Lots of people give lip service to having "a great teacher in every classroom." They seldom talk about what this really means.
I'd like to make some suggestions about the qualities that make for great teaching. These suggestions are based on teachers I've seen as both a student and a teacher, and based on my own best teaching (seen through the lens of my own experience of what works and on lots of feedback from students and former students over the years). This kind of defining great teaching has been done many times, and some people (Marzano and Danielson, for instance) make a fortune off of their teacher evaluation systems.
I'd like to use an unusual lens to look at great teaching, and I'd like to show how great teaching has been undermined by education reform at every juncture. I have written earlier in this space about the similarities between teaching and writing. In this post, I'd like to highlight the similarities between teaching and another form of writing I'm familiar with: cartooning.
For 16 years, I have drawn my comic strip, Mr. Fitz, for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. I think I have been asked to change the strip precisely once (for trying to have a student say "ass" by replacing it in comic-swear as "@$$." Subtle, huh?). I have pretty much been given complete freedom to make my own choices about my comic strip for 16 years. I use the word choices deliberately.
In his graphic novel (reference book?) about the creation of comics, Making Comics, Scott McCloud breaks the creation of comics down into a series of choices:
Choice of moment - What event/events will you focus on in your story?
Choice of frame - How will you frame those events? Up-close? Wide-angle? Medium shot?
Choice of image - What will appear in each frame? What characters, settings, special effects?
Choice of words - What words will appear in each frame in terms of dialogue, narration, and sound effects?
Choice of flow - How will the story flow between frames? How much time will pass? How long does each frame last? How will you pace the events?
Teaching, whether it's great, mediocre, or ineffective, is really a series of choices. Great teaching is really just a series of great choices. Here is my list of the choices teachers make, at least in my subject, English/Language Arts, sort of seen through the lens of cartooning. I've changed to order to reflect the order in which I think about teaching:
Choice of framing/context/essential questions
Choice of words/texts/books
Choice of images/activities/exercises/learning tasks
Choice of moments
Choice of flow
Let me explain how each of these applies to teaching.
Choice of framing/context/essential questions - The context in which we teach the skills of reading and writing, listening and speaking, matter a great deal. I try to choose themes that A. Address ideas of universal, even urgent human concern, B. Address the issues students are experiencing in their school lives, and C. Link literacy and life. For instance, I have done a unit on The Power of Attention because Attention is a universal concern (your life consists of what you pay attention to), is a school issue every day (how do students manage their attention so they can learn?), and is an issue in every form of literacy (you must pay attention to many things when you read; you must pay attention to life to be a good writer). If a unit, and a school year, is framed the right way, students will not only be engaged in a short term gimmicky kind of way; they will learn the "skills" better, engage better, and retain both what they learned, and leave class with valuable ideas about life to take with them into the future.
Choice of words/texts/books - The choice of stories, essays, poems, and novels to read matter too, and will deepen the questions raised by the choice of framing. Texts need to be chosen because they will engage students in multiple ways: emotionally, intellectually, and thematically. I sometimes picture texts coming to my classroom door and knocking, asking to be let in to my class. If a text gives reasons like, "I will boost tests scores," or "I'm required because I'm on the curriculum map," or "I will teach a standard," that's not enough for me to let it in. I will let a text into my class if it offers to do the following things. "I am ambiguous, and will make your students think." "I will inspire your students to ask, not just answer, good questions." "I will ask your students to view me through multiple lenses." "I operate on multiple levels and will ask your students to think on all of them." "I will challenge your students' ideas about life and expose them to ideas that will make their lives better." Texts that offer my students those kinds of opportunities are welcome in my class. Texts that will result in everyone going through the motions so I can check off that I "covered a standard" are not.
Choice of images/activities/exercises/learning tasks - In a comic strip or comic book the action is depicted in pictures. In class the "action" is what we ask students to do. There is a tendency to reduce teaching to doling out textbook pages and assignments. Read the text, answer the questions at the end. Write an essay/story/whatever according to the instructions and rubric in the book. Great teachers come up with learning experiences that are memorable, make it clear that students are learning what real readers and writers do, instead of how to fill out assignments from the textbook. Writing assignments are focused not on teaching formulas that make writing easy to teach, easy to do, and easy to grade; they are focused on getting students to write about topics they care about, think hard about their writing, emulate real writers, and transcend whatever writing test is in vogue at the moment. Reading assignments ask students to respond like human beings interacting with an author and text rather than students answering textbook questions. Students are told to notice things, to ask good questions, and to view the text through a variety of lenses. The focus in all great writing and reading assignments is not student assessment, but student learning.
Choice of moments - Great teachers are aware of "the teachable moment," and when to allow a class to take a detour. They are also aware of when a lesson, activity, or assignment isn't working, and when to move on to something else. This may be one of the most important choices a teacher makes.
Choice of flow - Every unit of time that you can break teaching into has a flow. A class period has a flow: how it begins, how it progresses, how it ends. So does week, a unit, a quarter, a school year. A year needs to flow on multiple levels: writing skills, reading skills, themes/concepts/ideas; thinking skills. My 8th grade year, for instance, has Power as its main theme. It begins with the power of personal voice and has students read personal essays by a variety of authors, from Robert Fulghum, to Dave Barry, to Jane Smiley. We observe how authors organize ideas, use details, make sentences flow. This works as both reading and writing instruction. Students keep journals about topics they care about, write exercises to practice specific writing skills. Then they write a personal essay about something they love or hate; their main instruction is to have fun writing! We then move into a unit on the power of attention, followed by the power of definition, the power of education, and the power of the media. Each unit offers more opportunities to think, read, and write, and each unit builds conceptually on the others. By the time we reach the Holocaust in the second half of the year, all of those concepts come into play as we read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Sunflower. And then all of those concepts, including concepts from the Holocaust unit, lead into a final unit about censorship and the power of words and stories that includes reading Fahrenheit 451 and writing original fiction. By the time we have finished, students have written many essays, stories, and poems; they have also been given insights about life that they can carry forward with them into their lives.
The examples I have given from my class are specific to me. But the choices I've listed are universal to teachers - unless they aren't allowed to make any. There are many different, creative choices that teachers can make. I suspect that these kinds of teacher choices could be applied to any subject area. But great teaching is always based on the choices teachers make, and the choices they offer their students. With that in mind, here is what the education reform movement has done to teacher choices.
Choice of framing/context/essential questions - Themes and essential questions are provided by the textbook, and then placed on the curriculum map. If you have better, different themes that will work for your students, forget it. This set of choices has been eliminated.
Choice of words/texts/books - The textbook makes the text choices for you, and the curriculum mapping committee for your district or school makes more specific choices for required texts. Everything is aligned to the standards, but especially to the standards that will be covered on the test. You are supposed to teach these texts because they are in the book, they are on the map, and they will teach a standard or set of standards. This set of choices has been eliminated.
Choice of images/activities/exercises/learning tasks - The curriculum map enforces which tasks and activities teachers will be offering to students, and therefore limits their way of thinking about them. If your department or Professional Learning Community isn't doing it, you shouldn't be either. This set of choices has been eliminated.
Choice of moments - The teachable moment, the opportunity that arises from this group of students, or this student, on this day, and could possibly change their whole view of learning, of the subject, of life, is now frowned upon. Pacing guides try to ensure that everyone is on the same page on the same day at the same time. In some schools, administrators want to see virtually identical things going on in each class. This set of spontaneous choices has been eliminated.
Choice of flow - Curriculum maps and pacing guides determine the flow of your year, as does the testing schedule. Everything is supposedly designed to raise test scores. If you want to move units or assignments around, or replace units with topics that will be more interesting, meaningful, and relevant to your students, you are considered a "rogue" teacher. You must do what everyone else is doing so we all get the same results. This set of choices has been eliminated.
So if you want to be a great teacher, you are forced to go up against the very system that is supposedly designed to assist you in being a great teacher.
I am willing to "go rogue." I have tenure. I have managed to find administrators who support me in my choices as a teacher. And I remember when teaching was a profession and you were encouraged to make professional choices. I don't buy the bill of goods they are trying to sell me.
Here is what I see happening now, though. Teachers who are coming into the profession often don't know there is any other way to teach. They aren't aware that there are even choices involved. And if they decided to make choices that weren't allowed, they could be fired at any time.
As I pointed out at the start of this post, teaching, whether it's great, mediocre, or ineffective, is really a series of choices. Great teaching is really just a series of great choices. But all the choices are being made for teachers. Because the system doesn't want great teachers. It wants compliant, obedient teachers. I can't help but wonder - is the system setting us up to fail? I suspect you know the answer.