits? How can we convince them that transformative teaching is still within reach within the existing structure and the day-to-day, and that it does not always mean adding more, that in fact it likely means doing less but with more intention?
We know from the ways we authentically pursue our intellectual passions in our private lives that learning is never passive. It is generated by our imagination, sense of wonder, curiosity, needs, values, and capacity for joy. We are open and actively seek out new knowledge and experiences. So how can we bring this to the center of teaching and learning? Here we offer a few simple but powerful ways teachers can draw on their own and their students’ inner sources of energy and engagement. These activities can serve as a jumping off place to build stronger relational bonds and dynamics and nourish a classroom community mutually committed to the pursuit of rich learning.
Bring the best practices of cultivating a rich intellectual life into the classroom
Ask yourself and then your students:
- What’s something you did in your free time last night/yesterday/last weekend where you learned something or felt something?
- What did you do? How did you go about it?
- What was interesting to you/why did you want to do that? What did you learn? What did you feel?
- How are you going to use what you learned?
What does this look like in practice? As a secondary ELA teacher, I followed the energy from engaging with incredible YA novels in the classroom to co-design a book club with students beyond the curriculum. We were able to draw closer to individual students’ personal interests and each other in our community space. And being able to bring in one artist whose work we read grew our club, and gave students an opportunity to not only speculate, emote, and lose themselves in an incredible text, but then to ask the author about her work.
Humanize the content
Choose just one content unit or module and ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want to learn about myself through this unit of study?
- What do I want to learn about my students?
- What do they want to learn individually?
- What do we want to learn about collectively?
Co-create experiences with students
In the context of the next unit:
- Ask students what they already know about the content and what they need and want from their learning.
- Listen and take small steps to acknowledge what they’ve told you.
- Ask them how you are doing.
Even with pacing expectations and curricular mandates, teachers can still treat students like experts of their own experiences. All the while, hold that student feedback and experience data in as high regard as you might more traditional outcomes.
In the classroom, we have to let go of thinking about teaching solely on a knowledge-skill binary. Teaching and learning is a dynamic human relational exchange. So let’s try to re-center our instructional stances in that place where our own joy and motivation to learn prevails. When we focus there, we confirm for our students that we value what they value, that we are all actors in our own learning, and that we need each other to do it right, with all the engagement and the pleasure that our intellectual pursuits provide.
Atyani Howard is chief program officer and Nicole Knight-Justice is senior program consultant at New Teacher Center.
Interested in learning more? Send us a line and we'll be sure to help.
For 25 years, New Teacher Center has focused on getting better at what we do. Our reputation is built on giving educators access to career-shaping coaches and mentors — high-trust relationships that lead to deep, personal, affirming, and reflective learning experiences. The goal is that teachers can, in turn, model these same practices and ways of being in their classrooms with their students.
Over the past year, it has been a rewarding journey as I assumed the CEO role at the New Teacher Center (NTC). As a lifetime educator, NTC’s mission to disrupt the predictability of educational inequities through accelerating educator effectiveness spoke to me and my story. I want to share a few insights and reflections from my first year at the helm of this dynamic organization.