What Teachers Know

What Teachers Know
“What about the teachers unions who insist on this 19th century educational process? We take summers off because that’s when people used to farm and stuff because teachers want to go on vacation.”
Matt Lewis on Real Time with Bill Maher (7/12/13)

Working with a national non-profit on teacher leadership issues awhile back, the CEO introduced me to a young teacher leader by telling me that she gave her students five minutes to talk before beginning classroom instruction. “Genius!” he said, beaming at the teacher. “She lets kids finish their conversations before demanding their attention!”

Well…OK. It’s a useful strategy, and I’m always happy to see novice teachers develop workable ways of engaging their particular kids. But the comment speaks more to what non-teachers see as pedagogical brilliance than a truly ground-breaking idea. This was on full display in Jay Mathews’ blog Inside the Class of America’s Best Teacher, wherein he quotes–at considerable length–Rafe Esquith’s conversation with a student who wants to use the restroom.

With all due respect to Esquith, whose work I greatly admire, I’m not sure that his method of establishing bathroom routines and expectations is a) evidence that Esquith is the best teacher in America or b) workable for any other teacher. That’s the thing about the craft knowledge that teachers build with years of experience and paying attention: it’s only as good as its relevance to the kids on hand, and their relationships with the teacher.

In a follow-up column, Mathews digs deeper, letting Esquith speak passionately on the moral necessity of ignoring a lot of “clueless” reform directives. I’m on Esquith’s side here, 100%, but Mathews certainly knows that kind of teaching–context-based, tailored for the kids you teach, outside the box–is dangerous business in 2013, when federal policy now reaches into the work of the classroom. Especially if the kids you’re teaching are in a high-poverty, priority school. Step out of line, the man come and take you away. (Unless you’ve written three bestselling books, I guess.)

Contrary to what “experts” and columnists suggest, all good teachers have a lot of seat-of-the-pants knowledge, and bulging pedagogical tool bags. Unlike Matt Lewis, they understand that time away from studies–recess, for example–can consolidate learning, and often makes kids more receptive to new ideas. They know that students lose some skills over the summer–especially kids who aren’t going to computer camp or family vacations to National Parks–but may also gain some; this knowledge is why teachers structure back-to-school content review and writing assignments, why they recommend summer reading club at the library.

They’re working around an anachronism–the summer harvesting break–trying to make the most of what they’ve been handed. As for the crack about teachers’ unions? Maybe Matt Lewis ought to look at who’s sponsoring legislation to keep that ten-week summer vacation in place.

In fact, teachers know many, many ordinary things whose value is underestimated or even proscribed in the technocratic race to “improve student achievement.” It may be informal data, but it’s just as vital to being an effective, engaging teacher as knowing how to start an IV in a jumpy patient is to an ER doc, or knowing which judge is mostly likely to look compassionately on a teenage misdemeanor is to an attorney. All professions are built on this kind of craft knowledge. It’s the delivery system for the precise technical knowledge embedded in the professions.

What do teachers know? What specific classroom-based strategies and judgments make deep learning possible in your classroom? Here’s a short starter list, for me:

• How to handle an inventory of equipment and materials (in my case, music and instruments) to prolong their usefulness and put students in charge of maintenance.
• How to display and nurture genuine respect for all students, no matter what problems ride into the classroom on their shoulders.
• How to laugh. Kids are more likely to learn if you’re not presenting content as sacrosanct (and the global economy dependent on their scores) or seeing behavior infractions as insulting to the teacher rather than educative to the student. Besides, teaching is often very funny.
• How to stay organized–at least 50% of truly excellent teaching is skillful organization of materials, workspace, and especially ideas central to the subject or development level.
• How to look past students’ personal struggles as 6-year olds or teenagers, to their productive, unique adult selves.

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