The Act of Teaching

The Act of Teaching

By Timothy Dohrer

In some endeavors, it is wise to keep the general public or audience from knowing what happens behind the scenes. A colleague of mine used to refer to this as knowing what goes into “making the sausage.” And while it is sometimes interesting to understand the inner workings, it can also be a bit of a letdown.

Cue the scene in the “Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy and all of us learn that the “Great and Powerful” Oz is nothing more than a regular guy (albeit quite creative!).

In the world of business, trademarks, and patents, you also don’t want to give away your secrets lest you lose your market edge.

As a public school teacher, I’ve always felt that the opposite needs to be true in education. Now, I’m certainly not advocating live video feeds from my classroom or allowing anyone into my room. Obviously that would be disruptive and invade the privacy of students. But I’m not opposed to showing people what we do. In fact, I am so proud of the incredible work teachers do with their students every day. Showing off this excellent work would not only reveal to the world amazing teachers and students but it would also de-mystify the act of teaching.

Teaching is hard. As our Student Teachers enter their fourth week of full-time teaching, we hear them repeat these words constantly. It is a physical, emotional, and intellectual act that requires stamina, spirit, humor, and full attention. And that’s just during the school day! Add into it grading, planning, tutoring individual students, responding to emails, commuting, and taking care of yourself (and your family), it’s a long, tiring yet exhilarating day.

But teaching is also not impossible. It is something that can be taught and learned. In the world of pre-service and in-service teacher education, we have defined content, skills, and dispositions necessary to be a good teacher. Let me give you just two examples…

Lesson Planning

Every day, when students walk into a classroom, the teacher has a plan. The plan answers this important question: What are we going to learn today? A lesson plan is simply an agenda or roadmap for what is going to happen for the next few minutes or hours.

Most teachers today employ a “backward design” approach to lesson planning, introduced in 1949 by the legendary Ralph Tyler and popularized more recently by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their 1998 book Understanding by Design.  This is simply identifying the end goal or objective and then planning backwards from that objective, taking into account time, space, content, and student ability.

This all feels pretty mechanical and, well, it can be. But what really great teachers do when they are planning a lesson is to preview in their minds how the lesson might go, based on their experience and knowledge of the kids. This act of pre-thinking and doing a mental simulation of the lesson is no different than a downhill skier preparing for their next run, but it is essential to making sure the lesson will go well. And it is the difference between a good lesson and a great lesson.

So, we can teach people how to organize and develop a lesson but there are some added variables like experience and knowing kids that can greatly impact a lesson’s success.

Connecting with Kids

Another aspect of teaching we can all learn is how to connect with kids. Teaching is a human endeavor. We look into the eyes of our students and make that connection. We have to read body language, hear vocal tone, and listen carefully to the words being used. There is also a huge element of trust that must be established, between student and teacher, student and student, teacher and parent. Trust comes from shared experiences, through words and actions.

Again, through years of experience and research, we have great ways of helping teaching candidates learn how to communicate clearly, get to know their students well, and develop classroom cultures where trust can flourish. For example, one strategy that many teachers use is to walk around the classroom and check each student’s homework for completion. This can take only a few minutes of class time but it does a number of things. It certainly helps keep track of homework completion! But maybe more importantly, it gives the teachers a moment right away in class to make a human connection with the student, check in with them, and focus them for the upcoming lesson.

Of course, making that kind of connection with everyone is not easy. I often ask people if they like everyone they work with or if they were good friends with everyone they graduate with in high school. The answer, of course, is no. Yet for a teacher, the expectation is that they will connect with every student no matter what! I remember first realizing this. I looked out at a room of 25 juniors and realized that if I were a kid in this class I certainly would NOT have gotten along with all of them. But in my role as teacher, I had to put aside my personal feelings and try to connect with everyone. Some people just can’t do that and it is not something we can teach.

The Bottom Line

Teaching is hard. Teaching can be taught. But teaching is also dependent on the personality of the teacher. All this adds up to a complex and complicated profession. But just because it is complicated does not mean we can’t explain what we do.  The act of teaching is something we all should understand, appreciate, and celebrate.

Contact Us

Master of Science in Education School of Education & Social Policy

618 Garrett Place
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/467-1458

Email: msedprogram@northwestern.edu