The Intellectual Life of Teachers

If we’re not careful, we may lose our intellectual selves.

We can grow numb with repeated exposure to ideology and structures built to maintain the school’s status quo. With each passing year, our teaching routines, pacing guides, and collegial interactions become more automated, turning us into pseudo-perpetual motion machines that operate continuously without any source of energy.

When we teach the same unit more than once, we strengthen weak spots, anticipate exciting moments, and appreciate the freedom from all the original research and resource gathering. Yet, teaching it year after year without drifting too far from the original version is problematic. At some point, we become defined by our repeated units: “He’s the one who always does the egg-drop-from-the-roof activity.”

Although it’s nice to be known for something, we can become complacent after reading and listening to the same responses from students year after year, only passingly tantalized by a few students who offer new insight.

Add to this the pervading anti-intellectual bias in some schools. Count the pairs of eyes at a faculty meeting that roll derisively when one colleague mentions a new education philosophy he heard about at a conference, suggests you start a peer observation program, references a new education study, or asks another question in the final 10 minutes of workshop after the visiting education leader declares, “We finished early. Are there any more questions?”

Finally, teachers are increasingly told not only what to teach, but how much time to allot to each moment in every lesson and how to teach it in scripted programs and pacing mandates without deviation, even for learner differences. They are told to “maintain fidelity to the program” or face severe consequences for each detour.

Such policies are misguided, even destructive. They strip teachers of the autonomy, innovation, and professional respect they need to make effective decisions regarding students’ learning. It’s no wonder morale declines, and with it, intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual Engagement

The proposition is simple: If we pay attention to educators’ intellectual lives, they are better educators. If we find ways for teachers and administrators to experience curiosity, awe, induction, deduction, analysis, synthesis, resilience, empathy, extrapolation, juxtaposition, and other mental dexterities in their own development, they are better thinkers with our children. They can solve their own problems, connect with students, innovate their way to meaningful lessons, and persevere in the midst of challenge.

Tobey Reed, a social studies teacher/coordinator from Attleboro, Massachusetts, shows us that this is not only desirable, it’s doable:

“A little over a year ago my wife (an English teacher) and I were discussing how the focus on data/state testing was depressing, so we called seven teachers whom we respected and asked if they wanted to start meeting once a month to discuss pedagogy. Our mission statement said, ‘to provide a place where we could discuss what was good for students and learning and ignore the bullshit that gets in our way’.

“We’ve now been meeting monthly for almost two years. We started an afterschool group called the Best Practices group. We average around 20 teachers a month who come to discuss pedagogy. These are not meetings for credits or professional development points, they are just for fun. The response has been wonderful. Most of us have run official professional development workshops this year for the district and have impacted more than 200 educators.

“The lesson we have learned about this is that teachers are hungry to discuss this stuff. They will volunteer their time, take risks, and do some interesting things if they feel like they are being supported emotionally by other members of the staff.”

Frank Franz, an ancient world history and AP U.S. Government teacher in Fairfax, Virginia, attends the American Political Science Association’s Teaching & Learning Conference in February every year. He writes, “February is a great time for intellectual stimulation as burn-out sometimes creeps in during that part of the school year. Also, having the conference in a different part of the country every year gives me a chance to travel to places I probably would not go to during my vacation time.

“Over the three days of the conference, I get to engage in meaningful conversations about content and pedagogy. These conversations are different from the conversations I have with high school teachers.” He adds, “I guess it boils down to rejuvenation by engaging teachers who are not in my immediate professional learning community.”

At the 2014 conference, Frank says an instructor demonstrated how she used prediction markets to increase student awareness of current events that related to her course. “Immediately,” Frank says, “I was trying to think of a way to do the same with my AP Government students…I’m still in the planning stage, with the hope of integrating prediction markets in the fall.”

Build It, and They Will Think

There are many ways to cultivate educator intellect, but no one way will serve everyone. A wide spectrum of elements should be used in order to create a compelling culture of intellectual pursuit among faculty.

However we must remember that we—not the school or the district—are in charge of our own intellectual journey. Let’s not wait for others to tell us how to build our cerebral engines, but instead, build them ourselves. Here’s the starter kit:


Start or participate in an Edcamp experience. It’s the organic unconference for those of us tired of unmeaningful inservice training where one listens passively to someone speaking from the front of the room for hours. To find a dynamic Edcamp experience near you, visit Watch it here: Try it; you’ll thank me later.

Create a committee dedicated to the intellectual life of teachers in the school or district. I served on one of these in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia in the 1990s. We identified courses at local museums/universities; invited guest speakers on diverse, innovative topics; and provided programs to cultivate teachers’ robust intellectual engagement as a companion to the many courses already offered in the district’s staff development catalog.

Play Minecraft and other world-building, interactive, online or single-player games. You’ll find these games very sophisticated and stimulating. Go for it, one block at a time.

Require divergent thinking and inspired efforts in students’ work. If we inspire students to challenge themselves and create products that are truly amazing for them, it inspires our own intellect. To light our own intellectual rockets, we light our students’ creativity and invite them to reach just a little bit higher than normal.

Mentor a new teacher as he or she prepares for their first or second year of teaching. It helps you reflect on your own practices.*

Write for education publications. Analyzing what you do and explaining it and larger issues in a compelling way to others clarifies and transforms our thinking. I’m a better educator for having written about it, and a better writer for having educated others about the topic. If you’re interested, I have a PowerPoint presentation with suggestions on how to write education articles/books that I can send you.


Exercise. Getting the heart rate up, endorphins pumping, muscles loose, and oxygen to the brain does wonders for the mind. Walk, hike, jog, kayak, climb, bike, blade, dance, swim, lift weights, jump rope, play basketball, do workout DVDs, or do yoga, but get moving for 45 minutes or more at least three times a week. It might be time to get a personal trainer, if you can.

Hydrate. Seriously, water your brain and it will grow.

Change your physical location. When we’re in different countries or different regions of our own country or town, it stimulates the mind. On a smaller scale, rotate classrooms and meeting spaces for department/faculty meetings.

Change to a heart-healthy diet. It turns out what’s good for the heart is often good for the mind.

Try bike tourism. There are many agencies that facilitate bike tours, even for the occasional biker. Explore new geographic regions, cities, historical sites, and more.*


Learn to use at least five technologies new for you: Twitter, virtual tours, QR codes, apps, online tutorials, Google Docs, Google Eyes, MOOCS, crowd-sourcing, MIT Open Courseware, screencasts, Voicethread, Moodle, Prezi, iMovie, Edmodo, Promethean/Smartboards.* Take an online course.

Coach Odyssey of the Mind ( or debate teams ( for competition.

Get involved in a community theater production, summer youth sports programs, or play in a local musical performance.*

Energy Boost

When we pay attention to our intellectual lives, we make connections, spark insights, and remain mindful of the student’s journey and our role in it. Igniting teacher intellect is a prime energy source for the learning dynamo in every classroom. It’s not only an overt act of school improvement, it’s the stuff of meaningful lives.

Note: The suggestions with asterisks were included in the Summer 2013 online edition of ASCD’s Education Leadership magazine in my article, “Take Time for Yourself—and for Learning,” pages 14–19. You can find the article and many more ideas at

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way,
is available from @rickwormeli

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, May 2014.