It is never acceptable to operate from the place of assumptions in the teaching and learning process, and yet it is challenging to avoid generalizations in the context of predictable patterns. Consider the following scenarios:
- The fourth grade team is upset because many parents are not stepping up to help their kids at home. The return of parent signatures, parent forms, parent checks indicating they are monitoring and supportin homework is abysmal. The team grumbles during their team meeting about how uncaring and unsupportive today’s parents have become. Principal Johnston listens for some time and then stops the group by stating, “I just want you to know that you are talking about me. I am that uninvolved parent. It isn’t that I don’t care. I care deeply about my children’s success. But my kids need to be the ones to do their homework and I return home each night with stacks of my own work to do. It isn’t that I don’t want to be there for them or won’t help them in difficult moments: it’s that I am a working parent with a full time job and my kids need to use homework to independently practice the applications of what they learned in school so that they can figure out what they know and what they still struggle to understand as they prepare for the tests and projects that will help them make sense of their learning.”
- Principal Chard decides the school’s pyramid of interventions must not be working as there are way too many ‘repeat offenders’ showing up in homework lunch (a sort of lunch detention for learners who are missing assignments). She decides to speak one-on-one with the repeat homework lunch students so she can challenge them to change their habits. She approaches one 8th grade girl, Josephine, and begins her conversation with observation that Josephine is always in homework lunch and that was never meant to be a practice that was habit forming. Principal Chard then follows her observation with the assertion that she expects to see if Josephine get herself out of homework lunch soon. To her surprise, Josephine looks visibly shaken, almost distressed. Determined to take a firm stand, the principal then asks why Josephine isn’t getting her homework completed as required. Josephine tells her she gets all of her homework done and she gets good grades, but she chooses to put herself in homework lunch because it is the only place where she can think quietly while completing her work and she uses that space in advance of homework deadlines to make certain that she leaves school with everything done because when she gets home, she knows she will not have the time to complete her work. She is worried that if she can no longer go to homework lunch, she will fall behind.
- Mr. Albers is upset because today is yet another day in which Marcus has incomplete work. In exasperation, he drops a sarcastic remark and then a demand that Marcus meet him in the hallway where he proceeds to lecture the young man on offending him as a teacher by not taking his homework seriously. To his surprise, Marcus crumbles and confesses that while he wants to do well and he always tries to complete his homework, his evenings are consumed with acting as the parent in his apartment for his younger siblings who need meals and baths, homework help and bedtimes. He simply cannot stay focused, or even awake for that matter, by the time he can get to his own work.
- Ms. Ramthun is exasperated that Solomon is seemingly off task yet again. He’s talking, laughing, and apparently disrupting his friends. It looks as if nothing is getting accomplished in their group. Ms. Ramthun approaches and reprimands Solomon at which point Solomon’s friends interject on his behalf to let Ms. Ramthun know that it might look like they are off task because they are having fun, but in truth, Solomon is using humor to help them relearn the lesson and complete the task at hand. Distrusting, Ms. Ramthun peppers Solomon with clarifying and challenging questions and to her surprise, he answers them with accuracy and depth.
And that’s the way it goes with teaching. In our most assured moments, we can quickly be undone. Can we ever really be sure we have it exactly right?
Teaching involves taking risks, making mistakes, experiencing triumphs, navigating dreads, and keeping hope. Interestingly, learning – on the other side of the teaching equation – requires the very same things: taking risks, making mistakes, experiencing triumphs, navigating dreads, and keeping hope.
As educators – administrators and teachers – we change lives. Our words and our actions can be as hope-giving as they can be hope-dashing. Teaching is a challenging profession, chock-a-block full of such paradoxes:
As educators, we must have conviction while remaining open to acquittal. We must model excellence while making mistakes. We must establish order while inciting the chaos of learning. We must discipline with caring. The list is endless.
If we are open to their instruction, learners can teach us as much about ‘teaching’ as we can offer them about what they are to be learning. In his study of masterful teachers, researcher and meta-analyst John Hattie (Visible Learning, 2009) noted that the most masterful teachers might not always give the specific feedback they believe they are giving, but they always avail themselves to the learners’ feedback:
“The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students – they typically did not, although they made claims that they did it all the time, and most of the feedback they did provide was social and behavioral. It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged – then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful. Feedback to teachers helps make learning visible” (173).
If teachers remain open to it, the passing back and forth of the ‘teaching baton’ offers a treasure trove rich with learning and, inevitably, compassion. Ours is to seek first to understand, before we strive to be understood. Each learner, each instructional moment has its own special key; ours is to find the key and unlock the treasure therein. Ours is to unlock the magic of each child. Ours is to learn from the mystery of each moment. Ours is to love the journey, cherish the learners, and marvel in our own opportunities to learn along the way.
In his book, Visible Learning, Hattie sums it up like this: “The theme throughout this book is that the beliefs and conceptions held by teachers need to be questioned — not because they are wrong (or right) but because the essence of good teaching is that teachers’ expectations and conceptions must be subjected to debate, refutation, and investigation. Only then can there be major improvements in student achievement. (239 – 40).
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. NY: Routledge.