Teaching and Learning

I’m just back from a technology conference, and I feel as though I should have something significant to say about technology. I did learn a lot at the conference, but most of what I learned has very little to do with computers.

I had a great conversation with an ethics teacher from a Catholic school about how to talk to students about cheating on tests (his advice was, essentially, to worry less about preventing cheating outright than about making it clear to kids that, if they cheated, that was conscious choice). I got some exciting new ideas about tinkering and putting kids to work with found objects. I heard a lot of anecdotes about how people review and how they generate energy in their classrooms. But I’m not quite sure how any of this fits into the picture of technology.

I did learn some new tricks for my computer–who knew that PhotoBooth could serve as a green screen? I played with various programs meant to facilitate group brainstorming, one of which I will probably put to use in my classroom. I didn’t, however, hear anything that fundamentally changes the way I’m going to use computers  or iPads or the Internet in my class this year.

I’m still really glad I went. The thing I’m going to take away from this conference is not anything about the tools I use, so much as it is the joy of spending two days with a group of teachers for whom it is axiomatic that we can all make our teaching better. That time just talking about teaching is what I really crave.

To often, when teachers talk at lunch or around the coffee machine, it’s about the logistical issues of our lives: the time taken up by assemblies, the work of grading, some student getting on everybody’s nerves. Too often, when we do talk about making teaching better, teachers jump to the conclusion that that means there’s something wrong.

I’ve been thinking about why that is. Some of it is that our lives are very, very busy during the school year: making time to think about teaching in the abstract can seem laughable when your immediate priority is to grade 15 essays before the start of F Block. I wonder if we can build conversations about teaching–how and why, not just what–into the day-to-day fabric of the school, so that the cost is not so high.

There’s another thing that keeps teachers from talking about the things closest to their heart, though, and that’s fear.  Teaching is an intensely personal thing, a relationship that grows between us and our students.  For most of us, it is a calling–something we do because we think it makes the world better, not just to earn a paycheck.  It is, in a strange way, a lonely thing:  although teachers spend all day interacting with students, colleagues, parents and administrators, we do the core of our work in isolation from our colleagues, alone in a room with our students. We rarely see each other work.  For all these reasons, criticism of one’s teaching can be painful, and, for the same reasons, it’s easy to be critical of each other.

I hear sweeping pronouncements about other people’s teaching all the time.  We say, “X is really good at classroom management,” or “Y is too positivist.”  It is rare to hear a teacher praised, not for what he is, but for what he is trying to do.  What would our schools be like if we spent more time saying “Y is thinking a lot this year about the way her students view discussion,” or “what I like about X is how thoughtful he has been lately about fact acquisition and retention.”

This should sound familiar to teachers:  it’s growth mindset, right?  But while we are all mindful these days of the way in which thinking of learning as a process that never ends and ourselves as able to control our travels on that path is good for our students, we seem to be forgetting all of that when we consider our own teaching. What would our schools be like if we truly all saw each other as constantly growing in the art of teaching?

It is this growth that makes  teaching exciting to me in the first place. I chose it because it is a challenge I think I will never reach the end of. To me, saying, “We’re all experienced teachers.  We don’t need to spend time talking about it,” makes about as much sense as Picasso saying, “I know how to control a paintbrush, so I don’t need to spend time thinking about the work of other artists.” We’re just getting to the fun part.


That is why I teach, because it is a field which I can never exhaust (although sometimes, like today, it exhausts me).


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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