Last year I took on a student teacher, meaning a college student working towards his education degree, for two weeks. He was being mentored by my colleague next door who teaches 11th grade. His college program required him to teach a unit to a lower grade, so he stopped by for a cup of coffee with one of my freshman classes.
Before he taught his unit, he had to observe me teach the class for two weeks. As many of you know, my teaching style is very traditional. It has inaccurately been dubbed “lecture” or “chalk and talk” by some. This is because my students sit in rows as I stand up and ask questions. With every question we answer, we fill in another part of what are dubbed “Harvard style” notes that I compile on the board. By the end of the period, we have several boards full of pretty detailed notes. These notes answer an aim question that usually begins with the word “how”, like “How did the Renaissance begin in Italy?” or “How did Athens change during the Age of Pericles?” In my world, this is called an old-fashioned developmental lesson.
A few days before my temporary student-teacher started his unit, I asked him how he intended to teach it. He had some activities and questions lined up. Since he had been working with my colleague for quite some time, I did not micromanage what he had prepared. He was developing a style with which he was comfortable and I wanted to see him test it out with a different group of kids learning a different curriculum.
During his first day teaching my class, I sat in the back and took notes on what I was seeing. Whenever I take on a student teacher, I write copious notes while they are in the front of the room running the show. I take note of what happens every second. My hand is usually shot after 50 minutes of continuous writing.
After the period, we sat down to do a post-mortem of the lesson. As is my custom, I asked what he thought about it before I shared my observations. On this particular occasion, I do not remember what he said about his lesson, nor do I remember what I had written about it. What I do remember was his reaction when he found out what I had to say. It probably went something like this:
“The first question you asked was good. Notice how you received mainly one-word answers from the students. Perhaps you should have turned this question into a ‘why’ question. Never be afraid to give them the answer and then ask them why.”
“Remember when so-and-so raised his hand and said that? You basically just glossed over it and moved on. But he made a good point that you could have seized upon. You should praise the students when they participate and build off of what they say. There is a grain of truth in most things they share. If you can’t find the grain of truth, maybe ask the class what they think of that response.”
“Move around the room. Don’t just stand in the front. Be active. Let the students know you can be anywhere at any time.”
“The notes you wrote on the board were good but they need to be organized. Students need to know why this idea goes here and that idea goes there. There should be a logic and progression to your notes so the kids can go back over them later and understand it.”
“Look around the room. Make eye contact with every student. You don’t have to keep calling on the same 3 kids. Spread around the participation. For more advanced students, call on them when you ask a difficult thought question. For students who are shy or struggling, give them the softball questions. Make it so every kid can get involved with the lesson at different points.”
And on and on it went for the next half hour.
I remember him being surprised by how much I had observed and how detailed my observations were. Quite simply, he did not realize how much was involved in actual teaching.
When people observe my class, I think there is a tendency to believe there is nothing more to what I do than asking questions and writing notes. It is as if they believe I just roll out of bed and pull questions from certain orifices of my body, then write what the students come up with on the board. As someone who has been doing this job for nearly 15 years, it looks pretty easy from the outside.
Then, the few who actually try to take my place discover it is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Questions do not come ready-made from a can. You cannot just ask any question and get brilliant responses. Your questions have to be tailored to your kids. Students respond in my class because I make the questions easy to understand. That is not to say that the questions are easy. What it means is that the questions fit into their mental universe. They know there is an answer there but they have to go through their minds to find it. A teacher cannot do this without years of experience.
On top of this, there is the teacher mannerism. The way you look, speak, walk, move, breathe and everything else has to be an act. This does not mean it is phony. What it means is that certain mannerisms make the class run seamlessly. Praising students for great responses, or great questions, is vital. It is easy to forget to do this as a rookie teacher. After years of doing it, however, it becomes second nature. What happens when you’re in the middle of a discussion and a few kids are chatting or goofing off or somehow off task? How do you keep the lesson moving and deal with it without turning it into a “thing”? These are the types of things that separate good teachers from mediocre teachers.
What happens if a student gives a response that is totally off base? How do you fold that answer into the lesson without making the kid feel bad or derailing the discussion? After 15 years, I still get unique and interesting responses from my students. A veteran teacher has an instinct that allows them to think on their feet and use those responses to the benefit of the class.
These are all of the in-class skills of a teacher. Then there is the little matter of knowing your content. The better you know your content, the more connections you can make between lessons. You can ask better questions, present the material in a thorough and seamless manner and make it interesting all at the same time. How about creating homework assignments? How about creating exams? How about grading all of these things? How do you set up a fair grading system, leave useful written feedback and return it to the kids in a timely manner?
Yes, being a teacher is hard work. There are a few college students who have been stopping by my room this year to check out my classes. I wonder if they know what it is that they are seeing? I wonder if they appreciate all that it requires? How many of them are sitting there and saying to themselves “I can do that”? My response to everyone who might be thinking this is: no, you cannot.
One of those college students is going to be teaching a unit to my freshman in a few weeks. I wonder how things will go when it is time to take the reins. The college student I worked with last year had the advantage of having a warm, laid-back personality. It remains to be seen if this new student teacher has the same quality. If he does not, things might get rough for him.
I think the education reformers who have barely stepped inside of a classroom believe that teaching is a matter of discussing stuff with students. They do not think we work hard enough, so they have invented all of these rubrics, exams and buzz words to ensure that we are not skating to collect a check. In their years as young reformies, they probably observed many veteran teachers who made the work of educating look easy. They probably thought to themselves “I can do that” and concluded that we are a bunch of lazy union hacks who are not doing any actual work.
If I had the ability, I would force every college student who observes my class to teach it. Perhaps just one day of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and allowing them to be devoured by the sharks might preempt any idea they might have that teaching is unskilled labor. By doing this, maybe us veteran teachers can prevent the next generation of Michelle Rhees (who was such an awful teacher she had to duct tape her kids’ mouths shut), John Kings (who spent 6 minutes teaching kids cherry picked by a charter school) and Wendy Kopps (who never taught anything to anybody) from springing up among us.
Next time you walk into a classroom and see a teacher who is making it look easy, just know you are in the presence of a master who has spent countless hours and years honing every last inch of their craft.