A few years ago I attended some major teacher conferences and came away with a deep sense of unease. I would like to discuss what it was about the atmosphere of those conferences that struck me as dangerous to students and a block to active learning. And by doing so, I hope to touch upon what is possible in a classroom free of these hazards.
Let me make clear that there were creative approaches and helpful resources available to teachers. I'm more concerned with the overall tone of the presentations and the disposition of the participants. Two things in particular concerned me:
- A sense that strategies overshadow students
- An assumption that teaching is definable and limited.
In the first case, the danger is visible in the form of curricular and classroom management approaches. What becomes of the classroom atmosphere when a teacher identifies with a school of thought, armed with a strategy? What becomes of the complex and spirited people sitting in the chairs? Students know when they're on the other end of an approach at the expense of relationship. If students are not at ease with a teacher, what are the chances of something substantive taking place? The need for relationship is emphasized because it is rooted to the quality of teaching itself. In fact, the relationship informs the teacher and guides appropriate approaches. Obviously, we need techniques and strategies, but there's a problem when they overshadow the living moment.
This brings us to the second issue. When we begin with the premise that teaching is within the bounds of something learned, that one can be 'trained' to teach, we run the risk of limiting it to a profession. So while our training and knowledge offer security and direction, they can come across as a dry means to a fixed end. This is unfortunate considering the countless hours a student spends in the classroom. Direction is needed, but unless the student can feel safe to explore, she will not be free to learn for herself. Teaching is not only a profession. It goes much deeper than that. At its root, teaching is something that cannot be learned. It's too dynamic, unpredictable, and mysterious to be limited. If teachers begin with this reverence and then use tools of the trade, we'd have far more engaging classrooms.