Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On Teaching Well: Five Lessons from Long Experience

Today I turned 70 years old. I have no idea how this happened. I was going along, struggling to do the best I could and then suddenly I woke up and this old guy was staring back at me from the mirror. Turning 70, though, has its advantages. One of those advantages comes from accumulated experience. Another comes from the graying countenance that seems to make people pay attention to what that experience has taught you. I'll take it. It is flattering to have an audience of readers who think you still have something to say. Later today I will celebrate this milestone with family and friends, but this morning I wanted to celebrate with you, my esteemed readers. And so I share five lessons I have learned from a career in education spanning nearly 50 years.

Lesson 1: Teaching is about Relationships

At its most basic, teaching is about building individual relationships with children. If children trust you, they will be willing to follow you in your flights of instructional fantasy and if they follow you they will learn from you. As a young teacher I stumbled upon this insight. I was teaching in what was then called a junior high school, grades 7,8 and 9. I saw about 150 students a day. At first I found this task very daunting. I learned my student's names, but I did not think of them as people so much as classes, the 7-2s and the 9-4s. I found it hard to engage individually with students because I  was working so hard on managing my rather large classes.

At some point I realized that when a student was speaking to me, that student needed my full attention and I needed to give my full attention to understand what the student was saying. I learned to focus on one student at a time. To truly listen. To block out the rest of the class, to really engage with that individual student for a moment. I learned to literally "lean-in" to the student physically to engage in real listening. I discovered that kids don't often have adults listen to them and listening is key to developing a  relationship with a child. Listening builds trust.

Secondly, I learned the importance of showing up. Kids notice if you show up at their concerts, their sporting events, their plays. Attending these life events with your students sends a message of caring and allows you to see your students in a different environment. Many students are very different animals outside of the classroom and getting to know them in a different setting pays off big inside the classroom.

Lesson 2: Teaching is More Coaching than Telling

As a young teacher, I was also a baseball and basketball coach. As a coach, I spent a great deal of time creating real game-like situations for my players during practice. I found that during simulated games, the practice was most focused and most productive and that I could give the players feedback that they could apply immediately and in context. It took me a while to apply this concept in the classroom. I started out teaching history the way I was taught it, by standing in front of the class and telling kids stuff and then giving them tests to see if they had learned the stuff.

After two years or so of this practice, I realized I was giving great lectures, but the students weren't learning much, so I "flipped' my classroom back before that term was fashionable and before the computer was an apple in Steve Jobs eye. I figured out, with the help of some prescient professional development, that I could teach best if I could simulate the work of historians in the classroom. In other words if I could turn the learning over to the students and then guide them in their learning by giving them individual feedback. Thus was born, for me, a new way of teaching, where the classroom was a practice field of noisy student activity and I was the coach, redirecting, cajoling, interjecting and giving feedback. I learned that learners learn by doing and teachers teach by guiding that learning.

Lesson 3: Teaching Requires Pedagogical Content Knowledge

As teachers we need to know stuff. It is critical that teachers have deep content knowledge in order to plan lessons and respond fully to student questions. But as teachers we must go beyond knowing stuff, to knowing how to impart stuff. This ability to join content with pedagogy has been called pedagogical content knowledge. This pedagogical content knowledge is where the science of teaching comes in. The skilled teacher takes the stuff of the discipline, the curriculum, and figures out, through a deep understanding of the research on how children learn, how to bring that stuff to the students and the students to that stuff.

For me this is the most fascinating aspect of teaching and the reason that teaching is a constantly engaging and energizing activity. On the one hand, long years of research has told us what ought to work in pedagogy and on the other hand, every year, every class, every child presents new challenges and new needs to reconsider what we are doing, to return to the research, and to look for new insights. Pedagogical content knowledge grows through continued professional reading, continued experience, and through continued awareness that it is necessary. It is really the reason that our profession is a profession and the reason that not everyone with a lot of content knowledge can do it.

Lesson 4: Student Errors Are a Teacher's Best Friend

It was not until I was studying to become a reading specialist that I truly came to appreciate student errors for what they are - mirrors into the mind of the child. I gained this insight by studying the work of the psycholinguist, Ken Goodman. For Goodman, reading errors were not errors at all, but miscues. What a great word that is. When a baseball player makes an error, we often call it a miscue. In other words the player "misread" the situation, which led to a mistake.  In baseball we can find out what caused the miscue by rewinding the videotape. In teaching, we can look at the evidence that led to the miscue and try to discover what caused the error. Once we can dope out what caused the error, we will know how to help the student.

This insight is critical to teaching. Students do not make errors deliberately. Rather than be upset that students make errors, we should celebrate these errors as opportunities to understand the student's thinking and also to better understand where our teaching might have gone awry. My advice? Don't complain about student errors, celebrate them. Student errors are the thinking teacher's best friend.

Lesson 5: Reflecting on Your Teaching Keeps You Growing

In my years as a teaching supervisor, I was never much interested in collecting teacher lesson plans before the lesson was taught. I liked to collect the plans at the end of the week and I asked that the teachers include a reflection on the lessons that went well, the lessons that did not go well and what changes they would make based on what went well and what didn't. Constant reflection on practice is the hallmark of the professional. It is necessary for the continued improvement of practice. Teaching is an art and a science that is never fully mastered. I am a better teacher now than I was 50 years ago, but I am also a better teacher now than I was yesterday, because I continue to read and reflect.

I recommend that teachers maintain a journal of reflections on teaching and I recommend that every teacher take a few minutes at the end of the school day, after the last student has left the classroom and after the buses have pulled out of the driveway, to simply sit and write a reflection on the day. It is, I think, the best way to implement a continuous improvement plan. Writing is a powerful way to bring our thoughts and ideas together in a meaningful way and it helps to build a record of successes and failures that can guide us in our ongoing efforts.

Over the years I was involved in hiring hundreds of teachers. I often interviewed those teachers after watching them do a demonstration lesson. The two most important questions I would ask after a demonstration were, "How did it go?" and "What would you change, if you could do the lesson over?" I found that the answers to these two questions gave me great insight into the kind of teacher the candidate would become.

Finally, there is no magic formula to what makes for a great teacher and there are many paths that may lead to becoming a great teacher, but there are no paths that do not begin with a deep and abiding respect for children.