One Sunflower

confirmation: teaching is an art

on October 1, 2009

It dawned on me today, in the middle of my PE lesson, that I sometimes feel more like a performer than a teacher.  Teaching is an art form.  I am often using both my body and voice to keep the attention of my little charges, hoping that my motions and modulation will some how convey meaning in a language most of them don’t understand.  I find that I pay keen attention to my pacing and spacing of words and interactions, feeling that creating experiences that are completely accessible to my students will improve our relationship and our learning together.

I have had to practice these techniques, over and over for many years.  I used to teach in a program with children that didn’t come from risky homes with a lack of literacy and oral language.  I only needed to act like the capable parents of those children to be successful.  Now I work in a program dedicated to intervention.  All of my students are low income, I usually have 2-3 that receive special services and at least 30%, often more, are from non-English speaking families.  Some of my techniques I learned from co-teaching with a special ed teacher for a year.  She used a lot of sign language, simple and direct instructions that usually accompanied systems – boxes for student work, folder activities, labeled bags and baskets for everything.  Some of the techniques I learned in my TESL coursework – using my body and motions to connect language to meaning, faithfully stating my objectives for the learning each day.   Some stuff I’ve just come to on my own, through years of practice and paying attention.  I’m a teacher with intuition – good intuition.  I’m a 5th generation teacher and my mom thinks people are just “born” with it.  But I have come to realize that while I do have good intuition, it is also crucial that I pay good attention, plan my actions carefully and be “on” all the time when I’m with kids.

We had a district-wide gathering of elementary teachers today, for a 3 hour session to delve into our work on literacy, evaluate where we are as a district and make some plans for the future.  This district has been working hard on literacy for a long time.  I came on 9 years ago in the middle of some significant grants and work with well-known names in the field, Leah Murmelstein and Anneka Markholt.  These two names were in the middle of a list of 10 people and strategies that was presented at our meeting today.  We were asked to review our timeline of professional development in literacy and share with each other what kind of learning we had done, what stood out over time, what we needed to review again. 

I mention this presentation because I was seated with a veteran teacher who has been in the district since the beginning of that timeline – with Margaret Mooney no less!  She looked at the list and said that her husband, a business man, would look at that list and see dollar signs.  He would wonder why we needed so much intervention, why one “way” wasn’t enough — why one conference-one workshop-one method, wasn’t enough to provide the answer.  The answer to this question provides key insight into the disconnect between our society’s concept of education and the reality – teaching is not like a business, it is more like art. We cannot teach by simply following a blueprint. Our children are organisms, living within systems of culture that are as dynamic as they are.  Teachers need tutoring in techniques, strategies, perspective, and systems of practice and accountability to perfect their abilities to cultivate students.

It is strenuous to perform this art everyday.  I seem to do well with 3 out 5 lessons each day.  Sometimes it is in PE, sometimes it is in science or math.  I’m pretty consistent with my literacy but I’ve had the most practice there.  And that is what it’s all about – practice improves practice, it is worth every dollar, every opportunity to learn at the feet of an expert in the field – via conference or book study.    I will keep honing my skills, and try to observe other teachers whose skills I admire.  Others will come to observe me.  Together we will work to create dynamic schools.


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