you're reading...
Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Understanding Teaching

I recently wrote this sentence on the 6 Schools, 5 Decades and 1 Dedicated Teacher post: Leading and learning with the adults that surround your kids is just as important as leading and learning daily with your students. Teaching in a silo-especially when you are good at it–is like living in a well, deep and cold.

I am revisiting it today because of a course I’m taking and we have been asked to reflect on a piece of that previous assignment.  In that online course, we respond to readings and prompts from our instructor.  In one forum on keeping up with technology, one of my classmates wrote: Your last paragraph makes me remember some teachers that have an overhead projector and Smartboard in their classroom but never use it. There is another one that still uses the big old projector to show film on reels. Sometimes, I just shake my head and walk past their classroom.”

and my response to him was:

I struggle with this statement, “Sometimes, I just shake my head and walk past their classroom.” as I sometimes do the same thing. Then I feel guilt at doing so.

As a professional, what do you think is our responsibility to have conversations with folks like that about moving along the skills continuum?

Is it our job? Is it our moral responsibility?

Well, reread my first paragraph.  Obviously I think it is. I don’t want to be in a well. I don’t want to be deep and cold–and alone.

Then, in another forum, a friend responding to me about reflection said, “when we have to articulate our thoughts so that someone other than ourselves can make sense of them we refine the reflection and our teaching. Maybe each of us needs at least one person in our buildings we could share reflections on teaching with.”

With comments like these from my peers, I cannot help but wonder when the teaching profession became so isolated and lonely–when we decided that what happened in another classroom was not our business–when we first felt  we had to do this job alone–when we thought that we had to know it all, understand it all, be it all.

Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson and countless others throughout history understood teaching is interactive, with learning, thinking and questioning happening on both ends. When did we lose that understanding?

Teaching–and learning–are collaborative.  When I work with my kids, I gain insight into their thinking, and I learn from them as they explain their thoughts. When I share an anecdote with a peer, I learn from their reaction how much they understand, and I gain insight into myself as they ask questions and I explain MY thinking. I also gain new ideas as they react and interact with my lesson descriptions and we brainstorm together.

The people I learn most from are often those who think most differently from me–but who think deeply and with a high level of introspection and reflection. The key for me to that sharing and thinking together is the willingness to ask hard questions, to think openly and to answer honestly. That connection, that marriage, if you will, of unconditional support and unconditional critique is rare, and when it is present, I would hope everyone would do everything in their power to sustain and support that.

Talking, thinking and learning together is how we’ll understand teaching. Could we, all educators, I mean, please start showing each other unconditional support and unconditional critique so we can learn deeply and embrace effective change?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


6 thoughts on “Understanding Teaching

  1. Paula, I think you just describe one aspect of the Coop. I think as we continue to grow I think we must always remember the need to have unconditional support and unconditional critique.

    Thank you.


    Posted by dloitz | June 6, 2010, 8:03 pm
    • I agree, David, the open conversations here are both stimulating and enlightening. The challenges, questions and sharing quite simply fills both my heart and my brain at times! One thing we can always say about the conversations here–it’s never dull!

      Back on the computer again,


      Posted by Paula White | June 6, 2010, 10:38 pm
  2. Paula, This post strikes a deep chord for me.

    Yesterday my team and I were in a school presenting the results of our findings about the culture of the school. My message to the teachers in the room, again and again, was that you/we bear collective responsibility for the culture of this building. The old command and control leadership model drove you apart. Collaboration was risky, and real engagement with each other fraught with tension, and had potential for disaster. But now (new leadership at the school) is an opportunity for you to exercise your voice, to stand up, to “own” the school. (In the literature we call that “internal accountability” and “distributed leadership,” when the teachers feel empowered to hold each other responsible for the rigor and meaning of their work.)

    I think the isolation of the profession (the egg crate classroom model) in many ways springs from the sociology and history of the profession in this country. Solo practitioners in one room school houses, the “least able” men, or if they were not available–women–entering the work. (Teaching wasn’t “real” work after all in this country. It was something anyone could do…) Then the big industrial factory model enters in the 1920s, (see Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency) where (in a female dominated profession) women are managed hierarchically by men. The place where women exercise their authority is in the little castle of their classrooms–“privacy” of practice is the tradeoff for low pay, no career track, no real induction or training, low status. “I get to do what I want” in my classroom becomes the most desired benefit for long-time teachers. But that begins to work against all the things we know make the work better, that you name in this post–the capacity to open your practice to the scrutiny of many others, to grow through rich conversations with other adults about what you do, to “team” around complex intellectual and practical problems.

    One of the biggest barriers I face in working in schools is the part of the DNA of the profession that says, “We will never admit that someone is better at the work than someone else.” Teachers demand “flat” levels of expertise. Admitting that someone else knows a lot more about the work and does it better is very threatening to the culture. So that drives high performers (like you) off further into isolation in your high performing (but private) classroom.

    So what I’m wondering, because I too would share just the same set of responses as you to the teacher who is still showing movies on reel to reel is, how could accomplished professionals like you create professional norms in your building that would allow you to have conversations with your less developed and poorer-practicing colleagues? In the medical profession, if someone wanted to evaluate head trauma using methods 30 years out of date, what would a hospital or clinic do about that practitioner? How do we create building norms among teachers that say, (while preserving the dignity of the person), using technology of a former century is not okay? This is not the level of practice we expect in this building? I as a colleague am holding you responsible?

    Are you doing this at your school Paula?

    Posted by Kirsten | June 8, 2010, 8:33 am
  3. PS Readings related to this post (classics all):

    Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962)
    Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962)
    Lortie’s Schoolteacher (1975).

    Posted by Kirsten | June 8, 2010, 8:36 am
    • I will add Ron Berger’s, “a culture of quality” and “An ethic for excellence” both talk to the shared responsibility of the teacher to be part of the learning and growing culture of the school.

      Posted by dloitz | June 8, 2010, 8:55 am
  4. Paula, I read this post before AND after your latest piece at TZSTeacher.

    I think I kept from offering unconditional critique at least three times today: once because the situation was made too awkward to do so by a third party; once because I thought the window had passed on what I should have said when I should have said it; and once because it was the end of the last day of school.

    Any advice that could help me get over waiting for the right conditions for unconditional critique?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 11, 2010, 6:49 pm

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,100 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: