I attended a CityClub event, The Best Teachers for our Children, this afternoon at Town Hall (I was in that building twice in three days!). It was a panel discussion about what makes a good teacher.
The event was videotaped, webcast live, and may be available for future viewing. I would recommend watching it. The moderator was Phyllis Fletcher, a reporter from KUOW 94.9FM. The panel consisted of Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School History Teacher; Erin Jones, the Assistant Superintendent of Student Achievement, Washington State OSPI; Jonathan Knapp, Vice-President of the SEA; Margit E. McGuire, program director of the Master in Teaching Program at Seattle University; Tom Stritikus, Dean of the UW College of Education, and Deborah Wilds, President and COO of the College Success Foundation.
The first question to the panel was: What traits make a good teacher? The answers included: uses multiple ways to communicate ideas, empathy for the students' challenges, belief in the students' potential, models care and inspires care, and the ability to build relationships with the students. One panelist said: the ability to acquire teaching skills. We'll come back to that one panelist.
I listened to these six people speak for an hour and a half and, for me, it came down to this: teaching is both what you do and who you are. It is both a science and an art.
The "what you do" or science elements include classroom management techniques, instructional methods, and a whole lot of skills developed through experience and built on theory. This is the practice of teaching. People can learn how to do this. They can acquire these skills. There are a variety of ways to facilitate or expedite the acquisition of these skills, but they will be acquired almost exclusively over time working in a classroom with students. This is the trade, the nuts and bolts of teaching.
The "who you are" or art of it begins with caring about students, connecting with them, believing in them, inspiring them, and requires creativity and improvisational skills to present information through means which are responsive to individual student needs and are developed on the fly. This is what makes teaching a profession - we need to trust professional teachers to use their creativity. We need to give them license to improvise. They need to care.
Five of the six people on the panel saw it this way. They understood that while the skills were important, the humanity was essential. One person on the panel, Mr. Stritikus, focused pretty exclusively on the skills. He specifically said that he wanted to focus on Teaching, the practice, and not on the teacher, the person. He seemed to be saying: "Learn and use these techniques and you will be an effective teacher." His perspective reflected the de-professionalization of teaching and reduced it to a trade. His perspective dismisses the creative element, the human element.
I asked around and other people heard that too. I suggest you find some means of watching the event and let me know if that's what you hear.
A number of other people on the panel spoke about the need for the skills. For them, the human element was presumed so they never mentioned it. The resulting conversation, therefore, was somewhat unbalanced. Mr. Hagopian, Mr. Knapp, and Ms Jones all spoke of their incompetence when they first stood before a class and how they became much more competent when they acquired the skills - through their own formal teacher education and through experience. What was missing was the testimony from the other side. We were missing the personal history of someone who could say: "I learned all the techniques and I was good at them, but they just didn't work because, in the end, I didn't care about the kids." or the person who said "I followed the instructions for teachers and delivered the prescribed curriculum with perfect fidelity, but the kids just didn't get it."
Right now, the loudest voices - the voices that are driving the evolution of teaching - the voices with money behind them - are the ones that, like Mr. Stritikus, focus on technique and dismiss creativity. We're seeing districts who are afraid to trust their teaching staffs. They want to script the lessons, set the pace, dictate everything the teacher says and does. They might as well just videotape a perfect lesson and show it in each class. Some of them actually want to do something like that with computers. They are denying the professional elements of teaching, the creative elements, the human elements. They don't want to grant the teachers any discretion or autonomy, let alone license. They are technocrats or autocrats and they see the world through that lens. It's really sad and discouraging. I'm not sure how we can reach them and help them understand what really makes a good teacher and what really makes good teaching.