Teaching Conference

I should make an effort to get started.

Today, Saturday, I went to the Pine Point School in S, CT. Forty-three teachers nominated by their thirty-five schools attended, including seven from Pine Point itself who acted as moderators, advisors, and intermediaries. The day opened with a brief introduction by the head of Pine Point, Dr. Paul Geise, and then a keynote address by Diana Smith of St. Anne’s-Bellfield School in Charlottesville, VA.

Ms. Smith spoke consisely on the subject of excellence in teaching, and the mastery of teaching. Viewing it as simultaneously an awe-inspiring and mysterious process, she also spoke about the science of teaching — that some parts of the work of being a teacher were quantifiable and repeatable. The goal of the conference was to determine just what could be taught and how to expand that body of knowledge. She spoke carefully about the paradoxes of teaching: both excruciatingly real, and excruciatingly unreal. The goal of teaching, she suggested, was awakening students to transformative beauty. Quoting Tom Waits, she said, “I can’t go to school in an ugly place like that.”

Ironically, she said that schools run on good teaching, not on great teaching. There are a huge number of acceptable rather than terrific teachers, and that acceptable teachers function like the second string of a baseball team; they may not be the stars that the fans cheer for, but they catch the outs and fill the bases, man the shortstop’s place and relieve the big pitchers. It therefore becomes incumbent on great teachers to support and elevate their colleagues — because those teachers get as much or more done. Every teacher reaches someone, and helping every teacher toward being a great teacher is the best way to improve the school and the community as a whole.

She went on to describe the art of teaching as ineffable — but regarded the science of teaching as teachable. For example, knowing when a teachable moment arrives, is part of the art of teaching… but establishing classroom routines so that teaching moments arrive more frequently is part of the science. Managing how homework goes in and out is science — knowing what grade to give is art. Managing time in a classroom is art, but knowing where to put the clock is science.

She said, “April is the cruelest month in teaching because by then, all you have to fall back on is routines and order, because by then most of the hope is over and gone.”

Timing is also important — knowing when to ask a question is art; knowing the right level of challenge to put in a question, or the difference between a dud question and a stud question is science.

Most of all, Ms. Smith was concerned with the dynamic which exists between teacher, student and curriculum. James has a relationship with Mr. Smith, and both of them relate to the study of algebra II. Each of us has attitudes towards our students, toward other teachers, toward our curriculae. We all hold certain values in mind with regard to curriculum, ourselves as teachers, and our students as students. We all believe certain things about teaching and students and curriculum. Yet we rarely get to express these ideas.

She then spoke about the idea of a metaphor for teaching. One of the participants in the conference had described herself as an orchestral leader, drawing together diverse instrumental players into a sonata or a symphony. Another compared herself to the sea — deep and embracing. Another said he was a pimp, presiding over the love affair of a student with learning.

Then there were the paradoxes. Teachers are both egotists and martyrs, both performers and vulnerable, both clear and mysterious, both serious and zany. Teachers are derided in the larger culture as powerless, and yet they have power over numerous students. How do we avoid arbitrary exercises of our power? How do we reduce the number of adversarial relationships with our students? How do we avoid being proud of giving hard tests and expanding the number of our failed students? How do we avoid living through our students or being overly sentimental about their lives? How do we avoid over or under-estimating them?

Most of all, how do we figure out what they’re doing? Kids in day schools spend 10% of their total time in school — WHAT ARE THEY DOING WITH THE REST OF THEIR TIME? Why do schools bear the brunt of responsibility for what students do, when 90% of their time is elsewhere?

I found myself thinking about Forrest’s book in the middle of all of this, taking the glyph of the omniscient and labeling the six points: teacher, language, student, subject, classroom, … I got hung up on the sixth. I settled on “context”, but it’s probably something else. I’ll have to talk to him about that.

After the keynote, we split into four groups. Mine had eleven. Dave Smith was our moderator — a teacher from Pine Point; there was also Karen Stone, a former secretary with the fastest longhand script I have ever seen. If she’d been in the Old West, the pen truly would be mightier than the sword. She was sitting right next to me, taking dictation from all of us talking at once, capturing the essentials of what everyone said, and moving on. Amazing. Our group also had Marijike (sp?) a fifth grade teacher, Annie from a school for the deaf, Tony another boarding schooler like me, Karen from Long Island who taught Pre-K, Susan who taught AP calculus, Jane from a school without a campus.

At this point my notes dribble out, partly because I knew a complete record was in fact being kept, and partly because I couldn’t write, think and talk all at the same time. Some of the things make some sense. The need to structure epiphanies, so that students go “aha!” more frequently. Use of routines to familiarize students with classroom procedure and help them gett settled. The use of scripts to set boundaries in the classroom (e.g., saying “may I have your attention please?” and having the kids respond, “yes you may.” Being prepared to say, “I don’t know” when you don’t. Honoring and respecting kids’ words and work. Creating project menus for the differently abled — kids can cook their projects, write them, make dioramas or poster boards. Helping kids invest in loss — they learn more from mistakes than from getting it right — yet the risk of loss has to be backed up with security — there has to be a net to catch them when they fail.

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