The Heart of a Teacher
Someone once sarcastically said that the perfect school was the one where students haven’t yet arrived. I don’t believe it. I think the perfect school is the one where all of the children are present—with all of their issues, drama, attitudes, insights, passion and energy. So, as we begin this new school year I think we move closer to perfection as the students return! Now, add caring teachers, dedicated support professionals and inspired leaders and you have a place where astounding things are accomplished.
Many years ago, my wife and I attended a play at a local community theater in which one of my language arts students, Fantasia Darling, was playing the lead role in The Story of Helen Keller. Fantasia performed spectacularly and we were so proud of her. During the play, I was moved by the patience of Helen’s teacher—Anne Sullivan. Helen Keller was unruly, disobedient and an extremely reluctant learner. Through gentleness, patience and perseverance, Anne provided an environment that allowed Helen to trust her teacher enough to begin learning. Ultimately, Helen exceeded everyone’s expectations! Consider Helen Keller’s words, “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Sullivan, came to me.”
What qualities did Anne Sullivan possess that permitted her to succeed with even the most difficult of students? Let me suggest five important traits that characterize Anne Sullivan--as well as every extraordinary teacher:
I love the poem, “The Heart of a Teacher.” The first two stanzas introduce a teacher with heart:
Heart of A Teacher
by Paula J. Fox
The child arrives like a mystery box
with puzzle pieces inside
some of the pieces are broken or missing
and others just seem to hide.
But the HEART of a teacher can sort them out
and help the child to see
the potential for greatness he has within
a picture of what he can be.
As we begin this new school year, I express sincere appreciation to every teacher, support professional and administrator for the quality of your heart and the influence you have on young people.
During a celebration at one of our schools, a close friend and colleague presented me with a copy of The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, by Parker J. Palmer. Although I had read the book nearly a decade ago, I decided to re-read it. I’m so glad I did! I was reminded that good teaching cannot be reduced to method and technique alone; rather, at its core good teaching originates from the identity and integrity of a quality teacher.
Good teaching comes in various forms but good teachers seem to share an important trait: they are truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and the subject they teach. The very best teachers bring their personality, along with their narrative and passion, into the classroom. On the other hand, less effective teachers tend to distance themselves from students and their subjects. It's resisting this urge to distance ourselves that requires massive courage. Palmer writes,
"As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart -- and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one's heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, requires."
Weber School District is filled with extraordinary teachers who exemplify great courage (by Parker Palmer’s definition) every day! Because of that, educators have tremendous influence on the lives of young people. There is no more noble achievement than that -- to positively impact others. Our entire district team of teachers, support professionals and administrators show great heart each day by inspiring students toward greatness and I want each of you to know how much I appreciate your commitment to children and your professionalism in your work. It is, simply put, "The Weber Way!" Because of your heroic efforts, we mark another successful school year!
Recently, I came across this article from the NEA Journal that was written by James A. Smith from the State University College in Oswego New York. It is a true story....unfortunately.
THE AWFUL BEGINNING
I looked across the desk at my big girl. She'd come for help in planning her semester schedule.
"Look," I said, "you have some electives. Why don't you take a course or two for fun? You've worked hard and really should take something outside your major that will be pleasurable."
"Like what?" she asked.
My eyes scanned the college schedule of courses. "Like Dr. Mann's Creative Writing or Dr. Camp's Painting for Beginners or something like that."
She threw her head back and laughed. "Who, me? Paint or write? Good grief, Dad, you ought to know better than that!"
"And this," I thought, "is the awful ending."
It was not always like this. I remember an early golden September day when I went to my garage studio and gathered together my easel, paintbrushes, and watercolors. I sensed someone was watching me and looked up from my activities to see her framed in silhouette in the doorway. The breeze and the sun tiptoed in the gold of her curls. Her wide blue eyes asked the question, "Whatcha doin'?"
"I'm going to the meadow to paint." I said. "Want to come along?"
"Oh, yes." She bounced on her toes in anticipation.
"Well, go tell Mummy and get your paints."
She was all but returned in no time carrying the caddy I had made to hold her jars of paint and her assortment of brushes.
"Paper?" she asked.
"Yes, I have plenty of paper. Let's go."
She ran down the hill before me, pushing aside the long, soft grasses of the meadow. I watched closely for the fear of losing her golden top in the tops of the goldenrod. She found a deserted meadowlark's nest and we stopped to wonder at it. A rabbit scurried from under our feet. Around us yellow daisies and goldenrod nodded in friendly greeting. Above, the sky was an infinite blue. Beyond the meadow, the lake slapped itself to match the blue of the sky.
On the lake, a single white sailboat tipped joyously in the breeze. My daughter looked up and saw it.
"Here!" she said.
Trusting her wisdom as I always did, I set up our easels. While I deliberated over choice of subject and color, she had no such problem. She painted with abandonment and concentration and I left her alone asking no questions, making no suggestions, simply recognizing uncontaminated creative drive at work.
Before I had really begun, she pulled a painting off her easel.
"There!" she said. "Want to see?" I nodded.
I cannot describe the sense of wonder that flooded over me as I viewed her work. It was all there -- that golden September day. She had captured the sunlight in her spilled yellows, the lake in her choppy, uneven strokes of blue, the trees in her long, fresh strokes of green. And through it all, there was a sense of scudding ships and the joyousness of wind that I experience when I sail, the tilting and swaying of the deck, the pitching of the mast. It was a beautiful and wondrous thing and I envied her ability to interpret so honestly, so uninhibitedly, so freshly.
"Are you going to give it a name?" I suggested.
"Yep! Sailboats!" she responded, as she taped another sheet of paper to the easel. There wasn't even a single sailboat in the picture.
She began school the following week. One dreary November day she came into my study with a sheet of paper in her hand.
"Daddy," she asked, "Will you help me draw a sailboat?"
"Me? Help you draw a sailboat?" My eyes turned to the wall where her golden September painting hung in a frame I had made for it.
"Me? Help you draw a picture of a sailboat? Why, sweetheart, I could never paint a picture like the one over there. Why don't you paint one of your own?"
Her blue eyes looked troubled.
"But, Daddy, Miss Ellis doesn't like my kind of painting."
She held up her sheet of paper in the middle of which was a dittoed triangle.
"Miss Ellis wants us to make a sailboat out of this."
And that was the awful beginning!
Creativity can be defined as breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. It's being able to problem solve in a novel way. We all want our children to be creative. But sometimes as parents, we unknowingly place frequent limits on our children that actually train them to think inside the box. May I suggest a few key points to help our children develop their own measure of creativity.
Smith, J. A. (1972). The Awful Beginning. Today's Education, 61, 4-56.
It is time to start planning... I always enjoy "field trips" with my grandchildren. There are many reasons we go on outings with our families. One is to spend quality time together strengthening relationships and building memories, but there are many other reasons. Do you realize that the wonderful outings you go on are building background knowledge for children? The more children know about their world, the easier it is for them to read and make connections to what they are learning in school. Interesting experiences give kids a broad framework for new information they might encounter in books and in school. You can help your child build background knowledge through fun family activities.
Step 1: Go on Family Field Trips
Go to the park, historical landmarks, the State Capitol Building, a sporting event, a community theater or arts event, a museum and/or children's museum, the library, the aquarium, or the zoo. Go on a hike, visit a natural attraction like the Great Salt Lake or Antelope Island, or go on a picnic up the canyon. Use the Internet to take a virtual field trip to a faraway place.
Step 2: Talk, Talk, Talk
Talk about your outing, the plants and animals you see, the rules of a game, the history of a landmark, and the new things your family has experienced. Get your child talking about their experience by asking questions. For example you might ask, "What was your favorite thing about...?" or "Why do you think...?" One question can lead to another and then another. Take new interests to a deeper level by extending their experience through additional reading and research.
Have fun spending time together. Support your children by having a wide variety of learning experiences while strengthening relationships and building memories through exciting family outings. The weather is nice... start planning a "family field trip."
We began working with the PLC model about 10-12 years ago in Weber School District. Initially, the focus of our work within PLC’s was curriculum design. We posed a series of four questions:
Although we have begun to use PLC time successfully for things other than curriculum design (e.g., child study teams, lesson study, collaborative analysis of student work, etc.) I would like to revisit those original questions and share several suggestions.
With each unit, teachers should be able to answer the first question with absolute clarity. Rather than simply defaulting to the standard or objective in the core as the answer to question one, teachers can work together to “unpack” the standard in such a way that they are able to clearly articulate the big ideas or enduring understandings that get right at the heart of the unit. Sometimes, we erroneously substitute the topic under study for the actual learning goal. For instance, a social studies teacher might say, “I’m teaching the Civil War.” Or, an English teacher might say, “I’m teaching A Tale of Two Cities. In actuality, those are the topics we’re teaching but they are not the learning goals. The learning goals for teaching a Civil War unit might include: 1) Students are able to identify key social, political and economic issues that Americans confronted during the Civil War era; and, 2) Students are able to describe opposing views on the issue of states’ rights and how those disputes contributed to the Civil War. Similarly, the learning goals for the English teacher would be much more specific in nature and could get at analysis of theme or describing character development through conflict resolution.
As it relates to the learning goal, there should be consistency among grade level teams or in a department. That consistency is established as teams of teachers collaboratively identify what is most important for students to know and understand. Please note, that for a language arts team or grade level team, it is not even necessary that they read the same novel! A team of teachers might read different novels (or short stories, poetry, or drama for that matter) and yet have consistent learning goals dealing with character development, analysis of theme, resolution of conflict, etc.
The second question gets us thinking like assessors. We’re looking for reliable, robust evidence that students have really learned. The easy default on question two is to utilize a publisher-produced test or quiz. I’m going to give a caution here. There has been talk of “common assessments” and some have falsely assumed that the goal is simply to have every teacher giving the same test or quiz. This assumes that merely giving the same test achieves the expectation. Not true! The real litmus test of a quality assessment strategy is whether it permits a student to authentically demonstrate what he/she really knows and understands. Publisher-produced tests generally don’t achieve that high standard. Rather, they tend to measure surface-level knowledge only. Therefore, it’s quite possible for a student with relatively deep understanding to score poorly on a multiple choice test. Similarly, it’s possible for a student with shallow knowledge to score average or above through guessing on a multiple choice quiz.
Once again, as it relates to evidence supporting student learning on a specific goal or objective there should be consistency among grade-level teams or subject area teachers. There is great value in coming together as a team to discuss those assessment strategies which will best yield authentic feedback on student learning. Collaboration at this stage is valuable because developing assessment strategies that permit students to genuinely demonstrate what they know and understand is not easy work. And, we don’t do our best work in isolation! Frankly speaking, we’re usually smarter together.
The third question gets at pedagogy and strategy. Here we strongly encourage teachers to use their creativity in planning teaching strategies and learning experiences that will capture students’ hearts and imaginations in ways that excite learning. We value teachers’ expertise and innovative spirit. Teachers know their students. They know what their interests, strengths and deficiencies are and understand how to adapt instruction to meet their students’ unique needs. Under no circumstances would we encourage every teacher to teach the same lesson on the same day using the same methodology. In implementing the PLC model, some make this false assumption. But it goes against best practice. We know that each student learns at a different pace and in different ways. Suggesting that every teacher teach the same thing on the same day and in the same way contradicts that reality.
The final question implies that students are different and adjusting instruction around those differences is appropriate. Some students may already know the content we’re teaching. With these students, teachers are able to design learning experiences that permit them to go deeper in their understanding. Others may require additional instructional support to successfully acquire knowledge. Skilled teachers are capable of providing students with different avenues to learning so that all students can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.
I once read an article titled, “Teaching is Rocket Science!” I agree. It’s not easy to plan and deliver instruction around so many variables. A framework for curriculum design assists in that process. Collaboration in PLC’s with productive, meaningful dialogue is crucial to bringing out the best in both teachers and students.
Although our schools are only nearing the half-way point of the school year, according to the calendar, it’s a new year! And with the new year, come New Year's resolutions. One suggestion that you might consider as a parent is to make the resolution this year to help your kids do well in school. A study from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory states, “When schools and families work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer and like school more.” Multiple other studies show that kids whose parents are involved in their education have better grades, more appropriate school behavior and a better attitude toward school than those with less involved parents.
When schools and parents work together to engage families in ways that improve learning and support parent involvement at home and school, students make great gains.
Here are some ideas from www.colorincolorado.org to help parents resolve to be more involved in their children’s education in new ways this year.
As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. When parents and families are involved in their children’s education, children perform better and have positive feelings about attending and participating in their own education.
"How Are the Children?"
In my office hangs a beautiful painting done by Chase Dahl, a student at Weber High School. I selected it this past spring as the "Superintendent's Choice Award" at our district art show. I love to look into the children's faces and see their hopes and aspirations. The painting is titled, "Children of Maasai." Among the many fabled and accomplished tribes of Africa, no tribe is considered more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Maasai. It's interesting to learn that the traditional greeting among the Maasi warriors is "Kasserian Ingeri," which interpreted means, "How are the children?" Not "How are you?" or "How do you do?" but "How are the children?" It provides a wonderfully revealing insight into the values of the Maasai culture! Their first concern is for the next generation.
In fact, it is still the traditional greeting of the Maasai, acknowledging the high value the Maasai place upon the well-being of young people. Even the fiercest warriors give the traditional response, "All the children are well." Note that it is not "My children are well," or "Some of the children are well," but all the children are well. Society can't be well unless all the children are well. This also means, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young and powerless are in place, and that the Maasai people have not forgotten their reason for being, their proper function and their responsibilities.
"All the children are well" means life is good. It means that the daily struggles of existence—even among the poor, include the proper care of the young and defenseless. I wonder how it might affect our consciousness for all children's welfare if we greeted one another each day by asking, "And, how are the children?" The question cuts right to the heart of the health of our society.
Dr. Jeff Stephens
The most important thing for teachers to teach their students is how to think, not what to think. Critical thinking is integral to deep learning and understanding. It is the mental process of analyzing or evaluating information that leads to a problem solving mindset.
One of Aesop’s fables, “The Man, the Boy and the Donkey” is a good illustration of how not utilizing the skills of critical thinking can be detrimental to allowing individuals to problem solve effectively. As the story goes, a man and his son who lived in the mountains had the objective to take their donkey to the city marketplace in order to sell the donkey so they would have money to buy the provisions they needed to survive the upcoming winter. As they began their journey, the boy rode the donkey and the man walked. They passed through the first village on their way to the marketplace where several villagers scoffed at them saying, “How inconsiderate that the boy would ride the donkey and make his father walk.” After hearing this critique, the man rode the donkey and the boy walked. Then as they traveled through the next little hamlet, the people pointed their fingers and shouted, “How inconsiderate that the man would be so selfish and ride the donkey and make the boy walk.” So, again listening to the opinions of the people, the man and the boy rode the donkey together. When passing through the next village on their way to the marketplace, the people gathered and mocked the travelers saying, “How inhuman for the man and the boy to both ride the donkey and overburden this poor animal.” Hearing these dissenting voices, the man and the boy both walked alongside the donkey. Then, while traveling through the last small town on their way to the marketplace, the onlookers laughed, “How stupid for the man and the boy to walk and not ride the donkey and use this beast of burden for which it was created. Finally, in total frustration, trying to please all the people who offered advice, the man and the boy rode the donkey together until it collapsed. The donkey had to be carried into the city where the people in the marketplace sneered, “Who wants to buy a worthless donkey that cannot even walk into the marketplace?” The man and the boy failed in their objective to sell the donkey and acquire provisions for the winter.
When excellent teachers teach their students how to think critically, it helps them deal with current and future challenges in their lives more skillfully. It broadens life experiences and helps students gain a more meaningful perspective. Here are some suggested steps to critical thinking as it relates to problem solving:
In the fable, “The Man, the Boy and the Donkey,” if the man and the boy would have acquired the skills that accompany critical thinking, they would have been better equipped to solve the problem they faced. Before their journey, the man and the boy could have decided that the man would ride the donkey for the first third of the journey. The boy would ride the donkey the second third of the way and they would both walk the final third of their trek. That way the donkey would arrived in the marketplace fresh and strong and ready to be sold. Then on their journey, as the man and the boy received conflicting advice, they could have given each other a reassuring wink of the eye and said, “we have a plan.”
A.E. Mander wrote, “Critical thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically without learning how or without practicing. People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge builders, or pianists.”
Along with teaching specific curriculum content, we applaud our excellent teachers who teach students the importance of gaining skills associated with critical thinking and problem solving.
Lex L. Puffer
As we prepare for a new school year, I think it is important to momentarily step back from the stressful demands that come with opening school and consider what our overall educational aims entail. If I may, I'd like to share some of those broad goals from my perspective. First, I want each teacher, administrator and support professional to keep in mind that we are here to help in the balanced development of the whole child. In the current climate, it's so easy to fall into the trap of a narrowly defined school mission that simply prepares students to succeed on core tests. However, our vision must encompass a commitment to excellence that exceeds proficiency in basic knowledge and skills and strives toward the realization of each child's full potential.
I value classrooms that are intellectually enlarging and lead to sound thinking, effective communication and skill in quantitative reasoning. Such classrooms engage students in critical thinking and creative imagination. These students then become capable of understanding and solving a wide variety of problems. They develop a depth of knowledge, which allows them to recognize what is genuinely meaningful as opposed to knowledge which is merely peripheral. Depth certainly requires sustained inquiry and persistent effort. Ultimately, the chief result of depth is competence.
Along their learning journey, students should enjoy a breadth of study in history, the arts, science and relevant global issues. We want our students to gain an understanding of human civilization, appreciation for the unique contributions of America to our modern world, and a general historical perspective. All students should have a solid understanding of the physical, biological and social sciences, as well as a recognition of the power (and limits) of the scientific method. Our global economy is currently in tremendous need of leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). We also want each student to develop a keen appreciation for the arts. The arts promote innovation and collaboration, and positively impact student learning and cultural understanding. Perhaps most importantly, creative endeavor in the arts can inspire and transform minds, hearts and lives!
Obviously, the vision I have briefly described represents a broader, richer, and more comprehensive learning experience than one found in a "test-prep" school. Sharing this vision is not meant to overwhelm those with already full plates. Rather, it is intended to bring perspective to the fundamental goal of public education—assisting students to be successful in life. I honor each of you for your tremendous dedication to children and wish you the best as you impact those privileged to fall under your influence this year!