So THATS what good teaching looks like.

This year I have been spending one day a week at an elementary school as part of my administrative credential program. At first I was a bit apprehensive; I am a high school teacher, I have no interest or knowledge in the k-8 world. I have found the experience to be very interesting. I am learning a lot about elementary schools, and I am learning a lot about younger students. It turns out that they are not so scary after all. 

Last week a math teacher asked me if I would please come by her room and observe her lesson because she wanted to hear my feedback. So this week the Principal and I dropped by the room for an observation. I realized that in 18 years of teaching I had never sat in another teachers classroom to specifically look at teaching, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was stunned. Not only had I never seen teaching like that, I had never even imagined this level of good teaching! I had a hard time taking notes because I was so fascinated with how she was managing the class. Strategy after strategy being employed without so much as a moments pause. It was like the whole hour was perfectly planned, scripted, and rehearsed. I had never seen such a thing. 

I left the school that day not feeling very good about myself. In comparing my teaching with what I had seen in the math classroom I could only come to one conclusion; I suck. I consider myself a very reflective teacher. I think about how every lesson goes, and how I can improve the lesson next time. I do a lot of professional development, almost all of it on my own dime. I go to conferences and workshops, I use Twitter and G+, and yes, I read blogs. So how is it I could go this long without ever seeing really really good teaching?

When I started teaching (yes, it was actually in the last century) the profession was really one of individuals. We went in our rooms and closed the door. We did not have high standards for our performance. My first Principal told me on my very first day in the classroom “If no one bleeds you are doing good.” We did not collaborate, and we NEVER acknowledged that  another teacher was better than oneself. In the last few years we have started to collaborate and we have some levels of accountability. But we don’t have a system of identifying really good teachers, and learning from them. Until this week I didn’t realize we needed one.

The teacher desk

The Saga of My Teacher Desk.

At the close of the last school year the decision was made that I would change rooms. The old room I was in was a computer lab with rows of fairly new tables designed for computers. It looked really nice for the casual observer; nice straight rows of tables, comfortable rolling chairs with a computer in front of each one. It looked great, but it didn’t work great.

The tables themselves contained conduit for all the cables for the computers. It made managing cables easy, but it meant the tables were locked in place. They couldn’t be moved to make a more convenient layout. When the kid in the far corner had a question, I could not get there to help. Literally. I couldn’t fit down the row with all of the students sitting at their work stations. You  can imagine what it means to class management, much less instruction, when the students know the teacher can not get to a particular part of the room! So I jumped at the chance to move to a new room with tables that I can put anywhere I wanted.

I took the first step by sending my students to the new room to decorate it. They sorted through mountains of student work to come up with good exemplars, and arranged them on the walls to their liking. I kept authority over where the tables went, but the kids did everything else. They wanted me to tell them where the teacher desk needed to be. “Over by the phone” some said. “No, by the window would be better” said others. Finally I said to put it right where it is, in the old room.

I left the desk in the old room because I found that I spent too much time sitting at it. If I am sitting at my desk I am not helping kids with their work. To do that I need to be near their work, at the students’ work stations, not mine. It has been 7 weeks of being desk-less, and I can say my classes are much better. Kids are more engaged, in part I think, because I am more engaged. I do not have a desk to retreat to, so I am teaching by wandering around. I don’t miss the desk, but my feet are sure more tired! 

Lets go to the library.

A question was asked at a staff meeting a few weeks ago that got me really thinking: should we require our freshmen to do their research without the Internet? The point was made that a professor at a local state university requires students to do research from books AND requires the students to actually produce the books! Of course no one could name the alleged old school professor, but several teachers were adamant the story is true, and that we need to prepare our students for the eventual requirement of this one professor. Even with Google students still need to know the Dewey Decimal system, a teacher offered.

I shook my head and listened, I wanted to really hear what my colleagues were saying. It seemed to me that these teachers love books, thick paper books, and they are concerned that students are being deprived of developing that love. They want students to be able to USE books. They want our freshmen to all go to the library and do a research paper using only books.
I pointed out that we have a very small library. There is no subject that we have near enough books that a handful of students could use as a source for a research paper, let alone ALL of the freshmen. In fact, ten years ago I was arguing that we needed Internet for the school because we could not afford to sufficiently stock a library. Sure there is a branch library just ten or so blocks away. But does anyone really want to spend the time it would realistically take to walk these students to the library and then teach them to use it? Just the walking time alone would be a huge time commitment, let alone the teaching time.
I pointed out that I had recently completed my masters degree and never went to a library the whole time. I used many, many books. A few of them I bought, but most I did not; I used online versions. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I was in a library. And I love books. Why in the world would we spend huge amounts of time to teach kids to research with paper books? For ONE alleged possible future professor?
A teacher asked me at lunch today if I thought if e-textbooks would ever really catch on. It was clear that she had been thinking about the library. And her struggles with technology. She confided that she hates lessons that involve computers. She never knows what will work and what won’t work. She doesn’t know what to do about it when things don’t work, and she has no one to turn to for help. She calls me, but she knows I have classes too, and simply can’t come help her.
So it seems the whole issues is not really about using books or not using books. It is about having reliable tools. Books are reliable. They usually don’t break. When they do break everyone knows what to do about it-get another book. It seems we put a bunch of computers in classrooms and didn’t consider what to do when they break. And teachers don’t like that.