Sunday, January 08, 2017

Week 3: What makes a good teacher?

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou's words resonate with me, especially when I think about the teachers I have encountered over the years - as a student, a parent and as a fellow educator. In last week's reflection I talked about my two most memorable teachers - one whom terrified me and the other whom I loved. These memorable moments in my education were not created due to lesson plans or set curricula, and I don't remember particular things they said or did, but rather I remember the way these teachers made me feel - about myself and school in general.

And so, this week, when asked to reflect upon, What makes a good teacher? my initial response is to say teaching is about the capacity to build relationships. I know however that this is a simplistic reaction from the heart, in reality teaching is more than any one person's personality and skill set as it is takes place in the real world, within a sea of complex issues. Everything from the country in which we teach and the socio-economic backgrounds of our students to our own ideas about what education is meant to be and the philosophy of the school have an impact on the way we approach teaching and learning. So, where does one begin in responding to this type of reflective prompt?

Our lectures this week in What Future for Education? centred around interviews with Professor Alex Moore, author of The Good Teacher. He did not believe this was a question we can answer and quoted Deborah Britzman saying that teaching ' an ongoing, endless process of becoming.' He suggests we would be better served focusing on good teaching and what this entails rather than thinking there is one archetypal good teacher we should all strive to be. In his book, Professor Moore refers to three discourses, or ways of understanding, what a good teacher should be: The competent craftsperson, the charismatic teacher, and the reflective practitioner.

The use of criteria to assess teaching performance is very common and if you are an educator you have no doubt encountered such tools. Often they will use rubrics to classify teachers from novice to master in a series of different competencies, such as planning and preparation, the classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities.1 While there is nothing wrong with wanting to clearly articulate some of the many skills that are important to teaching, there is a tendency by some to think that if all of these skills are in place then you are there - the Master Teacher - no need to learn anything new. It also infers that that is all there is to being an effective teacher, as set of skills that once mastered makes you a good teacher. This discourse does not usually include qualities like empathy and kindness, but rather focuses on measurable skills such as communication and student management.

The discourse of the charismatic teacher is most popular in film and television depictions. These teachers connect with students and understand them, which in turn engages the students and enables them to learn and achieve. While this idea has merit in the necessity of teachers to try and know their students, to appreciate their individual needs and the context in which they live, Professor Moore believes this to be a dangerous discourse as it seems to suggest that a good teacher (or good school) can 'fix' any of society's problems. It can perpetuate a notion of a 'saviour teacher' who will reach the deprived children and make everything alright. The other problem he notes with this discourse is that new teachers who try to be like these types of teachers will not succeed and be left feeling inadequate.

Moore's last discourse is the Reflective Practitioner. This is the discourse I am most comfortable with as it aligns with the idea that teachers are lifelong learners who are continually striving to become better at what they do and have a positive impact on their students. While this discourse is gaining ground, and as an IB PYP teacher, reflection is an integral part of my practice, Professor Moore notes that we need to be careful when we define what reflection actually means. Often, teachers are asked to reflect as an evaluative process at the end of a lesson or a unit, but are not given the time to carefully consider what this means and how they might do things differently to improve next time. In order for reflection not to become another checkbox at the end of teaching, it must be 'future-oriented'. Meaningful reflection should focus on what we are going to do differently next time and what will the impact of this be on student learning.

In The Good Teacher, Moore suggests that we need to take reflective practice and develop it further into what he calls, reflexive teaching. Reflexivity asks us to challenge our assumptions and think about teaching and learning within a wider context, the complexity of the classroom and society. Challenging assumptions is a very difficult thing and cannot be done alone, the need for collaboration as a part of reflexive practice is paramount. Being a reflexive teacher asks us to be open and honest about what we do and how we interact with students. It challenges us to face our assumptions and to focus on the needs of our students. It is a process of becoming, a continual evolution, there is no end point.

What makes a good teacher? Well, it is quite obvious that I am drawn to the discourse of the reflexive (or reflective) practitioner. One of the great assets of working in an IB school is the central role of the Learner Profile in all that we do. I believe when we talk about good teachers, we can turn to these attributes as a framework to assist our reflections.

Good teachers strive to be:
Inquirers - continuing to learn about teaching and learning, researching and wondering about their craft, sharing their enthusiasm for learning with their colleagues and students.
Knowledgeable - about their subject, about issues and the world in which they and their students live.
Thinkers - using critical and creative thinking to design learning engagements that will engage and challenge students; analysing students' learning to assist with their next steps;
Communicators - who listen to students and provide clear feedback for learning; they share their insights with students, parents and colleagues.
Principled - treating students, colleagues and parents with respect and dignity; act with integrity and honesty, and treat students fairly.
Open-minded - they appreciate that their students and families come from diverse cultures and backgrounds and are open to leaning from different points of view; while understanding themselves and their own beliefs are will to grow from colleagues' different approaches and ideas.
Caring - they see their students as whole people and care for their well-being. They show empathy, compassion and respect to students, parents and colleagues.
Risk-takers - approach uncertainty with confidence and are willing to explore new ideas and innovative strategies; they integrate appropriate technologies into their practice, even when they are not experts in its use.
Balanced - maintaining a work-life balance to achieve well-being for themselves and others; modelling for students the importance of caring for all aspects of their lives and our interdependence on others and the world in which we live.
Reflective - being objective in self-assessing our practice and learning from it; becoming aware of our strengths and weaknesses in order to improve and, as a result, have a positive impact on student learning.

I want to be a good teacher and I know this will be an ongoing process. I do not expect to ever arrive at an end point, declaring, I am done, I am now the best teacher I can be. Rather, I see becoming a good teacher as a journey with series of pit-stops along the way to reflect on my practice and its impact on others. Our school has been focusing on the mantra, Know thy impact, which is a fitting way to begin 2017. I hope in ten years time my students will look back an remember our time together with a smile. I hope they remember that I cared about them and shared my enthusiasm for learning.

1 These examples are the domains outlined in the Framework for Teaching by The Danielson Group.

1 comment:

Simon Gregg said...

Thanks Jennifer for a thought-provoking post. In fact, my mind has been wandering back to it during the day. Moore's book makes a good distinction there between different types of 'good teaching', and like you I go for the reflexive or reflective. I would always been wondering 'how do we know?' with the idea of teaching as a set of tools, and I'm not charismatic!

Part of what I've been wondering is, how is reflection motivated and given form? I think it's hard to do on your own. I've been lucky on twitter and blogs to find lots of people with really interesting things to say about primary/elementary mathematics that have really made me think a lot about how I teach, and try lots of new things. But not everyone has that. Where do you go to help you look at your teaching?