February 12, 2016
(Photo L to R: Aleta Margolis, Jon Berg, and author Roman Krznaric at an Inspired Teaching event)
This December, Inspired Teaching spoke with Jon Berg, a first grade teacher at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School. A 2012 Inspired Teaching Fellow, Jon completed his residency year at the Demonstration School; he is now a Lead Teacher at the school and is training a resident teacher in his classroom. The following is a condensed version of this conversation:
Inspired Teaching: How did you decide to become a teacher?
Mr. Berg: I made the decision to become a full time teacher after I returned from my Peace Corps service. Prior to that, my career focus was related to environmental conservation. Aspects of those jobs and my first Master’s program involved education and developing ways to teach both young people and adults how to conserve the environment.
When I was in the field of environmental education, one thing that bothered me was that I was only able to reach individuals who were brought to the program. I quickly learned that I wouldn’t be able to influence learners in a variety of ways or on a wide range of ideas. While serving in the Peace Corps, I had the chance to teach an English class at a local elementary school, and I realized that being a classroom teacher is a really powerful way to make change.
How did you find Inspired Teaching?
After Peace Corps, I returned to the United States and was living in Florida while conducting my job hunt. I remember thinking that there were several criteria a job needed to meet before I would really consider it. I found the Inspired Teacher Certification Program, read about Inspired Teaching’s philosophy, and also found information about the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School.
When I found Inspired Teaching, I decided I would put all of my efforts into trying to make this opportunity work. I compared the certification program to the opportunities available in other metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago, and there really wasn’t anything that compared. I felt like Inspired Teaching removed a lot of the barriers that had prevented me from pursuing teaching in the past. I wanted the opportunity to become the kind of teacher I believed would be the most effective for students, and I didn’t think I’d be able to do that through other programs.
What were the barriers that had stopped you from becoming a teacher in the past?
When I worked in schools previously, mainly as a substitute teacher during graduate school, I would often receive feedback that I was being too nice to the students or smiling too much. The approach some of these schools used was that teachers had to scare students into respecting them, and only after fear was established could they show students a more caring disposition. I knew that I didn’t want to work in an education system where that kind of dynamic was the norm.
I also have a lot of friends who are teachers, and they told me to think really carefully about the commitment. The workload and responsibility that go into being an effective teacher are mindboggling. I really wanted to be sure that I was ready.
What attracted you to the Inspired Teacher Certification Program’s two-year residency model?
What really attracted me to Inspired Teaching was the opportunity to receive intensive training and support before I was asked to teach independently. There are so many programs where it’s trial-by-fire and during your first few years, you’re constantly stumbling and using your students as guinea pigs to learn how to become a teacher. That never seemed fair either for the person training to become a teacher or for the students who were struggling to learn under the guidance of an untested teacher.
I think the residency model is a really interesting concept. It elevates the profession in a way that’s not often done with teaching. Teaching is a really difficult and important career, and you need training that recognizes that fact and commits long-term to training you to be the best teacher you can be.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first stepped into the classroom?
The most challenging thing for me was trying to find my own style of teaching while working under the guidance of a Master Teacher. The really great thing about my experience was that I was partnered with a teacher who is not only amazing at what she does, but who also has a personality and professional style that complement mine. We were able to create a powerful team that I’ve been lucky to be part of for the last four years now.
During my first year teaching, I sometimes wasn’t sure if I were mimicking what I’d seen my Master Teacher do or if I had developed a strategy or technique independently. Now, the two of us have worked together for so long that we both constantly influence each other. Sometimes we try to think about who started doing something first or who has the documents for the next project, and there have been times when we can’t remember who did it first. It’s really great when you’re able to work so closely with someone you admire and trust.
Is this your first year hosting a resident in your classroom?
Yes. I’ve worked the past two years with a teaching assistant, and this is my first year training a resident, one of the 2015 Inspired Teaching Fellows.
How does it feel to be on the other side of that training dynamic?
I’ve come full circle with Inspired Teaching. I’ve gone through the certification program, I was a resident at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, and now I’m a Lead Teacher at the Demonstration School training a resident. I’m able to talk with my resident about all different aspects of the program. I see her completing the same types of coursework I completed, and I remember the support I had and what exactly I’d wished for as a resident. I’m hopeful that I’m able to provide that support for her now. I try to make everything as transparent as possible to help give her a complete picture of everything that goes into running a classroom.
Have you learned from your resident as well?
Yes, absolutely. It’s great to have another perspective in the classroom. Working with a resident challenges me to make my teaching transparent and provide thoughtful rationalizations for instructional decisions. Sometimes she’ll say, “Have you thought about doing it this way?” I always try to respond with “Let’s try that.” Then, if her idea works better, we adopt it as one of our routines. And if it doesn’t work, then the two of us can sit down and discuss what we could have done differently. It’s a learning experience for everyone, and it’s great to have two professionals working together so closely on what’s best for our students.
You’re a founding member and the Vice President of the Fellows Advisory Board (FAB). Why has it been important to you to keep in close contact with the Inspired Teacher Certification Program and other Inspired Teaching Fellows?
Being part of a cohort is a powerful experience that allows you to build lasting relationships with your peers. With Master’s coursework and teaching full time, the program is challenging for everyone. During those two years, I spent so much time with my cohort working on projects, e-mailing back and forth with questions, and working together to achieve both individual and shared goals. It was difficult when we completed the program, and everybody split off into separate communities. We all continued growing, but independently of one another, and originally I was looking for something that would help us continue to grow together.
All Inspired Teaching Fellows have something special they’re experts in, and I thought we should take advantage of that knowledge. If everyone loses contact with the group when they graduate, then we’re really losing something, and that was one of the motivations for starting FAB. We’ve created an opportunity for program graduates and all Inspired Teaching Fellows to network, learn together, and continue developing their practice.
How would you define what it means to be an Inspired Teacher?
Inspired Teachers are advocates for their students. They have to be patient, kind, and understanding. They realize that every student is a unique individual with his or her own needs, ideas, passions, and preferences. Inspired Teachers then use this mindset to build authentic relationships with each student to make sure everyone feels included, challenged, and excited about learning. Patience, kindness, and understanding make all of that critical work possible.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a teacher?
Make sure you’re really committed to being in a profession that will always require you to grow and change. After years of practice, you can become a really great teacher, but really great teachers are constantly trying to get better. I think the hallmark of excellent teachers is that they’re never satisfied. They never feel they’re doing the job the absolute best they can.
As a new teacher, that can be a really challenging concept to wrap your head around. But it’s also something that makes teaching an exciting and interesting field to work in. I know I’ll never get bored doing it. But if I weren’t fully committed to that mindset – to knowing that I’ll never do it perfectly – then I think it would be difficult to feel truly successful.
When you approach a school year, what do you hope your students will learn in your classroom?
I always hope that my students will learn that there’s never a good reason to be unkind to someone. That’s something my students and I have talked about a lot over the years. We talk about kindness and about all of the emotions and impulses that can lead someone to be unkind. No one ever asked me to think about this when I was a student in school, but it’s something I want my students to grapple with now.
The Inspired Teacher Certification Program is now accepting applications to join the 2016 cohort. Learn more and apply today.