Thursday, March 05, 2020

Can This Be Called Teaching? I Don't Know

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. ~David W. Augsburger

I've been having a lot of conversations with business people lately about teaching. I've been a preschool teacher for nearly two decades, yet I'm having a hard time with some of their questions, and specifically those centered around the idea of what exactly it is that makes a "good teacher." It's in the nature of business people, it seems, to want to take things apart, to figure out how they work, to reduce them to their essentials, and then find ways to replicate them, preferably very quickly and for profit. Will this be a productive process for me? I don't know.

These have been good conversations, useful, casting a new light on our profession for me. Are there some things that all good teachers do? I genuinely don't know. Maybe. I don't even know if someone can be taught to be a good teacher, even as I know that many, many of us demonstrate the skills. Generally speaking, it's widely assumed that it takes at least five years in the classroom to even know if someone is a good teacher or not, because nothing replaces experience. It seems that apprenticeship, working alongside veteran teachers, can accelerate learning, but as for "teaching" them to be teachers, I don't know.

I mean in all honesty, although I go by the moniker Teacher Tom, I'm not sure I do much of what these business people would define as teaching, which is widely understood as a synonym for "instructing." I know that the children I've worked with have grown and learned. I even have a pretty good idea what they've learned in some cases, but as for successfully instructing them, I have a very short, undistinguished track record. Can I prove that the children have learned? Can I prove what they've learned? No, at least not to the satisfaction of someone who is looking for the kind of hard data that business people tend to like behind the things they do. Traditionally, we've done it by starting with "learning objectives," providing instruction, then testing to see if the kids meet our objectives. I've never done any of those things because, while it produces data on the effectiveness of certain types of direct instruction, it forces children through a process that is the antithesis of how we know children's brains are designed to learn. Will we ever be able to produce acceptable hard data on children learning through play? I don't know.

I do know that I've spent very little time over my career in the role of instructor. People have suggested that maybe a better word for what we do would be facilitator or coordinator or perhaps more whimsically, games master. I put quite a bit of energy into preparing the environment for children, getting it ready for them, providing what I think they will need on any given day to pursue their self-selected interests or answer, through their play, their own questions. I can do this because I've spent the previous day paying close attention, observing, studying, striving to understand their motivations, individually and collectively. I've never, however, taken it on as a systematic study, but rather an intuitive one with a sniff test that manifests along the lines of "Oh, the kids are going to love this!" or, equally as often, the singular version, "Billy is going to love this!" Could this be made into a systematic, replicable thing, a chart or something with boxes to tick? I don't know.

Is there anything that all good teachers do? It's a question worthy of thought. I know that the foundation of what I've always done is to simply strive to treat children like people. What do I mean by that? It mostly means that, like with non-child people, I don't get to tell them what to do. It means I should avoid offering unsolicited advice, because most people, most of the time resent it. If I ask them questions, they should be real questions in the sense that I don't already know the answer and I have a reasonable expectation that this child can tell me what I need to know. And the most important thing is to listen to them, to shut up and let them say all the words they want to say to me about what's on their minds. (This is something that I actually do much more consistently with children than I do with adults.) And then to let them know through my words and actions that I've heard them.

Can this be called teaching? I don't know, but it's what I do and I know it's what the great teachers I know do. As Mister Rogers said, "Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors." And at the end of the day, this is why I struggle so much to answer the questions these business people are asking me. Love can't be qualified or quantified, although I think it can be replicated, quickly: it is infinitely scalable. Love is like play. It is a pure good that can't be defined or measured, even when we know it when we feel it. That is what a great teacher of young children will always be: someone who loves and who is loved in return.

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