Teaching Teachers, Part I

This first post exposes that I’m grappling with what this blog should be and do, and to whom I think I’m writing exactly.

I’m a second-year faculty member at an urban community college that has over 20,000 students. I was never told how to teach these students and I don’t know what made anyone think I could.

Writing a 200-page dissertation does not prepare someone to be a teacher. Current and former Ph.D. candidates realize this once we start teaching, usually early in graduate school, when we have to reconcile the fact that we’ve been given full control over a 15-week course (or two, or three) that we’re to guide students through “on the side” of the “real” work of finishing our degrees. Ideally, we’ll put our heads down, ignore that we’re part of a higher education system that is built on the assumption that “knowing” precedes teaching, rather than the other way around, and we’ll just get to the finish line, panting and waving our diplomas like so many white flags of surrender.

In these posts, I’m trying to give myself the education I didn’t get during eight years in graduate school.

Hopefully some of this writing will be fun, too. Sir Ken Robinson has some fun with professors around the 9:30 minute mark of his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” They’re “disembodied,” he says, in a literal way: “they look upon their bodies as a form of transport for their heads; it’s a way of getting their heads to meetings.” I love that vision. It’s true. Maybe this blog is a study in how not to become a floating head.

Yesterday, at the end of two stop-and-start weeks of classes punctuated by Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah, I was listening to “Teaching Teachers,” part of a series of radio documentaries on K-12 and higher education produced by American RadioWorks. The documentary–just under an hour–included audio from the footage one researcher was collecting from eighth grade math classrooms across the United States. He was trying to chip away at a big question: how do American math teachers teach–what are they doing, really?

Peaking into teachers’ preparation methods and practices in this way challenges the widely-held assumption that talented teachers are born rather than made. There’s still a skill set involved in teaching that needs to learned and practiced, even if someone already possesses all the personality traits and native intelligence that would seem to make a master teacher. To start, Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan–where they are reforming notions of teacher training–has emphasized the importance of a mental shift that teachers have to endure: “What you do when you’re teaching is you think about other people’s thinking. You don’t think about your own thinking; you think what [HOW] other people think. That’s really hard.” Yup — especially when you’ve selected readings, created a lesson plan, and written out assignment sheets, all while eating dried mango and listening to Coltrane while alone in a room with your laptop. It’s not that this preparation can be thrown out the window, but this stage of the process is fundamentally removed from what we experience and what our students experience when we all find ourselves in a room trying to do things together.

While in the United States teaching is not thought of as requiring extensive training (not in the way that, let’s say, lawyers or doctors receive rigorous pre-professional and professional training) this isn’t the case in other countries, like Japan where, once teachers receive a formal degree certifying them to teach, they still need to spend ten years in the classroom before they are considered “good” teachers. As teachers move from newly minted to “good” (experienced, attentive, thoughtful, and flexible) they practice what the Japanese public schools call “lesson study”… and they do it over and over and over again.

Lesson study requires teachers to prepare a lesson collaboratively with other teachers. Then they invite other colleagues come into the classroom to watch the lesson unfold. This is not an “observation” of the teacher, where the end goal is evaluating his or her performance; rather, this is an observation of a method, one that has been carefully planned in advance and is being tested with students. The irony behind this brilliantly slowed down and disciplined approach to pedagogy? Apparently the Japanese learned this from visiting American classrooms in the 80s. How is it, thirty years later, that we don’t know what we apparently already know? Why has this engaged kind of lesson study not made it into practice?

Maybe part of the answer is that there’s a general lack of curiosity about the institutional knowledge that’s available to us. Listening to “Teaching Teachers,” I was struck by the fact that I have come from a family of teachers and I was raised by a woman who spent her 35-year career teaching middle school Spanish in the New York City Public School System. Yet I cannot remember a single time I’ve asked my mother about her experience teaching. Have I heard stories about her best students? Her worst? Her friendships with colleagues? Teachers who have been sent to the “rubber room”? Her union reps? All of that, sure. But I have never once asked her about the experiences that shaped her as a teacher, what she hoped she would achieve with particular lessons and what she did next when those hopes were realized or fell short. I’ve never asked her if she knew she was doing it right, or about when she feared she was doing it wrong.

I’m going to put that challenge to myself–to start with the resources closest to me. I’ll report back in my next post.

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