Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Being the Teacher: A Few Thoughts

Want (M.A. Reilly, 2009)
I've been thinking about what it takes for us to be really fine teachers for the children and teens we teach. Frankly anything less is simply not good enough. For the last two months, my colleagues and I have been working in a variety of schools often co-teaching or in some cases taking the lead by modeling how we plan, teach, revise, and respond to students.  To be sure, we work with many incredible teachers and it is a privilege to learn with and from them.  But we also work with others who are not fine teachers--the ones that the students deeply need.  Some  of the teachers we work with seem to have lost their way.

I am reminded while watching a really super intermediate grade teacher work that teaching well requires a commitment beyond what one thinks one can do and know.  Really fine teaching is edgy, unknowable in some primary ways as it happens in the present.  In such classrooms, emergence is perhaps the only constant leaving teachers to continuously work hard reading/misreading/rereading while on their feet.   Against this absence of actually knowing, is planning--those rehearsals we have as we assemble possible classes in our minds. We know this by the voices we imagine as we plan.    We hear ourselves saying, X and students saying, Y and on and on and we follow these possible conversational crumbs to ends that will not be realized.  Nonetheless, this rehearsing is rather critical.  Really fine teachers rehearse, fully knowing that the life of the learning will take turns and will be disrupted in ways that are difficult to know or follow.  Even though the learning will get somewhat away from us,  great planning helps teaching to be more grounded.  Teaching well requires acknowledging the tension between the possible learning we rehearsed and the actual learning we can't quite fully name.

Teaching well requires response.  It saddens me when I see 1, 5, 10 and more teachers collect student work and not respond or return it.  Nary a happy face, even.  It is as if these inked pages once collected fall into black holes--never to be returned.  In places with persistent failure, students seem to act as if this absence of response is a norm to be expected.  This should be unacceptable, not because administrators say so, but because we know so.  Responding with care and intelligence is a cornerstone to teaching.

Teaching well requires that we remain curious, teachable, and kind.  Wondering why a child has said or done something keeps us in the present, theorizing. Being curious about things beyond the school enriches our teaching life.  Our passions and interests are often a type of professional learning that are not directly connected to who or what we teach and yet can greatly inform both.


  1. A friend told me last week she thinks part of the reason teachers have not protested much (although that is changing) about increased testing, common core, etc., is that they've gotten where they are by being rule-followers. I wonder how to unsettle rule-following.