I believe that teaching is an essential and noble profession. Next to parents, teachers are the most important foundational element in our society. Everything important begins in childhood, especially knowledge, self-knowledge, resilience, and character. Proper preparation is fundamental to living a full, rewarding life. Without self-knowledge, children may follow wrong paths and end up far from their true callings; lost, sad, and unfulfilled. Without resilience, the storms and challenges of life can turn children from their highest path, likewise leaving them far from who they might have been. Finally, character is the intangible force that raises society as a whole, minimizes shocks and collisions between people and balances self-interest and social good. Ideally, all of this education starts in the home but frequently the parents themselves may be inadequately skilled in this regard. School is a necessary complement to and supplement of this learning.
Teaching is both an art and a science. William Butler Yeats is quoted as saying, “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire” (“Famous Quotes”, 1998-2010). I believe education is both the lighting of the flame and the filling of the pail. The art of education lights the fire. Students learn best the things they love. Showing children how to love learning is a great, unending, and essential gift. However, to be truly effective, knowledge needs to be passed in a scientific manner (the “filling of the pail”). The work that I have done with the Gurian Institute (http://www.gurianinstitute.com/) is all science-based. I follow scientists like Daniel Amen (Amen, 2005), Eric Jensen (Jensen, 2005), John Ratey (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008) and Leonard Sax (Sax, 2005). I inform my understanding of the art of teaching with wonderful books like Raising Resilient Children (Brooks & Goldstein, 2001).
I believe students love to learn and that all students can grasp any elementary school material with sufficient assistance. I am a PADI Scuba instructor (http://www.padi.com). For obvious reasons, scuba instruction is a mastery-based system. Every student must learn and demonstrate proficiency in the standards in order to earn their certification. This has made me a strong believer in mastery education. My intention as a teacher is to have clear standards, evaluate students against those standards, and continue to iterate learning until mastery levels are reached in all reasonable cases. To the extent that this requires extra time before, during, or after school for the student and for me, so be it.
I have never met a bad child. I believe that elementary school children are all desirous of and entitled to a nurturing and supportive environment. I believe that some children have more behavioral or learning challenges than others. In some cases, these difficulties may cross a line that requires special assistance. I would quickly and lovingly escalate such children’s cases to the appropriate people while continuing to provide a supporting classroom environment and working to the extent of my powers to help them fulfill their mastery requirements. I also believe that there are, in general, differences between the sexes and that understanding those differences and employing teaching strategies targeted at those differences has been shown to improve outcomes from the both sexes (Gurian, Henley, & Trueman, 2001; Sax, 2005). Mostly, I believe each child is an individual deserving of my best efforts and support and that the student and I share an obligation to find ways for him or her to gain mastery.
This leads to the question: mastery of what, exactly? This is perhaps the most challenging question for me. To some extent, the decision is taken out of my hands by NCLB and other essentialist requirements. For my own sake and that of the students, being prepared to test well must be foundational. One of my gifts is that I test extremely well. Standardized tests are puzzles and I love problem solving. To make a game of the testing and weave that into the juicier, more nourishing bits of knowledge the world has to offer is my classroom intent. I love history. I love great stories. I am moved by great art and music. I believe physical fitness is essential for optimum brain health. Each of these, I will intertwine with the standards. Knowledge to me is not a thing. It is an interconnected web of ideas, information, and emotions. That is what I intend to teach.
I realize this conforms to no single philosophy of education. The skeleton of the learning is clearly essentialist (Kauchak & Eggen, 2005, p. 217) but I am not, in my heart, an essentialist. I was raised a pedagogical progressive yet I am very much opposed to the administrative progressives as described by Labaree (2005, p. 280-284). I bridle at the industrial, classist arrogance of the era and the philosophy. I think the idea of preparing students to be effective in their lives is wonderful but my belief is that Thorndike, et al were acting in service of themselves and of business interests, not in service of the students. Likewise, I am unpersuaded by the post-modernists. The rejection of the societal meta-narrative simply creates a race to the bottom of successive rejections, ultimately leaving a society without order, faith, or confidence. My philosophy is to act in service of the children, to give them a learning skeleton of essentialist standards and to flesh it out with the most exciting, flame-lighting achievements of humanity (be they literature, science, math, art, music or something else). What is worth knowing is that which makes us truer to our higher purpose.
Given this philosophy, the actual learning experience would look similar to a typical ‘caring’ teacher’s classroom. There would be lots of positive reinforcement. There would be as much art and literature as time allowed, but not just the lifeless reading and writing that begs for Cliff Notes™. We would explore music, art, and literature for personal connection and relevance, for its emotional truth. There would be an unusual amount of physical activity during study and between periods of high concentration. Various other bits of brain science would be very evident as well (Dennison & Dennison, 1986; Gurian et al., 2001, 2008). The classroom would have elements of essentialism as well. Certain clearly identified work would be ‘core’ and require mastery. I would test the students for mastery and work with those who needed extra assistance to help them each achieve the standards. I would also teach test taking as part of the ongoing culture of the classroom. My students would learn to view tests (and essentialist teachings as a whole) as a fun, puzzle solving exercise.
In many ways, my role model is Rafe Esquith (Esquith, 2003, 2007, 2009). He is an extraordinary teacher though considerably more self-sacrificial than I intend to be. But I will be carefully measuring my classroom against his and my commitment as well. I hope to provide students with opportunities outside of required school hours to work on core subjects; fun expansions of the progressive curriculum I will teach and/or something like Rafe’s annual Shakespeare performances.
I recognized that I have set inhuman goals for myself. I don’t know what I will learn before I complete this degree program. I don’t know how my ideals will meet the test of reality. I’m not worried about it. I have a clear vision of children leaving my year with a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Beyond that, I see them leaving with a sense of joy and satisfaction of knowing they met the challenge of the standards and triumphed. More importantly, each one will leave knowing they matter and that they can make a difference in the world.
Amen, D. G. (2005). Making a good brain great: the Amen Clinic program for achieving and sustaining optimal mental performance. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Brooks, R. B., & Goldstein, S. (2001). Raising resilient children : fostering strength, hope, and optimism in your child. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Dennison, P. E., & Dennison, G. E. (1986). Brain gym. Simple activities for whole brain learning. Glendale, CA : Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc. .
Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire: The methods and madness inside room 56. New York, NY: Viking.
Esquith, R. (2009). Lighting their fires: Raising extraordinary children in a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. New York, NY: Viking Adult.
Famous quotes by William Butler Yeats . (1998-2010). Retrieved January 26, 2010, from http://www.famous-quotes.com/author.php?aid=7889
Grazer, B. (Producer) & Reitman, I. (Director). (1990). Kindergarten Cop [Motion picture]. USA: Universal Pictures.
Gurian, M., Henley, P., & Trueman, T. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently!: a guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Gurian, M., Stevens, K., & King, K. (2008). Strategies for teaching boys and girls — elementary level: A workbook for educators. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Kauchak, P., & Eggen, P. (2005). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Labaree, D. F. (2005, February). Progressivism, schools and schools of education: An American romance. Paedagogica Historica, 41(1/2), 75.
Ratey, J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain . New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Sax, L. (2005). Why gender matters: what parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. New York, NY: Doubleday.
 Even to me this sounds idealistic. Sometime between now and when I start teaching, I will have to work out what happens if/when the burden of students failing to meet standards becomes unworkable. For now, I will stick to the ideal. 🙂