National Treasure

To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.

It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.

When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.

In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:

  • To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave for analysis by phrenologists. Indeed, pseudo-scientists found the “music bump” was significantly developed—but it was nearly another century before Haydn’s head was reunited with his body.
  • Out on the open seas with the commander of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, in mad pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white whale who had taken his leg.
  • To a 1940s wedding, where the bride wore a dress she had made of parachute silk: the tight-fitting sleeves  were pleated at the elbow so she could move her arms, and the neckline was high, as modest as the times.
  • To Versailles with Wilson, Clemenceau, Orlando, and David Lloyd George, hammering out the Treaty that ended WWI but set the stage for so many more 20th century conflicts.
  • To the Middle East—via computer and a stunning visual from the LondonTimes—to learn about the Arab Spring.

Here are some other things I have learned—or relearned, as the case may be:

  • How to figure percents (6th grade math)
  • How to make a coiled basket (7th grade art)
  • How airbags work (a high school chemistry lesson in stoiciometry and the gas laws)
  • The seven characteristics of a folk tale (6th grade English)
  • Why artists make still life drawings—and how to do it (8th grade art)
  • How to make ice cream in a plastic bag (8th grade science)
  • How the metric system works (7th grade science) 

Over and over and over again, I am impressed by the good teaching I see—and the more I see, the more frustrated I become with the voices of people who haven’t been in a classroom in a very long time—or perhaps haven’t even taught a day in their lives. Some of the best teachers in the world are at the front of the classrooms I’ve visited.

Every good lesson has a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Some teachers pique their students’ interest with a question: When will the force of the water from a fire hose be stronger? When it’s on the up side of the parabola or the down?

Some do it with a demonstration: An art teacher I recently watched gathered her students around her to demonstrate still life drawing. She talked out loud throughout her demo, questioning her kids about why she was doing what she was, reminding them of what they already knew, and prepping them for what they soon would do that was new.  Then they set off to do a still life on their own.

Others tell a story (like the one about Haydn’s head), or read aloud (These aren’t always English teachers—reading aloud is how the airbag class started!). They hook their kids and then jump into the lesson.

Sometimes they use “props”—like several teachers I’ve seen who have individual whiteboards for writing down answers and holding them up so the teacher can gauge the class’s understanding—or popsicle sticks and clay to make prototype chairs and tables—or crazy assortments of objects all spray-painted white (in the case of the still life drawings).  Sometimes they send students to the Internet to find a specific answer or just to find out what they can about a particular topic.

In a Family and Consumer Science class (FACS), girls AND boys were dressing models in the fashions of the decades. They were using figures and clothing that reminded me of the paper dolls I played with as a child—except that these dolls were figures on one side of a computer screen and the students “dragged and dropped” clothing from the other side onto the models, making the equivalent of dressing room changes until they had the dolls attired as they liked.

Sometimes the interactive whiteboard facilitates instruction—like the American history teacher who used it to show the students the map of Europe pre- and post-WWI—or the world history teacher who showed the class a virtual timeline of the conflicts in the Middle East.  English teachers dissect essays right before the students’ eyes or use the screen to show a timely YouTube video. 

But technology isn’t all. There are old-fashioned storytellers among us—like the teacher whose students were enthralled with the story of Wilson’s 14 Points and how the Big Four at Versailles—or the Big Three, once Orlando left—hammered out the agreement that brought an end to WWI. She captured the personalities of these four men and brought them together as if they were characters in a book—and brought the story of the Versailles Treaty to life.

A middle school world history teacher has his students capture the essence of a country’s culture in haiku; the students in a middle school English class create a collective self-portrait with “I Am From” poems.  Another English teacher directs graduating 8th graders to produce “The Soundtrack of my Life”: Each student writes about key events in his or her life and records it all on a CD. I’ve watched an extraordinary music teacher inspire her students to write essays about the reciprocal relationship between music and culture and listened as another music teacher led his students in a discussion of an NPR piece on tempo.

Sometimes, of course, the ending is a homework assignment, but in the best classrooms, that assignment is tied directly to the main idea of the day or to a point in the lesson—if it’s a two-day or three-day lesson—that will help the students transition to the next day’s focus. Sometimes homework comes in the form of a paper, a project, or a short reflection. Sometimes it’s problems to work or issues to resolve, an article to read or pieces to practice. Sometimes it’s reading on in a book, and sometimes there is no homework at all. There isn’t a formula for the ending: The teacher needs to know whether the students understood the lesson of the day and where she should pick up the next day, and there’s more than one way to find that out and move instruction forward. Sometimes closure is accomplished with those individual whiteboards or with exit passes or with questions the students submit. But there’s always a “wrap.” A good teacher doesn’t let the kids just drift out the door without a finish.

They’re ingenious, these teachers I’ve seen. They’re thoughtful, funny, clever, compassionate, kind. They challenge their students, to whom they are devoted, and they’re earnest about learning new skills and expanding their expertise. They’re dedicated to their task.  I know math teachers who are concerned about reading comprehension and differentiating instruction and collaborative learning.  I know special education teachers who attend high school workshops about strategies they’ll probably never use and courses their students will probably never take—but the teachers want to stay current with mainstream teaching.  Even veteran teachers continue to learn. The English teacher who swept me up in the story of Moby-Dick has been teaching for over 40 years—but she still comes to my after-school workshops on reading comprehension just in case I have something new to teach her

Of course there are teachers who don’t yet have all the skills they need—I wouldn’t have a job if everyone knew everything and no one needed anything.  Sure we all can learn more—none of us teaches a perfect lesson every single day.  It’s true that every field is changing and that, as a group and as individuals, we need to make changes.  The knowledge base in every field is rapidly increasing, too, and the range of skills our kids need is expanding. The technology we are privileged to use is constantly evolving.  But so many amazing educators are committed to making the necessary changes because they are committed to serving their students well. 

I wish our critics would pay attention for a change to the extraordinary teaching happening in our schools. I wish they would not lump us all together, call us collectively the equivalent of a bad apple. I wish they would recognize that educators are, quite to the contrary, our national treasure.

3 thoughts on “National Treasure

  1. I think people are paying attention. There are two sides to the coin. One side is the one you’re talking about. The other side wants to know if all that wonderful instruction that you speak of is working. If the teacher is teaching to the standards, I’m not sure why people have a problem with standardized tests. I think they are a good tool to measure success. The only tool, of course not! Should a teacher and/or students be judged solely on their #’s, of course not…

    Good post


  2. Hey there I am so thrilled I found your blog, I really found you by mistake, while I was browsing on Yahoo for
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