Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What A Teacher Does

Yesterday, Cole's grandfather Dick arrived at school with a bag full of caterpillars, lady bug larva, and a praying mantis egg sac. It's something he has done for the school for a number of years now, and for which we're all incredibly grateful.

I then did something I rarely do, as both our 2's and 4-5's classes sat down for circle time: I showed them the "baby" insects and briefly walked them through the major stages of the lifecycle we were going to witness play out over the course of the next few weeks. In the same way that Dick is motivated by his own enthusiasm to purchase these science "kits," I was motivated by my own enthusiasm, one that was sparked when I had the chance a few summers back to "supervise" three generations of ladybugs that had taken up residence on sunflowers I was tending on the balcony of my apartment.

When I tell people I'm a teacher, I think most of them assume that this is the sort of thing I spend my day doing, instructing children on "subjects" according to some pre-determined curriculum. After all, that is both the predominate denotative and connotative definition of the word "teacher." Reflecting on yesterday, I'm not really sure why I even handled the arrival of the insects the way I did. Normally, I would have simply showed them to the kids, said, "These are/is caterpillars/larva/an egg sac," making a simple informative statement, then leaving a silence for the children to fill with either questions or their own information. And the older kids in particular, as a community, already know the basics of what I presented. I guess I can only blame my enthusiasm, which, I think is a forgivable motivation for resorting to the usually weak tea of direct instruction.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if I should stop calling myself a "teacher." I mean, if the goal of language is to communicate, the word, by and large, doesn't convey for most people an accurate idea of what it is I do. Most of my classroom day (as opposed to time spent in preparation for my classroom day) is spent in observing, making simple informational statements about the present, and leaving silent spaces for the children to do their own talking, thinking, and doing. I spend some time every day in helping children work through their conflicts and listening as they share their feelings. I keep track of our schedule. I have an eye out for hazards that I perceive to represent undue danger. I listen for violations of our rules and remind children when they have forgotten the agreements they have made with their classmates. Sometimes I even play with the children, but rarely do I engage in direct instruction which is what stands at the core of what most people understand to be the role of the teacher. 

I supposed I should also add, that I never test the children, which has sadly and increasingly become another aspect of the definition of the word "teacher."

Still, I think I'll stick with the word, even if it doesn't always mean to others what it means to me. The alternatives -- "facilitator," "guide," "games master," "coach" -- convey no more, and probably even less of the essence of what I spend my days doing than does "teacher." Those of us who work in evidence-based state-of-the-art play-based schools are part of a profession that has no true title. Perhaps someday we'll find a word to place before the real definition of what we do: "adults who spend their days hanging out with, listening to, and trying to understand and help children as they figure out their world."

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Laura Friedman said...

You are a Reflection.

Anonymous said...

So how about the kids calling you Tom? The use of titles often implies a certain expertise or respect not always afforded to the other people involved. Unless the children you teach are titled as "Student", the use of "Teacher" implies you deserve a special respect that they as children do not. Personally, I believe I learn as much from the children and parents in the classroom as they learn from me,? So who's to say who is the teacher? We all are.

Amy said...

Thank you for this post, and thank you for what you do. The 'teaching' profession needs more people like you in it.

Gary Hall said...

You're right about the word teacher being synonymous with the word tester. Its the same in the UK where I'm based.