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Evolution of the “good” teacher

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

Teaching is in the middle of a change, an evolution, a revolution — the intensity of the description depends on whom you ask. One could argue that this change is natural and part of an ebb and flow cycle, but this change feels faster, and possibly more frenetic — likely due to technology’s role in the change. As teachers who teach, who mentor other teachers, who teach other teachers, who write about teaching, we ask: What is good teaching now? What makes a good teacher? Is good teaching now for the 21st-century markedly different than it was previously?

These questions currently seem up-in-the-air and highly dependent on the perspective of who is asking the question — as well as that person’s experience, opinion and comfort level with technology and the availability of technology in their school.

Teaching by design: Jody

What makes a good teacher? When I started my teacher-preparation program 10 years ago, it seemed like there might be an answer. For me, and for the education program, that answer was Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (UbD) with a little bit of Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence thrown in there for good measure. While there was a great deal of time spent on theorists like John Dewey or Howard Gardner, no one seemed to quite contradict each other, they just added nuance and shade to the way a teacher would look at teaching. I could be a good teacher if I followed the model of anticipatory set, instruction, practice and assessment/closure.

So I did that. Believing very strongly in student-centered discovery learning a la John Dewey, I tried to make those ideas meld with the UbD style and came up with a very comfortable way of planning units and lessons.

Teaching as a craft: Shara

I went through the same program as Jody and learned about the same tenets as she — at one point, I had honestly argued that teaching without an objective is immoral, as it disrespects the time of the student, teacher and school. I had beautiful UbD outlines for each of my units, had crafted authentic assessments and accessed as many different learning styles as possible in each lesson. I used constructivist strategies, and I really considered myself to have designed a student-centered classroom.

Then there was the shift in “educational best practice” towards science, technology, engineering, arts and math education, project-based learning and technology-driven pedagogical movements that suggested that teacher-set objectives limit the students’ potential, stifling creativity. It seemed like we may be too comfortable and weirdly outdated … or maybe we’re not.

Relocation: Shara

As I was juggling these ideas in my mind, my family and I moved, and I began teaching at a different school. This new school is, in many ways, opposite to the environment in which I was accustomed to teaching, and it is more “traditional” in a lot of educational practices. Most classrooms have desks that all face by the teacher, many of my colleagues give tests on scantrons and our access to technology is limited. Our administration is working tirelessly to help bring the school’s educational practices closer to what’s being talked about in Twitterverse, and my colleagues are hungry for it.

But, here’s the thing: What we have now works. My curricula is mostly teacher-centered, and while I do what I can to add student-centered nuances here and there, my students are not spontaneously combusting before my eyes because they aren’t driving their own learning. When I do switch teaching styles back to what’s more comfortable to my own ethos, I see completely different sides of my students. Where one succeeds, the other stumbles and vice-versa. It’s led me to the conclusion that while many students thrive in the open-ended and creative environments of PBL and STEAM, others succeed in a more-structured environment.

Pedagogy whiplash: Jody

We can’t quite predict the next wave of what our students need to know, but I have endless appreciation for those who are trying: STEM, coding, making, building — these all seem like really of-the-moment skills. I don’t think written expression is going to go out of style, though there seems to be some debate about it. You can find two polar opposites of most any educational theory on the Internet these days. We wrote about this in pedagogy whiplash.

It is very difficult, especially if you are paying attention, to figure out who you are in the tide of teaching. Going with the wave/tide metaphor — there are many waves coming at you, all of them claiming to be THE ONE (the educational wave of the future!) and it’s difficult to figure out which one to ride.

I have tried to maintain an understanding of who I am as an educator by developing a rudimentary check-in system with myself. I take a pedagogical idea, and I see if I can apply it in the classroom and if it feels organic — if no, I chuck it, if yes, I try it.

Sometimes it feels like what I used to be so sure of, what was so streamlined, is now a little of everything: PBL here, direct instruction here, technology here, serious writing over here and of course, UbD. Sometimes I feel like I am waiting for someone, like I was when I was in school, to tell me what the best way is to do things. I don’t think anyone has that answer.

Differentiated teaching styles: Shara

So, I will amend the statement of my teacher-prep days that “teaching with no objective is immoral.” I think that staunchly supporting one teaching style to the exclusion of others is more of the one-size-fits-all education that schools are often criticized for delivering. If we only assign group projects because, hey, collaboration is a 21st-century skill, then we are operating under the assumption that group work is best for 100% of our students all of the time. That, in and of itself, is not differentiated, regardless of how many learning styles our lessons supposedly cross.

Evolution as process

We titled this article “Evolution of the ‘good’ teacher.” And we did mean i t– “good teaching” is an evolving process, not a definable entity. As teachers, mentors and administrators, we should name the dilemmas that need managing when examining good teaching, not necessarily produce answers or definitions. How are we balancing group work with solo work? Do we have enough student-centered units while still meeting our mandated curricular goals?

Anyway, there are so many people claiming to have the best way of doing things, that we can’t believe it’s all true, all best. We will have to continue to try to figure things out for ourselves. Maybe this uncertainty is a normal byproduct of any (r)evolution.

Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters are eighth-grade educators in the Los Angeles area. Follow them on Twitter @21centuryteachrJody and Shara were named a SmartBlog on Education Editor’s Choice Content Award winner in February 2014.

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