Go Watch Great Teaching

by lizriggs


A good teacher in action is a beautifully intricate art. It’s like watching an Olympic gymnast find her way onto the balance beam and steady herself with her arms in the air, or seeing an eight-year-old wind his way through a violin arpeggio.

It is the kind of performance that I would nearly pay to see — except that it’s not a performance, per se. It’s simply someone doing his job. And yet, when these people are at work, they are in the midst of not only weaving together (unknowingly) performance after performance, but they are, as they oft do know, weaving together pieces of children’s lives.

Teachers are the boiling point in the melting pot of education reform conversation right now, and they are the constant source of inspiration and frustration from our nation’s students and parents. We love our teachers while simultaneously hating them, and we praise our teachers by simultaneously condescending them.  We thank them and fawn over them in our speeches and our blog posts, and then we pay them poorly and harangue them when our students don’t succeed to our own arbitrary standards.

They are working on a performance more finely tuned than most arts or athletics, and what do we give them for that? More work, usually.

On Friday, I saw a tremendous teacher in the midst of her craft. She was teaching a simple concept to a room of nearly 30 5th-grade-students; they were reviewing the directions of the compass and learning to discern those directions on a map. The female teacher balanced on her toes at the front of the classroom, a sincere grin spreading across her face as she reeled her students in with her eyes, her smile and her words. Each time she called on one of the dozen raised hands, she directed her students to track their peer speaker, which nearly every single student did. They commended each other for their participation, and the teacher praised students by name, citing exactly what they’d done or said to earn such sought after verbal praise.

It was a beautiful sight, this silently buzzing classroom with energized, engaged, focused students. They missed answers, but it didn’t matter; the teacher would circle back to students after incorrect guesses to give them another opportunity to shine — the mark of a talented and experienced teacher, finding ways to make students feel invariably successful even after they have supposedly failed.

The class took place late on a Friday afternoon, just hours before students would be dismissed for the weekend, and yet there were no signs of the sluggishness that can come with the waning hours of a Friday. The teacher showed none of the typical drained-educator signs; she was fiercely energized, wildly enthusiastic and quick to showcase her class.  Sure, she was being filmed — but she had no idea that cameras were coming into her classroom at any point that day.  There was no visible moment of “turning it on” for the three strangers that slinked into the back of the classroom; this was merely a steady stream of ferociously strong teaching.

What’s interesting about teaching is that it is a career that is rarely witnessed, because the people who care about what teachers do (parents and others not in the classroom) rarely see what happens on a day-to-day basis. For the most part, everything the outside world knows about teaching comes from film portrayals and the words of children. And we all know how misleading both of those can be.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to what our teachers are doing? Why aren’t we showcasing these talents the way one might showcase those of a musician or a writer or a football player or a doctor? Why are the secrets of a classroom so often kept within the doors of a classroom? What if the public saw what really good (and, simultaneously) really bad teaching looked like? Would it make a difference for our students? Would people have a better understanding, a better respect or a stronger desire to change what is happening in education?

I don’t know what this looks like. I don’t know if people need to start visiting classrooms to understand what the life of a teacher is like or what fantastic and champion teaching looks like; I don’t know if videos of phenomenal teaching need to go viral (or if they ever would) — I simply don’t know.  But I do know that an amazing teacher is a truly special sight to see, and everyone should get a chance to watch an exceptional teacher in action. Maybe then we would have at least an inkling of understanding of what happens in our nation’s classrooms so that we could speak with intelligence and understanding about what should happen in them.