What is good teaching?

 

The first assignment for one of my doctoral classes this semester is to write a 2-3 page paper on the following: What is good teaching? 

It is meant to be a short, casual way for our cohort to get to know each other better and dig into how we want to explore this idea together.

My assignment seems less like a paper and more like a stream of consciousness…


 

This Way is Easier: On Good Teaching

“Tell me about your strategy, Alex.”

“Well, I looked at the problem [5×8] and decided to add the numbers.”

“Hmm…how did you come to that decision?”

“I know what you’re thinking. That I’m supposed to multiply.”

“Well…“

“I know I should use a multiplication strategy but it’s too hard for me right now. So I’m just gonna add. I know I won’t get the exact answer.  That’s okay.  This way is easier. And at least I’ll have an answer to share.”

                                                                                                     La Puente, CA – 2002

 

This was my first year of teaching and I was stumped.  How could I respond to his logic?  How could I argue for the hard way over the easy one?  After over a decade of classroom teaching, I know that every teacher has had some version of the above dialogue…many, many times. While it can be frustrating, it is also endearing and understandable. Sometimes students take matters into their own hands, opting for what is easier even when they know it will not help them get the answer they might want or think they are expected to achieve.

In fact, while we grin thinking about our students who have taken the “easy route”, we might start to cringe as we realize that researching “good teaching” has often led us to the same uncomfortable end.  We know that it is hard. That it is complicated.  That it will take us a long time and feel messy and hurt our heads.  So we follow Alex’s lead and opt for using measures that are easier: formulas, checklists and handy lists that while helpful and instructive, are not exactly…whole.  We know they give us data that is either incomplete or inconclusive.  We know that they might not work in different contexts.  Or even in the same context a month later. In fact, we even know that we do not even fully understand what we are trying to research…what this “good teaching” is anyways.  We know how much of the world sees it – good test scores. Yet we know this is not the whole story.  But like Alex, we smile sheepishly and respond, “That’s okay.  This way is easier. And at least I’ll have an answer to share.”

Because if we say what we really think, what is in our heart of hearts about teaching, we would come across as vague or mysterious or the all dreaded fear of teachers, “inarticulate.” After all, we want to say that it is human relationships and connections that make for good teaching. We work, after all, with people.  Complex, multidimensional, perfectly imperfect people, who, like their earliest ancestors, want to be understood for who they are and not just what they can do. Social psychologists have been telling us this for decades – as have thousands of years of stories in both the oral and written form.  We want to say that good teaching is about creating space for students to learn about themselves so that they are curious about the world around them and seek out information that both comes from across the world and from within their quiet reflective mind.  Neuroscientists have been arguing that learners who understand themselves and their needs as learners will not only “perform better” in school but will also feel more successful.  And we want to say that it is about nurturing a community where students can walk in their own shoes with their heads held high and therefore walk in the shoes of their classmates and others.

I want to say all of these things because like every teacher, there are layers to my assumptions and “professional upbringing” that splatter across my perceptions of this nebulous good teaching.  Coming from a family of educators who attended school both under British colonialism and in order to defeat British colonialism, it has been infused into my soul that education is a form of oppression as well as liberation.  This is a part of me that remains the foundation of my worst fears and my highest hopes for education no matter how many layers get added on. It is what has led me to only work in Title I schools and to only teach where I live so that I am connected to my students as human beings. Human beings. We teach human beings and not subjects and thus “good teaching” should reflect this humanity – both of our students as well as ourselves.

Our hearts beam as we imagine a world where teachers are evaluated along these lines rather than on a poorly created single test taken on a single day.  But when we start to unpack how exactly we might do this, we might sigh as our minds wander and start to think of a more human approach to understanding good teaching. After all, we have been marinated and steeped in a cauldron that boils down our very profession to a handful of characteristics or actions despite the fact that like the teachers in Ladson-Billings’ work, we see our work as “artistry, not a technical task that could be accomplished in a recipe-like fashion.”

Yes, it is hard. Yes, it will be messy work. But if we truly see our profession as the layered masterpiece which as Schulman points out, encompasses the intellectual, practical, emotional and moral (and so much more) then we owe it to ourselves and our students to take on this work, as I hope we can explore together.  And yes, we will struggle and we will sigh and we will have many moments, like Alex, where we will want to temporarily take the easier detour.  For a moment. And then we will remind each other that human beings are not easy and that our work is not easy.  But it is beautiful. And full of layers. And overwhelmingly invigorating. So we will keep discussing, keep learning, keep standing up for what is right for our students and continue on our meandering, twisted, glorious path.

 

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