Untangling the knot: an attempt at naming the essentials

How do we find simplicity amid the chaos and confusion?

Organizing ones thoughts around the essentials of teaching is all at once overwhelming and startlingly simple. It requires thoughtful processing and most of all, time. But is there something that comes before the disorienting sensation of explaining what effective teaching looks like? I think so.

Before discussing essential teacher dispositions, we must agree upon an essential belief and an essential focus. I believe this because by laying a common framework of belief and focus, we are solid in our foundation as educators. Each teacher practice takes on its own personality and style, but once we peel away the layers, the base should be the same. With the same foundation, teachers can be more efficient in naming what could be altered in their practice.

First, every teacher must maintain the essential belief that all students can learn. This underlies all of our work. When we agree here, we commit to finding ways to move this truth into practice. Differences in how may arise, but the essential belief remains.

Next, essential focus questions serve as an enduring lens from which we view and decide upon our choices as teachers: 

1)   What do students need to know?

2)   How do I teach them what they need to know?

3)   How do I know students are learning?

This seems simple enough. Decide on a topic, teach it, and test students. That doesn’t seem so hard. Yet it is here where we must pause and greet our friend, Context.

The moment Context steps in the room, feelings of stress, anxiety and confusion tend to follow. Indeed, it is the simplicity of teaching that is as daunting as it is freeing.

I argue that instead of meeting Context with anxiety and frustration, we instead embrace the challenge Context offers. If we are grounded in our core beliefs and anchored to focus questions, Context becomes less daunting; rather, Context is freeing because it gives us an opportunity to live out best practices.  It is here our craft takes shape.

In this post, I will synthesize my thoughts, experiences, theory and practice into what I believe are essential teacher dispositions, skills, and knowledge. I will make connections to the anchor questions discussed above and to other important dispositions. After much deliberation, I decided upon four categories: expertise, communication, management and reflection. When combined, students learn. And that is the simple goal we maintain each day.

The essentials for educators:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” The Little Prince

 Expertise = use what you know + you don’t know it all

First, I contend that an essential teacher disposition is expertise. Expertise extends far beyond a solid foundation in content. In fact, I believe effective teachers view knowing content as a given. Instead, I want to focus on expertise in pedagogy.

PEDAGOGY: study of teaching methods, including the aims of  education and the ways in which such goals may be achieved. (Dictionary.com)     

Beyond our content we must be dedicated students of our field. This manifests itself in many ways. For example, teachers need to be experts on state and national standards, or the “what” of teaching. If we waver from our focus question of “what do our students need to know?,” we are lost before we begin. Indeed, it is our duty to be experts on the process of teaching.

Another example of expertise is exhibiting a strong understanding of current theories and strategies. For example, effective teachers are deeply knowledgeable about learning styles, motivation strategies, effective methods for ELL students, potential uses of technology and key literacy skills. But effective teachers don’t stop there. They constantly strive to implement new strategies and practices into lessons.

Furthermore, it is crucial to be experts in assessment. Herein lies the key to whether or not the first focus questions proved successful. Stiggins explains, “Used with skill, assessment can motivate the unmotivated, restore the desire to learn, and encourage students to keep learning, and it can actually create—not simply measure—increased achievement” (CAFSL, 3). There is so much power in assessment for both students and teachers. When we are proficient at assessing, students have a better idea of what they know and where they need to go. We also inform our own practice and can improve instruction. Expertise in assessment cannot be emphasized enough.

Beyond content, effective teachers are also experts in the diverse social and cultural aspects of teaching. Teachers in diverse schools–of which I hope to be next year– must recognize and acknowledge diversity in the classroom and highlight difference as strength. Here is an example of where Context leads to anxiety, especially when teachers lack resources or are close-minded. But effective teachers seek ways to reach out to parents, include culturally relevant topics in instruction, and are informed about specific cultural norms and religious practices.

Lindsey et al. in Culturally Proficient Education, explain that a culturally competent teacher increases student learning because they focus on the core questions of curriculum, instruction and assessment while considering the assets each student brings to the classroom (Lindsey, 15).

Furthermore, the authors posit that for culturally competent teachers, “the shift in thinking from ‘our students can’t do it’ has been replaced by a mindset that says with clear goals, high expectations, rigorous coursework, extra instructional support as needed, and teachers with strong academic and pedagogic back-grounds, ‘our students can do it’” (Lindsey et al, 15). We must not only be prepared to teach content but to do so in increasingly diverse classroom. Every student can learn.

Side note: The connection between low-performing schools and students of color is complex and increasingly frustrating as I learn more about historical and structural causes. Yet I need to remember that reality and Context offer opportunities. I will stay informed and practice cultural competency to increase student learning in whatever school I teach.

As I alluded to earlier, effective teachers are experts in appropriate strategies for ELL students, students with special needs and gifted students. In other words, effective teachers are experts in differentiation. That is not to say they know everything; rather, they are proactive about seeking answers and using resources to increasing student learning.

Communication: ¡sumamente importante!

Next, I argue that communication is an essential teacher skill. It is closely related to collaboration, an increasingly common practice in the teaching field. On the surface, teacher as communicator may seem like common sense but we must go deeper to better understand its direct connection to student learning.

Teacher “voice” plays a large role in the overt act of communicating. Student learning may cease if they do not understand the teacher. This connects to the second focus question of “how do I teach students what they need to know?” Effective teachers display a variety of tones and pitches and use their voice to command and maintain attention.

Clear, concise and explicit directions. A clear understanding of expectations. Each of these exemplifies how effective teachers communicate in the classroom. Communication is so important that The Skillful Teacher dedicates an entire chapter to Clarity. The authors explain “[clear] teachers guide student thinking in deliberate ways along a structured route engineered for thinking and learning” (TST, 162). Voice and clarity are the bases for classroom communication and contribute directly to student motivation and learning.

Successful communication helps students feel safe and builds rapport. But what is successful communication? It is thoughtful, respectful, timely, cultural competent, relevant, caring and explicit. When teachers promote communication, students are more likely to participate and become involved (Weinstein, 50). Effective teachers work to create open lines of communication in their classroom and with parents and administration.

Relatedly, effective teachers promote higher-level thinking skills for each student. In this way, communication connects to real world contexts because effective teachers recognize the need for students to learn how to express themselves with fluidity and clarity as a life skill. I agree with Saphier et. al. when they declare “Space for questions like Why am I here? Does my life have a purpose? What does my future hold? needn’t be present in any particular curriculum; it needs to be present in the heart of a teacher” (TST 214). Teaching students to communicate requires intentional effort and persistence in the belief that all students can learn.

Furthermore, communication extends beyond the classroom. It encompasses communication with other teachers, staff, administration and parents. Non-instructional tasks often require teachers to communicate with people other than their students. Nonetheless, effective teachers treat each interaction with professionalism.

In terms of parent communication, effective teachers must be aware of the how individual nuances affect day-to-day student learning. This is only possible by communicating and collaborating with families. Weinstein asserts that “family involvement can be key to students’ success and extending specific invitations to participate has been shown to have a powerful impact on family involvement at home and in school” (181). Effective teachers do not underestimate the power of parent communication and collaboration has on fostering student achievement. In fact, they embrace it.

Middle management:

I chose to include management in the list of essential teacher dispositions because of its connection with action and leadership. Management especially relates to the second essential question, “How do I teach them what they need to know?” because of its direct relation to instruction. Effective teachers make informed decisions to increase motivation (action) and lead their students toward self-awareness and responsibility. It may seem effortless for some but most likely, a lot of time and consideration goes into teachers’ classroom management.

The Skillful Teacher breaks up management into six main areas: attention, momentum, space, time, routines, and discipline (TST, 18). Instead of discussing each aspect, it will suffice to say that effective teachers never settle upon one specific strategy or practice. Instead, they carefully consider their students when deciding upon management strategies and constantly work to find practices that contribute to student learning and achievement.

Examples of classroom management: *note: there are very few images displaying secondary management, almost all images are from elementary*

Beyond the areas of management defined by TST, effective teachers also manage relationships and work toward creating a caring and respectful classroom climate and increasing student learning. “Whenever students feel empowerment, acceptance, and safety to take risks and try things that are hard for them, they like school better and learn more” (TST, 328). This does not happen by accident. Effective teachers consider their student’s psychological needs very important and understand that when certain needs are met, student learning increases.

Lastly, management can be defined as leadership. Effective leaders always consider alternatives and are open to other opinions. Effective teachers should adopt these skills too. When considering standards, or What do students need to know?, teachers lead the way. While policy makers may write them, teachers are the ones that make them real. Navigating this task can be difficult but through communication and collaboration, students not only learn content but the positive effects of open communication.

Reflect, reflect, reflect: Repeat.

I alluded to reflection throughout this post. One could even say reflection is a motif of education. We are constantly called to consider, reconsider, analyze, reassess and evaluate. Why? Because reflection in education leads to improved teaching and increased student achievement. Simplicity reigns again! The book, Reflective Practice to Improve Schools: An Action Guide for Educators, by York-Barr et al. was particularly informative around the art of reflection.

“Reflective practice requires a pause. Sometimes the pause is intentional—a purposeful slowing down to create a space in which presence and openness can emerge” (York-Barr et al., 6). It is easy to blame time as the reason teachers fail to reflect. Indeed, amid the chaos of a teachers’ day, there seems to be little time to pause, much less deliberately consider our practice. But effective teachers value reflection enough to make time.

York-Barr et al. name many potential benefits of reflection including “guidance for new teachers, continuous learning, bridges between theory and practice, consideration of multiple perspectives, more productive engagement of conflict, new content knowledge for immediate application, embedded means of formative assessment, growth in cultural awareness and competence, greater professionalism and voice, individual and collective sense of efficacy and strengthened relationships among staff” (York Barr et al., 14). Put this way, how can effective teaching occur without reflection?

“[Reflection] serves as the foundation for continuous learning and more effective action in               educational practice so that children are successful in school and in life”                     (York-Barr et al., pg. 11).

In a field dedicated to people, we must be willing and eager to reflect in community. Saphier et al. say “skillful teachers constantly reach out to colleagues with an assertive curiosity that says, ‘I don’t know it all. No one does or ever will, but I am always growing, adding to my knowledge and skills and effectiveness” (TST 2). In this way, teaching demands humility within our reflection and an openness to others’ opinions and ideas.

Conclusion: Uh-oh. I’m confused again. What does it all mean?

Try as we may to pinpoint specific teacher dispositions, skills and knowledge, there is no right answer. And that is exactly the point. The point is to grapple with and struggle to make sense of it all. In order to be true students of our craft, we must constantly question and challenge ourselves. We must compare what is given to what goes on in the classroom each and every day.

This post was an attempt at unraveling then wrapping back up the intensely complex profession of teaching. Here is what I’ve found. First, effective teachers share the belief that every student can learn. Next, underneath dispositions, skills and knowledge lay a few simple questions that I believe should drive our every move as educators:

1)   What do students need to know?

2)   How do I teach them what they need to know?

3)   How do I know students are learning?

These questions are our mantra. When these questions anchor us, navigating the details of teaching becomes more manageable. Finally, expertise, communication, management and reflection are essential teacher dispositions and skills that contribute to student achievement.

Ultimately, being an effective teacher means living out many of the values and practices we expect of our students. Effective teachers set high expectations for students to become experts in content, to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively, and to lead and to reflect thoughtfully on their impact in the world around them. The classroom is a microcosm for honing these skills and behaviors. Our profession serves as a vehicle to impart skills and dispositions we want to see lived out in the “real world.”

For these reasons, I argue that amid the confusion, if you truly believe all students can learn and are wholeheartedly dedicated to learning about teaching with an open mind, you are on the path to effective teaching. It’s simple. Really.


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