The Real Mr. Fitz: People Say We Need Great Teachers...                                                  

People Say We Need Great Teachers...

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:
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:
Let me explain how each of these applies to teaching.
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. 
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.