I had a conversation yesterday that disturbed me. “The problem with teaching is a lack of respect,” I was told. I assumed this person meant a lack of respect for the profession of teaching. But I was wrong. He was suggesting that the poor behavior of kids today was because the kids lack respect for their teachers. He described how, when he was a boy, students would stand up straight, next to their desks when the teacher entered the room, greet the teacher in unison and then wait until they were told to sit down. I remember that too – but not fondly. That wasn’t respect. It was obedience, often without thought and regardless of how the students felt about the teacher. An iron rule will achieve that kind of obedience for even a loathed teacher. It has little to do with respect.
Within the same school, with kids allocated basically at random to different teachers, I have seen some teachers able to have students eating out of their hands, while another has them cursing and throwing objects around the room. What’s the difference? The students are pretty much the same in both classrooms. The difference is the teacher. I recall walking into a grade three classroom where every child was head down, working quietly on some project or other. I looked for the teacher – she wasn’t there. Down the hallway I had had to put a teacher’s assistant in a classroom in order to help the classroom teacher maintain a semblance of order so the kids could learn.
I’m tired of hearing that the kids are the problem. We have always had difficult kids. In the past, order was maintained with the strap and with fear. Kids feared teachers, the principal, and their parents if word got home of misbehavior. Much of that fear has gone and some teachers struggle with finding something to replace it.
What is it that some teachers do in challenging classrooms filled with kids from difficult backgrounds? It really comes down to a small number of powerful, practical strategies. These teachers have clearly established routines. They are consistent and they do what they say will do. Their kids know explicitly what is expected of them and they know what success will look like. Above all this, these teachers know how to engage their kids in activities that grab their intellects, their senses and their emotions.
They also know that if they can effectively teach their students how to think skillfully, they will be able to approach everything that goes on in the classroom from an intelligent, thoughtful point of view. By teaching the behaviors that characterize thoughtful, successful people their students will know how to listen with empathy, to manage their impulsivity, to think and work interdependently.
Where do our teachers learn all this? In my experience teacher education programs today offer very little explicit teaching about the HOW of teaching. They focus on the WHAT. Some of our teachers, those who have completed the short course teacher preparation programs, have only demonstrated that they were good learners. They are then sent into schools where, with the support of teacher mentors, they are expected to learn all these things by watching them in action. That assumes two things – that they will see the best examples of how teaching can be done, and that the teacher mentors have the time to spend with them, to educate them in their profession. Those who complete longer professional preparation programs are still often short changed in the pedagogical education they need to be effective teachers with their first class.
How effective was your preparation to be a teacher? Did it teach you how to teach or were you expected to learn most of it ‘on the job’? How would you feel if your surgeon, your accountant or your motor mechanic learned the techniques of his trade ‘on the job’, just by watching someone else do it? Would you be happy to be one of his first patients or clients?
As we tinker away with curriculum and assessment and as we advocate for better facilities and more technology, let’s not forget that the greatest influence on student achievement is none of these.
The most important factor is the teacher. Improving teacher education may be a long term solution, but it’s the only one that will make a difference.