Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Teaching Teachers Teaching

In one of his op-ed columns this week in the New York Times, Joe Nocera (with whom I often agree) wrote about the education of teachers (link to article). He based much of what he said on a recent book, Elizabeth Green's Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone, a book that will be published soon (W. W. Norton). Nocera was impressed. "The common characteristic of her main characters," he writes, "is that they have broken down teaching into certain key skills, which can be taught."

Okay. Some of this I'll grant you. Most of us can learn how to use a digital projector, how to take attendance, how to organize a room, how to prepare a syllabus, and on and on and on. I also agree that we do give beginning teachers too little help. In my own teaching memoir (Schoolboy, KindleDirect, 2012) I write quite a bit about my early-career cluelessness. I was fortunate to have some gifted veteran teachers on our faculty, and I learned (and stole) from them with greedy glee. But I could have used more help then ... no question.

But once all that's done--once the "skills" have been learned--do we now have a good--or even competent--teacher? My wife, Joyce, and I were talking about this, and she said all of this makes teacher education sound like Build-A-Bear. I told her I loved that image so much I was going to steal it--and so I have.

We like to think that teaching is so much like other things--like surgery, like managing a business (or an assembly line), like all kinds of other things, but the fact is--and I speak after having taught more than four decades in public and private schools--teaching is pretty much like nothing else. When a surgeon opens you up looking for your liver, she does not find twenty-five or thirty of them there, all as different from the others as they are alike. But a teacher does this every class period of the day.

If you're managing a business, your activities are only superficially similar to a teacher's. Yes, you have employees to deal with--but you can fire the ones who aren't doing the job, hire more effective and reliable ones. I didn't ever really have that luxury of choice in my classrooms.  Here's something I never got to say, Billy, you're fired. Go clean out your locker. (Well, I did get to say the second part of it!) And I never got to hold interviews for replacements. No, I dealt with whoever walked in my room (or, to be honest, ran in the room--or tumbled--or leapt--or whatever other movement some hormone-infused and -maddened kid felt like doing).

As I've written here before (in other contexts), remember the greatest teachers you ever had, from kindergarten through whatever. What made them great--for you? (As we know, not all teachers are great for all kids--that's why you need a variety in a school, not a stenciled cut-out.) Was it their "skills" in leading discussions or arranging the room or handling questions or coming up with cool assignments or ... ?

Not for me. It was who they were. It was their knowledge, their curiosity, their humor, their passion for their subject(s), for their profession. The great teachers in my life were not at all from a single design at Build-a-Bear. Mrs. Rockwell (fourth grade) had us dress up as characters from history, characters from the stories we were reading; she organized programs where we would sing and tell stories and recite things we'd memorized; she showed us that learning was fun. I wanted to do things in her class because of who she was.

Mr. Brunelle (high school Latin and English) seemed to know and to have read everything. He could talk about Caesar and Shakespeare and photography (his hobby and passion) and ancient and modern history and ...  And he could laugh--he loved a good pun (if there is such a thing). He taught us vocabulary, made us write what he called "themes," graded everything carefully with a red pen, talked to us from the heart, recited poems that meant something to him. He wrote in my yearbook after my somewhat disastrous junior year telling me that he believed in me. What was that worth?

Dr. Ravitz (college English professor) was a scholar, a man passionately devoted to American literature and writing. He assigned more than a dozen novels for each of his courses (try that now!), assigned essays and projects (I once had to lead a discussion about the character named Cash in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying--I am so glad this was in the era before the ubiquity of smart-phone video!).

Great teachers know that their students will not remember most of the "content" they will teach--only those things that their lives require--or that the students want to remember--or that have a personal significance. What students will remember is who was in that room--and how he or she behaved--and how that person made them feel about learning, about life, about themselves. We need to try to do all we can to lure into the profession young people who are passionate and compassionate, intelligent and interesting, curious and committed. These will become the teachers whom their students will never forget--and will ever thank.

And my wondrous colleagues throughout the decades provided eloquent evidence for the vast dimensions of teacher excellence. I worked with a teacher who brought a cow to school and had the kids take care of it, who kept the art room open every period, all day long, so that kids who were interested and had the time could come in and work--and talk, who took kids to his local farm and showed them the local history in the trees, the rocks, the ravines, who arranged annual field trips to Washington, D.C., who taught kids that music was not just an art but a discipline, one whose demands you had to respect and obey if you wanted to be any good, one who took kids to plays in Cleveland, who took kids to the Galapagos Islands over Spring Break, who had kids publish their writing in school magazines, who kept an assortment of animals in the room (from a monkey to a black snake), who made up a song that comprised all the prepositions and taught it to students, many of whom can still sing it decades later, who got kids to love to read, who sat in their classrooms over lunchtime so that kids could come in and work and talk, who organized a bike club and took kids riding all over town a couple of days a week, who sat during her "free" periods with the worst readers in the school and got them so interested in stories that they wanted to read and write their own, who taught kids computer languages in math class, who took kids to art museums, natural history museums, inventors' museums, who organized week-long camping experiences for kids, who got kids so interested in instrumental music that scores of them joined the marching band and put on weekly shows that dropped jaws throughout the football stands, who encouraged kids to enter contests in art, music, writing, foreign languages, math, who, with the kids, maintained a greenhouse alongside the school, who organized dance recitals, who organized clubs ranging in subject from leathercraft to playwriting, from fencing to knitting, who comforted those injured on the playground, soothed the broken hearts, wiped tears and noses, encouraged those who didn't really believe in themselves, who ...  I'm going to stop. This list could go on forever ...

Teaching is not walking into a room and employing a standard set of skills. It's not having students practice a specific set of "competencies." It's not testing, testing, testing ...  It's not a uniform Build-A-Bear design.

It's being a human being, one whose very presence in the room shouts so as to rattle the windows: This is what living is like! And it is a wonder!


  1. I agree. In the end, whatever the subject or grade, what we teach is who we are.