Listen. Imitate. Add on! by Steven Sanders

Steven Sanders,   Head of Community at Enriched Schools, 2014 Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice Recipient

Steven Sanders, Head of Community at Enriched Schools, 2014 Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice Recipient

When I think about how teachers get better, I recall my first jazz improvisation lesson. I walked into the room, and my instructor said nothing. He pulled out his saxophone and played the first 8 notes of a blues tune called Moanin’. I looked at him; clearly confused. He played it again and still I had no idea what he was trying to have me do. Finally, he played it one more time simultaneously raising an eyebrow toward my instrument. Suddenly it clicked! He wanted me to figure out how to play those same notes on my instrument. Eventually, I got the hang of it and that’s how most of our initial lessons went. As I studied jazz history, I began to see that this is how jazz greats improved – Louis Armstrong influenced Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Thelonious Monk borrowed from Duke Ellington. John Coltrane was inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker. The list is endless.

Teachers can also learn from the jazz world. Just as jazz musicians use this simple formula of listening to one another, imitating one another and then adding on to what they come up with to form their own sound, teachers can gain skills from other teachers with differing ideas, viewpoints, and experiences in organic settings.



Listening comes in the form of observations, studying the materials of others, watching video tape and discussing best practices. Have you listened to another educator lately? Do you allow other educators to listen to you? Are you open to instructional conversations over a cup of coffee, tea or other beverage of your choice?



There’s an old saying: imitation is the father of learning. It’s one of the oldest ways humans learn how to do anything. How did you learn to speak? You heard your parents do it. How did you learn to walk? You observed someone doing it. In the classroom, imitation is happening when you borrow from someone. Be it resources, classroom floor[EC1]  plans, routines…you name it. Take it and use it as your own. When was the last time you imitated something that another teacher did? How often are you giving others permission to imitate you?



This happens when we take something that is effective and either improve upon it or modify it to fit our classroom needs. Full disclosure, this step takes humility and selflessness. The rubrics, grading systems, worksheets, projects, etc. that we create become our art. After all, they came from our imagination and creative spirit. To have someone take them and change them can feel like losing a precious gem. Avoid this thinking. You are providing something that will not only help others but will also advance education. Why not try it? Offer up a resource that works and see how someone can improve upon it or adapt it.



I was able to use this formula my first year of teaching. Like other teachers in year one, I went into the classroom with very high hopes. Eventually, though, the year caught up with me and I found myself falling behind and increasingly overwhelmed. A veteran teacher reached out to me and came to my classroom to listen. He observed what I was doing, and we started an organic dialogue (mostly via text). After that, I was able to imitate his techniques and routines. As I felt stronger, I started to add on by adapting his methods to my classroom and helping others with the resources I created. By the end of my time at that school, we had a group of about 9 educators that regularly listened, imitated and added on with one another.



My challenge: listen to others and allow them to listen to you. Take the initiative to imitate your colleagues (those with more experience, and those with less). Then watch and see how eager they are to imitate you. Advance education by adding on to whatever you receive. This will in turn encourage others to do the same. The great thing is that all of these actions are free of charge.

Educators should be side-by-side. If you take time to mentor, collaborate and troubleshoot together, you’re bound to have far reaching results.  


Steven Sanders  is passionate about teaching the next generation that anything is possible with dedication and hard work, a message he shared for 7 years as a band director and advisor at UIC College Prep on the west side of Chicago. In this role, Steven was able to build hundreds of strong relationships with youth and guide them on their journey through high school and beyond. 

One of the highlights of Steven’s career as an educator came in 2014, when he was selected as a winner of the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. Joining the ranks of some of the best educators in the nation has humbled Steven and led him to expand his impact on education.

As a recent settler in New Orleans, he seeks to continue his educational goal by assisting schools in providing productive learning minutes for every student - 100% of the time. When Steven is not teaching or making an impact on the educational scene, he can be found spending time with his loving wife, leading studies in his faith, and enjoying the wonderful blessing of a life lived in service.