Velveteen Rabbits and the Magic of Teaching

When I was eight, I read a biography about Harry Houdini, the famous magician who so tragically died. Naturally, I became fascinated by the performance of magic and begged my mother for any kind of literature supporting my obsession. When Christmas rolled around, I found myself to be the proud owner of a book of magic tricks, and it wasn’t long before I had crafted for myself a “wand” that could slide forward in my hand seemingly of its own volition. Made out of a cardboard tube and a hidden piece of elastic, it wasn’t exactly “high tech”. But I was thrilled. I took it to school and subjected just about anyone I could get to sit still to watch me do magic.

Then I grew up. And suddenly, I was required to “do magic” for the betterment of my students- only this time I didn’t have a fancy fake wand. My internship was a struggle, and at one point my mentor teacher told me she was afraid she’d have to report me to my profs. As a person who’d never failed before, this was a blow. Eventually, I figured it out, and even though I continued to make mistakes, it was through the desperate search of my PLN, coursework at MSU, and feverishly reading as many pedagogical books as I could get my hands on that I became a real teacher. I networked with teachers at school, reached out to the peers in my cohort, and leaned quite a bit on my support system. By the end of the year, I remember my mentor saying, “You’re like the proverbial velveteen rabbit; you have become Real.”

As I think back to my development as a teacher I find myself constantly returning to the words of my mentors- those artisans and virtuosos whose mastery I covet. I learned more from that experience than I ever did in a course. There isn’t really any magic in teaching- no fairy dust that will instantly fix my problems. And there surely isn’t an illusion that I can use to mask the mechanics of making kids proficient in my content. It’s more complicated than that- more Wicked.

As we considered our Wicked Problem project this week- a project designed to address the issue of reinventing everything about teaching- we decided to specialize in Professional Development because of the way it can affect all things in education. Teachers are hugely responsible for the goings on in education, so we asked ourselves how we could make PD more effective. Our solution- which is really more of a best bad idea- is posted here, for anyone interested in following along in our thought process and data.

Our research showed that PD isn’t happening very frequently, and that when it is, it’s usually delivered via lecture by administration. Sadly, an overwhelming majority thought that their PD was ineffective. We were staggered by the communication gap that seemed to be happening between the givers and receivers of PD.

I reflected on my own PD experiences, and realized that the best experiences I had as a teacher-learner took place on twitter, at conferences for which I signed up, Facebook, and most importantly, the careful mentorship that I had agonized over in school.

In his book, The Anti-Education Era, James Paul Gee defines what he calls “affinity spaces”, which are spaces where groups of people are drawn together because of a shared strong interest or engagement in a common activity. This can be virtual or physical, where informal learning takes place. (Gee, 2013) These seem like the kind of avenues that I found so crucial in my development as a “real” teacher- these spaces that become valuable because we have something in common, some critical interest that makes our relationship symbiotic. And we thought, “Why isn’t Professional Development offered in an affinity space?”

It’s through the development of these PLNs, these curated collections of relationships that the magic seems to happen. It’s on us, the receivers of Professional Development, to make PD effective. The wand is in our hands.


Paul, J.P. (2013). The Anti-Education Era . New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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