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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Feb 4, 2024

What does it mean to “teach like yourself” in 2024?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What does it mean to “teach like yourself” in 2024?

By Angela Watson

“Making a conscious and intentional effort to tap into your own personal power and being courageous” is the way Dr. Gravity Goldberg defines “teaching like yourself.”

You may remember her from a 2019 interview I did, which ended up being one of the most downloaded Truth for Teachers episodes ever. It’s Episode 171, called “Teach like yourself: Why YOU are the person your students need most.”

Gravity has over 20 years of teaching experience, including positions as a science teacher, reading specialist, third-grade teacher, special educator, literacy coach, staff developer, assistant professor, educational consultant, and yoga teacher. Gravity holds a B.A. and M.Ed. from Boston College and a doctorate from Teachers College. As the founding director of Gravity Goldberg, LLC, she leads a team that offers side-by-side coaching and workshops that focus on teachers as decision-makers and student-led instruction.

Since our last conversation, Gravity — who has authored nine books on teaching — has released a new title called Active Learning: 40 Teaching Methods to Engage Students in Every Class and Every Subject, which she co-wrote with the late Barry Gilmore.

We touched a bit on that book and what Gravity’s working on now, but I thought of this conversation as a “Teach Like Yourself, Revisited”. I wanted to know how her thinking has changed around this topic and the role authentic teaching plays now. Listen in as we discuss:

  • How “teaching like yourself” (making a conscious and intentional effort to tap into your personal power and being courageous) is more important now than ever
  • What Gravity has learned about authentic teaching and learning since publishing her book on that topic Has she changed her mind on anything? What would she add?
  • How teachers can integrate engagement strategies in a way that feels authentic and meaningful, rather than just tossing something into their instructional day because they think (or are told) they should
  • The impact of authenticity on students, and specific, practical ways we can make sure students can be their true, authentic selves in the classroom

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Sponsored by Erikson Institute

ANGELA: So, Gravity, the last time I had you on the show was fall 2019, which was obviously pre-pandemic. It feels like a million years ago, a totally different lifetime. So I want to revisit our discussion about the importance of teaching like yourself, of making a conscious and intentional effort to tap into your own personal power and being courageous. I feel like these practices are more important now than ever, and I want to know how you think they fit into the current landscape and teaching.

GRAVITY: I think even just choosing to walk in the door of a school building feels courageous to me. I want to sort of start by just acknowledging that with the emotional and physical traumas that people are bringing with them, with the fear around us, with the noise (for lack of having a better word for it) — it’s just a whole lot. And I was thinking about this in terms of the political and everyday polarization happening that schools seem to be in the center of. There’s the sort of push for uniformity and transparency, which I think was there a few years ago, but just feels so heightened, as if there’s this massive belief that people are carrying that teachers are trying to pull something over on parents and community members, which I think could be further from that.

And then I think there’s just the policies that are happening, that with just my area of literacy that I spend a lot of time in that we never used to have — policies that banned things and mandated things from a curricular approach. So this deprofessionalization is going on too where things that were very local — whether it was local at the state or a town or school or classroom level — are no longer in the hands of teachers. So I just want to acknowledge that it’s one thing to say, be yourself, show up authentically. But it’s even harder when most of the time that’s not the message being sent by people whose voices are really amplified.

I want to counter that with, I just spent a girls’ weekend with some friends who all have children in schools from kindergarten through college. And that’s not the message I hear from the parents. I’ve sat with people one-on-one, and just yesterday, I had a conversation where they were saying, “My kid loves every one of their teachers.” And then talked with really beautiful nuance about how each one of them brought their gifts into the classroom and then allowed space for their children to do that.

So I think sometimes we need to separate and remind ourselves that the news and the policymakers have a voice. I have yet to meet a parent one-on-one who said, “I don’t want my child’s teacher to show up as they are.” I’ve yet to meet an administrator who’s like, “I want those teachers to hide their gifts and talents and just be a computer like everybody else.” So I want to acknowledge this real tension, but also remind us that in human interactions, not everybody actually feels that way.

Yeah, I think that’s true. And I’ve seen studies that said the average American is concerned about public schools, in general, and they don’t necessarily approve of what’s happening in schools, but their kids’ schools, their local schools, the approval rating tends to be around like 80 some percent, which is pretty high if you think about how hard it is to get people to agree on anything. Most people like their kids’ teachers, they actually like their local principal. And so there’s this disconnect between the narratives that they’re hearing about who teachers are, what they represent, and what they’re doing with kids and the actual human beings in the classroom. And that’s where I feel like what you’re touching on here about these one-on-one relationships and conversations and the disconnect feels so important in terms of authenticity because when you know who the person is, it seems to be easier to build those bridges.

Absolutely. And I think that bringing it to the research is helpful to remember this isn’t just a conversation I had, although that happens, that there’s the research to support that. And I think part of that is we are living in a time of great contradiction everywhere. But I think one of the other contradictions is people are in some ways saying we need more uniformity. We need teachers to all be the same. We need transparency.

But they’re also saying, we need connection, we need relationships, we need compassion — we center and value that. And so I think what I would say humbly in a way that I want to recognize how hard it is, is that trying to remember that every decision is local. It’s like this person’s brain and body with this person’s. I and this teacher today really just need to focus on these students in this classroom. And when we make it hyperlocal that way, I think the data you’re saying supports that the connection and relationship supports that. And it allows me to feel a sense of safety in a world that doesn’t always feel safe because in this moment, right now in this classroom, most likely I am safe. I can show up as myself. If I listen to all the noise, I might not feel that way.

And so I think there’s just a sort of bringing myself to the present moment, to the present place, keeping things really hyperlocal in the teaching moments. I don’t think we should block everything out when we’re not teaching. We need to be informed. But that seems to give me a sense of that personal power that you talked about in that question too, when I remember where I actually am in this moment, not what the news says or what the latest policy is or what was said at the faculty meeting or what could go wrong or what we’re fearful for all possibly happening staying in that moment.

Racial identity and teaching authenticity

I’d love to hear how your thinking has evolved over the last couple of years about the topics in your book that’s called Teach Yourself: How Authentic Teaching Transforms Our Students and Ourselves. So as an author myself, I know how challenging it is to put your ideas into print because it feels so final. And I think of things that I would like to add to my books on almost a daily basis because I’m always learning and discovering more. So I wonder, have you changed your mind on anything that you wrote about in that book? Is there anything that you would add to what you originally wrote?

So one of those, I think, is just I’ve done much more self-work on my own racial identity as a white woman and what that means to be a white educator and the idea of authenticity and teaching like yourself, I still strongly believe in and see the day-to-day evidence for, and yet my identity doesn’t necessarily match the student’s identity. It never one hundred percent does.

And so I think part of it is not normalizing my experience and my identity as universal. And so in different sections in that book, I think I absolutely could go back and think about what are the practices that I’ve learned along the way — that especially other educators of color have taught me — around how do I actually do the excavation of my own identity and bring that forward and own that this is a part of my identity, but not assume that this is a part of everybody else’s. And I think part of authenticity is claiming part of my racial identity that I think, to be honest, I took a little bit for granted as that was more universal than it really is. So I think that’s one huge part. And I think somewhat related to that is I’ve also just really learned a lot more about looking at things through the lens of impact as opposed to intent.

And so I think part of the authenticity lens was very much to get clear on your intention of who you want to be as a teacher, and I still think that matters, but I think maybe more importantly is this — what is the impact of how you show up as yourselves and what is the impact of creating spaces for students to do that? So I think those are two areas where I just honestly had not done enough work myself when I wrote that book that now I would absolutely include. And when I present and lead workshops, I definitely include more of that work.

I appreciate your transparency and sort of giving that lens in. That’s something that I always try to do when I’m talking to teachers because unless you have published a book yourself — until I published — I assumed that when a book was out that was sort of like the final word on something. And I missed the fact that hopefully the author is continually learning and growing and they’re changing. The world is changing. They’re having new experiences and something that you wrote 10 years ago, hopefully, you’ve learned some new things along the way that have shifted your perspective. And I’d just like to illuminate that because I think it sort of gives us a little bit more grace when we’re reading people’s work and recognizing that there’s, there’s always more to come. And if we wait until we know it all, we wait until we’re perfect, then we’re never going to say anything.

And it takes a lot of courage, I think, to put your work out into the world. And I know that book has really touched a lot of teachers. I’ve heard from a lot of folks how much that book and just your work in general has really helped them even in its imperfect state. And that’s how I really want to show up too, because my work is certainly imperfect. There’s certainly things that I would like to change and just embracing that as part of the process instead of trying to show up perfect and trying to know it all.

And I think as you’re saying that, it’s also just striking me that that’s what teaching is. It’s writing, but it’s also teaching.

Yes, that’s right. You’re not going to know it all at first and you’re going to look back on your practice and think about things that you wish you had known earlier on.

Absolutely. There’s definitely teaching practices I did early on that I would never do now. That’s the fact that revision is life work. It’s not just something we do as writers.

Engaging students authentically

Well, your most recent book talks about teaching strategies that you really like and that are really research-based. It’s a book that you co-authored with Barry Gilmore, and it’s called Active Learning: 40 Teaching Methods to Engage Students in Every Class and Every Subject. And in this book, you have curated high-impact teaching strategies that help students be more actively engaged in learning. And I would like to talk about that through this lens of authentic teaching. How can teachers figure out how to integrate engagement strategies in a way that feels authentic and meaningful rather than just tossing something into their instructional day because they think they should or they’re told they should.

I’ve definitely done that. So it’s interesting because when I came onto this book project, Barry Gilmore, my co-author, was in pretty late stages of cancer and actually dying. And so I came on as a co-author of this book to help him finish it. It was one of his last wishes. And one of the things that I brought to it was this lens that you’re talking about. So I appreciate you asking that question. This idea of we had a lot of these strategies. We had to, of course, do revision and things came in and out and were changed.

But one of the things that I wanted to bring to this was the idea that the reason we choose an instructional strategy, the reason we choose a teaching method, can’t just be because we read about it or we did it in a PD or it looks interesting and might get kids up and moving, that there has to be a way in which it’s going to engage them and get them thinking because there’s just so much that I see where students are actively going through experiences without actively thinking.

So the book is grounded in the idea of this ultimate goal — we want students to develop independence of mind. We want them to be thinkers. And so while of course we could think about lots of different types of thinking, there were four main types of thinking that I think really grounded this book in. And so that becomes, to me, a compass for how to decide on which strategies and which methods to use.

And those types of thinking are independent thinking where they can think for themselves, how might this strategy actually set students up to form their own opinions and ideas. A second is creative thinking. So how do I create context where the experience has allowed students to create something that literally never existed before, whether it’s combining things in new ways or taking something out or adding something in or bringing a fresh idea to the table. A third is empathetic thinking, the idea of how might this instructional practice help my students develop empathy, the ability to recognize another perspective, the ability to say, I might not have this worldview, but I can take time to understand somebody. I think that’s where the impact piece can come in.

And then that fourth kind is problem-solving, thinking, How am I setting students up to solve real relevant problems in any subject area? And then to bring their thinking into that process. So it’s not like we ever work on one at a time, and it’s not a checklist by any means, but to me it just, like I said, becomes almost a compass for what’s the direction I want to go in and does this strategy or this method set students up in a context to develop those types of thinking? And so to me, that is a set of questions that any teacher could ask. I can ask that if I’m an art teacher, or a PE teacher, or a science teacher, or social, those four types of thinking are not subject area specific.

The goal of the active learning strategies in the book is one of the lines from the book that I really appreciated and says it’s to help students become intellectually curious, physically active, and emotionally involved in collaborative work that builds their capacity for empathy. And in that line, I really sense a crossover with Teach Like Yourself because authentic teaching transforms students as well as their instructors. Can you talk a little bit about authenticity’s impact on the kids in our classrooms?

I think the first thing that comes to mind around that is there’s a lot that might push them in a direction of showing up as the best, glossiest version of themselves, especially in teenager’s day.

What are we posting on social media? What are we curating? How are we choosing to present ourselves in ways that seem somewhat more permanent in photos, videos, and comments? And I think there’s a real repercussion to that because most of the time that’s not the reality. Most of the time we’re struggling with something, we’re pondering something, we’re feeling something that doesn’t always engage us in a smile. And so if we’re going to get real learning — learning is frustrating and messy and hard and joyful and silly — how do we create these learning spaces where they can tap into all parts of their humanity, which means we engage in all those things.

And so I think the real benefit to having authentic spaces is a reclaiming of our humanity. And I know that sounds so bold or maybe grandiose, but so much of people’s days is about putting our humanity in a box and leaving pieces out. What would it look like to have a space where that happens? And I see it all the time. I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to go into classrooms and see it all the time. And sometimes it’s crying, sometimes it’s laughter, sometimes it’s frustration, sometimes it’s arguing, sometimes it’s collaboration.

So I think one of the avenues into that is setting up our classrooms around a framework of contribution. This idea that if each of you students were not in this room, if any one of you weren’t here, we wouldn’t get the same beautiful results — that each of you matter. And so when you bring your gifts and talents and quirks and personalities and all parts of you and your identities into the classroom, we all benefit from that.

And this maybe even goes back to the idea of what did you leave out of the book? One of the things I do now is make sure we start the beginning of the year, a course, or the beginning of a unit by asking how are we each going to contribute. What are we going to bring forth that’s going to make all of our community a little better? And sometimes they have very academic answers, the students, and sometimes they say things like, “I’m going to crack a joke, make us laugh, or I’m going to remind us when we need to drink water.” But that matters too.

And so I just think this idea that community is about every person feeling like they matter and their contributions matter is so essential for learning. And I don’t think any of today’s problems can be solved by individuals. It’s all going to be collaborative. So if we’re not supporting that in schools, we’re not setting up a planet and a community and a country and a world that’s going to survive.

Practical approaches to authentic teaching

What are some specific and practical ways that we can do this so we can make sure students are able to be their true authentic selves in the classroom?

Yeah, it’s hard. I want to acknowledge that. I’m going to offer some actual methods and tools, but the biggest practical tool is when we do it ourselves. There’s just no way we can show up in authentic ways and ask to do as I say and not as I do.

It’s making sure we are modeling this, that we are living this ourselves. So I think one is making sure we have feedback processes that are reciprocal, meaning we have space and we teach people how to give and receive feedback. Because we’re not going to know if people are showing up authentically, or if they feel safe too, if we don’t have really honest feedback loops where both are happening. So that might look like things people already do.

It’s just making sure we do it regularly, like having conferences with students, making sure that we have some sort of anonymous and non-anonymous ways, whether that’s a Google form or an exit ticket to check in with people. It’s sometimes having real talk like, Let’s pause here, something is off. Can we talk about what’s going on? What do you need more of? What do you need less of? So I think making sure our feedback processes are reciprocal is huge.

Another one of those is making sure choice is embedded into as many aspects of our classroom experiences as possible, whether that’s choice of what we read, how we take notes, the topics we study, who we get to work with, how we want feedback, how we want to share our learning. I think there was this beautiful time during lockdown, where there were lots of not-beautiful times, but where there was a lot more choice given to students, how are you going to be able to show up?

And I don’t think we should stop asking that question just because we’re in person again. I think there are lots of different ways for students to demonstrate their competency and are we making use of all those options? And then maybe a couple of others. One is if we really want authentic spaces for students and teachers, we need to be talking a lot more about boundaries and allowing students to set them, too. What are students allowed to say no to? if we create learning spaces where they’re expected for the default is yes to everything in the learning space, how could that possibly be authentic?

I know students don’t always because of school-based rules or policies get to say no to everything, but they have to be able to have places to say honest no’s or to set a boundary for themselves. And so I’m just going to give some examples of what practically that might look like. In one of the schools where I was working, students were expected to read every night a certain amount of pages, and students had some real talk with the teacher inside. “We have lives outside of school. We cannot read X amount of pages every night. There are real obligations we have.” And so they set a boundary to say, “We have to say no. If you want us to do that, we’re going to end up faking it.”

And so they worked to asking, “Could we have things that are not daily? What would it look like if by the end of this week we’ve read?” And well, not every student loved that idea. Many more of them were able to say, “Oh, yeah, I have flexibility, then I can choose when I’m going to read more and on some nights, I’m not going to read at all.” And so I just think one shift like that is honoring that students can set some boundaries and say no sometimes to things because we are not their only class and their only obligation.

I could go on and on. I think those are some of the big practical ideas that I have for right now.

Addressing student apathy and hopelessness

Yeah, that’s kind of blowing my mind thinking about students setting boundaries, but it’s so obvious when you say it like that because you’re right. If they are not able to be free to speak up for themselves, then they are going to fake it. And I think that’s a big problem that’s happening right now a lot in classrooms, particularly at the secondary level, is there’s a lot of going through the motions. There’s a lot of, “Just tell me what to do, I’m going to do it, or maybe not, but I’m not going to think for myself. I’m not going to question it. I’m not going to go above the bare minimum. I’m going to just do whatever I have to do just to get out of this class, basically to either graduate or to just check this off my list so I’m done and I don’t have to think about it anymore, and not really having goals for myself past that.”

That’s something that I’ve been hearing a lot from secondary teachers lately is the goal. If there is a goal, it’s just to graduate. They don’t necessarily have goals for themselves outside of that. And I’m wondering how in all of your expertise and research and all of the work that you’ve done, how are you thinking right now about student apathy and disengagement? The hopelessness of Gen Z — that’s certainly not all of them that are feeling or experiencing this — but that seems to be presenting in bigger numbers where students are sort of uncertain of the future and not sure if it’s really worth putting in the hard work because it may not pay off for them. There may not be a healthy planet for them to live on. They may not ever be able to afford a home. What are you seeing in your work and how do you think that these practices kind of address these deeper needs of students to be able to really show up truly as themselves and to sort of work through these issues?

I mean, I wish I had the answer to that for many reasons, but my insights, maybe I could contribute this — I don’t know a single person, let alone educator, right now who’s not really overwhelmed. I mean, as we’re recording this, it’s also October — the longest month in the teaching world. But people are overwhelmed, people are overtired, people are connection-deprived and obligation-overwhelmed.

I don’t think that’s any different for students. The amount of space and time they have to daydream, to play, to rehearse is largely gone. And so if we think about any of us — adults or children or teenagers — we need space to dream if we’re going to imagine what we’re going to do next. Otherwise, everything is just a checklist. And for many of them, everything is a checklist. So while I think part of the issue is just the large problems that they’re inheriting to some degree (we’ve always had that) but each generation seems to be more full, like no free time to daydream and play.

And so I think part of that is what would it look like to have more space for that in classrooms? Because we can lament that like, Oh, outside, they’re too overscheduled, too plugged into their devices. You have no control over that. In our classrooms, are there places where we rehearse for things? Are there places where we think about what could be? Or are we teaching students to claim their gifts and their contributions and to say, what might it look like on a bigger scale or an out-of-school scale?

I think part of that is it means taking enough time to know ourselves well enough to know what those next steps and goals would be. But if school is not about knowing ourselves, it’s about knowing content, then there isn’t the same opportunity to then use our self-knowledge to plan for our futures. So I think part of this is making these macro problems smaller, creating a lot more time for feedback and self-reflection and creating some more playful dreaming time. And I know that sounds so woo-woo, but I think it’s just essential for any sort of vision for the future. That’s not what already exists,

Right? Because if we can’t imagine it, then how can we ever work to create it?

Yes. Some of my mentors often have talked about this idea that what we’re really lacking is imagination. And I believe Martin Luther King wrote deeply about that too, which is why creative and empathetic thinking are essential. We can’t actually imagine something unless we’re in that creative energy and mindset, and we can’t create something beautiful if we don’t have the skill of empathy. And it is a skill.

Yes. What’s something that you wish every teacher listening to this understood about what we’ve talked about today?

So I don’t know if others can relate to this, but I feel like often what I teach is what I need to learn myself. And so lately, what I’ve found myself teaching about is listening. I think maybe people who are reading this right now and thinking, Okay, so what am I going to do? And I would say the first thing to do is to listen. None of us are in this alone. And most of the time the answer is right there if we’re listening.

So if you feel like students are not showing up authentically, don’t go do anything. Listen a whole lot more. If you feel like your grade level team or your department meetings, people are not showing up authentically. You don’t need to bust in with, we need to fix this, like listen more. And so I’ve done a deep dive in some of the research on listening and trying to really myself work on my own listening practices more. And one of the findings that came out of Itzchakov’s and Kluger’s research, is that one of the benefits of being a good listener is it creates open-mindedness and what they call attitude complexity, which is the ability to see multiple sides of any issue.

And I just feel like if there’s one thing we need in the world right now, it is that ability. And so my suggestion to people is to put a device down, put an agenda down, put even your pen down, and take time listening with an open heart and mind. And it’s not like a one-time thing. We need to listen a whole lot more. And I think from that, the next step will be a whole lot clearer.

Oftentimes when I’m struggling, I’ll listen to students and they are literally telling me it doesn’t come out in standard speak, and it’s not necessarily teacher jargon, but they are telling me what they need. If I’m just present enough to hear it and then maybe listen to ourselves — who can you go talk to? That’s going to really create a space for you to talk so that you can actually hear what’s going on for yourself. I just think listening would be helpful to all of us right now.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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