What is good teaching?

I’m not the quickest learner in the room, but I’m often one of the most persistent. It’s been five months since the summer educator’s retreat in Ojai, which means it’s also December and that the close of the 2015 Fall semester has arrived.

Several times this semester I found myself feeling off-balance while teaching. It happened while teaching students and when facilitating professional development workshops for teachers. I can only think that – in a positive way – my experience at Ojai shook the confidence I felt in my teaching practice.  Until now I haven’t been able to name what lay at the root of this feeling.  But today, while listening several times over to Dr. Steven Emmanuel’s recorded presentation, “The Mindful Teacher”,  one of the questions he posed suddenly made me realize what I had most certainly failed to grasp at the summer retreat in Ojia.

Dr. Emmanuel’s question:  “What does my use of this particular [teaching] technique reveal about how I relate to students?” (emphasis added)

Although “The Mindful Teacher” is absolutely worth listening to in its entirety, in the segment from 11:40 to 14:50 specifically, Dr. Emmanuel poses several questions that helped me realize how “…technique can very easily become the sort of thing we hide behind. Or it may become a subtle form of control that minimizes and eliminates the element of risk, even as it purports to be done for the sake of the students.” The “risk” he’s alluding to is not the risk that a student will miss the point, but an avoidance of risk by the teacher to allay fears that he or she will lose control of the learning environment if there isn’t stringent adherence to a strategy or technique in a specific lesson plan.

This far removed from the summer retreat in Ojia, I’m now certain these were the very points Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy was trying to guide me to as well.  Sadly, last summer it was such a certainty in the quality and intention of my teaching technique that certainly blocked my ability to see the relevance of this point.

As I’ve tried to integrate ideas from the retreat into my teaching practice (especially with regard to facilitating professional development) another one of  Dr. Emmanuel’s points seems especially relevant, “Mindful teachers use mindfulness to preserve the essential openness of the learning environment while giving it a vital focus.”  It would seem rather obvious that a workshop or lesson needs a focus, and recently I’ve become far more interested in creating workshops around questions rather than objectives.  This seems to help me maintain my intention to “preserve the essential openness” of the learning environment.  However, I’m also aware that I’m still unskillful enough that I fall into doing more of a “think aloud” while walking folks through my inquiry into those questions.  A fall-back position on strategy and technique?  Hopefully at least a step in the right direction of risk for me, and toward openness for my students and participants.

I don’t think either Dr. Krishnamurthy or Dr. Emmanuel is insinuating that teaching tools or teacher training are unimportant or unnecessary, but rather they raise a valid concern that “mastery” of teaching technique has come to mean how a teacher uses teaching strategies, tools, and methods so that students reach predetermined outcomes/answers/conclusions.

Consequently when the description of “good” teachers focuses solely on what techniques the teacher chooses that are most effective at quantifying how many students produced a “correct” response, there is little opportunity (much less incentive or invitation) for a teacher to engage in reflection and self-discovery beyond whether a particular strategy was the right one to lead students to a correct answer.  At a much deeper level Dr. Emmanuel asks us to consider what our choice of teaching technique says about our presence in the classroom, and even perhaps our perspective of teaching and learning as a whole.

Equally important, when administrator’s don’t value the time needed for teacher’s to engage in reflection and self-discovery as a valid part of a “good” teaching practice, it seems unlikely that teacher’s will engage students in self-reflection and self-inquiry.

I haven’t decided how to balance the qualitative with the quantitative in my teaching practice, so it would seem winter break will find me considering these ideas more deeply.

Thanks for reading!

The elusive quest for the perfectly crafted objective

This morning my yoga teacher retold the following Zen story:

An extremely ernest  student approached his teacher and asked, “If I work very hard, how fast can I reach Enlightenment?”

The teacher thought about this, then replied, “Ten years.”

The student then asked, “Well, what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast.  How long then?”

The teacher thought about this, then replied, “Ok, twenty years.”

Puzzled by the response, the student then asked, “But what if I promise to devote every moment of my life to my practice, and I promise to be diligent.  Then how long will it take me to become Enlightened?”

The teacher just looked at the student and calmly replied, “Thirty years.”

“But I don’t understand,” said the student.  “Each time I promise to work harder, you tell me it will take me even longer.  How can that be?”

The teacher replied, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

Off my yoga mat this week I wrestled through the process of creating a professional development workshop for teachers about Student Learning Objectives (or SLOs).  In many ways I’m frustrated by the mentality that every educator’s blind spots can be “fixed” if he or she simply learns to write the perfect lesson objective.  In my humble opinion, Western (or at least U.S.) education is obsessed with meeting an objective in the classroom every 50 minutes, and often more frequently for every activity undertaken in every 50 minute increment.

The idea of having only one eye on the path speaks to one reason meeting objectives has trumped inquiry in the classroom.  How much intuitive, organic learning is thwarted because we (teachers) have been conditioned that without a measurable objective for every lesson and without a specific outcome for that objective absolutely no learning has taken place?  As a language teacher I’ve thought about this many times, and I’m convinced that learning can (and does) take place even when an immediate outcome isn’t easily quantifiable in the moment.

In the coming weeks I’m tasked with the project of teaching teachers the difference between a content objective and a language objective, how to tease the two apart, and how to put the two back together.  After three days of developing concepts and materials for the workshop, I shared my process with a colleague.  I knew I hadn’t tied everything up in a nice, neat, tidy package at the end of the presentation, despite feeling certain that I’d kept my eye on the essential question.  As I explained my dilemma to her and questioned what I thought I should “fix” about my process, I realized that the process of writing objectives wasn’t at all as linear as what I’d found expressed in the research and literature.  No wonder I’ve felt so confined by lesson objectives over the years!  Seeing this required me to have both eyes open to this moment of discovery.

Similarly, perpetually having one eye on a lesson objective leaves me with only one eye open in the classroom by which to see my students and myself.  Having one eye on the objective the entire lesson means I’m less likely to see the subtle signs of personal connection my students (and I) are making to the content.  Having one eye on the clock ticking down from the 50 minutes I’ve allotted to the attainment of the objective probably means I’m not allowing for student learning to unfold in a deeply personal and meaningful way.

I realize now that some of this speaks to a shift I’ve been making over the past several months to move away from posing objectives in the educator workshops and professional development I create.  More often I’ve been crafting essential or burning questions if for no other reasons than to signify that my conclusions may not be your conclusions – how could they be?  Your learning is going to be based on your experience plus or minus any insight you may have gained during our time together.  Certainly my understanding as a facilitator is altered each time I teach.  Why should I expect that everyone in the room will must come to the same conclusion I reached at the time I created the workshop, much less walk the exact same path to reach the level of understanding I had at that time?  In essence by obsessing over whether my students/workshop participants are meeting the objective, I’m insisting that students/workshop participants must close one eye to their own knowledge and walk the path of my limited vision.  That doesn’t sound at all like learning.

The more I learn about how I personally process, learn, and master something, the more convinced I am that I can actually over-scaffold or over-process some lessons.  Having both eyes on the path doesn’t mean that having a destination is unnecessary.  It simply implies that keeping one eye fixated on a hard and fast deadline to mastery (i.e. reaching an objective in an allotted amount of time) may mean I rob my students and myself of the joys of learning, the thrill of personal discovery, and overlook an outcome that might be far more insightful than what I’d originally conceived of.

Between life in the classroom and life on my mat, I’m slowly learning to trust myself more and slowly developing the muscle to honor my teaching style – which is one that’s far more comfortable posing questions than insisting on a specific path to an objective.  Interestingly this trust requires me to be far more vulnerable about sharing my inquiry when I’m supposed to be the expert in the room.  As my colleague pointed out in her critique, by interspersing my personal inquiry throughout my presentation, sharing my thought process at each juncture, and being transparent about my uncertainty of whether I’d arrived at where I’d intended, I’d actually delivered the “objective” of the workshop far more significantly than if I’d crafted the perfect step-by-step model for others to follow.

I’ve realized that my “teaching style” not only requires me to stretch the limits of my willingness to be vulnerable, it demonstrates my intentions to students/participants.  My intentions (although not always perfectly executed in every moment) are:

  • for my classrooms to be a safe space for people to deconstruct what they already know,
  • to encourage everyone, including myself, to consider the topic from a different perspective,
  • that together we will grapple with the differences we discover, and reconstruct a more fully developed understanding that encompasses past and present experience.

Refining this approach helps me keep both eyes in the classroom, and ensures my students are equally free to explore paths I would most certainly have otherwise passed by in my hurry to cross another objective off the list.

Thanks for reading!