Education Opinion

How Do Teachers Learn to Teach?

By Nancy Flanagan — May 21, 2014 5 min read
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How do teachers really learn to teach--to teach well, cooking on all disciplinary burners, deftly handling mini-crises of apathy and frustration, creating--on the fly--engaging new ways to absorb and apply important content and skills?

Is there a template for this process? Are there indispensible tools--like common standards, materials and assessments? Or is it an “every man for himself” sort of thing, a long sequence of trial and error and observation, fitting what works into a cohesive whole--building a profession? Is there a point at which teachers have “arrived"--mastered their craft, for an enduring future?

I ask this because there has been a flurry of pro-Common Core media recently, crediting the CCSS with being precisely the template and tool that will correct leaky, inadequate teaching and deficient, locally-created curricula. And, one presumes, send those internationally benchmarked scores rising like kites in the wind.

I don’t pay much attention to Pearsonesque advertising about exciting new programs--exciting and expensive--that will re-shape education. Since I began teaching, in the 1970s, the Next Big Thing in education has emerged cyclically to great fanfare, left its mark, then faded. In a market-based education ecology, we can expect regular turnover in what is considered essential for a good education. It’s how publishers, professional developers and non-profits stay alive.

What I have noticed lately is the entanglement of political ideas (civil rights and equity, the global economy, full employment, even national security) with public education. This isn’t the first time this has happened--if you’re as old as I am, you remember Johnny and Ivan--but the recent anniversary of the Brown decision has produced a lot of blah-blah about Our Failing Schools and how our only recourse is standardization (read: Common Core) and competition (read: charters).

The teachers and teaching we want, in this perspective, will be standardized for efficiency and competitively priced. No more teacher-for-life. No more slow-building of professional skills. We need teachers who can be whipped into shape quickly, willing to work 60-hour weeks and share their cell phone numbers with teenagers. When they burn out, no worries. More where that came from, now that we have the Common Core and union-free charters.

Sorry. I’m letting my cynicism get ahead of my questions: How do good teachers build a successful practice? How much time does it take--and what guidance and models do they need?

How long, for example, did it take me to learn to teach? What were the most useful experiences and tools in becoming an effective teacher?

After I was hired as a first-year band and vocal music teacher, I asked my principal if there was a music curriculum. Not really, he said. He pointed to two filing cabinets full of music--my instructional materials--and left me alone.

For the first decade or so, I was--like Indiana Jones--making it up as I went along. It was a long slog of trial, error and reflection on what was helpful. Reflection was the critical piece.

If you try something three times, and it doesn’t yield reasonably good results, my advice would be to bag that strategy, even if it’s the hot new thing, referenced in all the books on teaching. Not that you shouldn’t read books and articles on teaching--all teachers should, as there are always good ideas you’ve never tried. Still--my core advice to new teachers is: trust your own observations and judgment.

I had been teaching for close to two decades when the standards movement took root in American education. It was my first encounter with formal standardization as a teacher--I had never even used a textbook, or been part of a department where curriculum was coordinated. Although I went to conferences, I wasn’t able to observe other music teachers in the classroom. I couldn’t improve my teaching through collegiality--in fact, most music teachers I knew were bent on competing with other music teachers in contests and festivals.

When the MENC (now NAfME) music standards were released, I instantly fell in love with them. I realized that about 90% of my teaching was centered on Standards 1, 2 and 5. Since there are nine framing standards, I was essentially ignoring two-thirds of a fully realized curriculum. This was a stunning idea--in a good way. It opened my teaching up to new, creative avenues: interdisciplinary lessons, writing across the curriculum, improvisation and cultural studies.

Standards helped me become a much better teacher.

So why am I not turning cartwheels over our de facto national standards, the Common Core?

Three main reasons:

#1) The Common Core has aligned and mandated assessments (PARCC and Smarter Balanced--and look for “rebellious” states to recreate their own rigid assessments). And the data generated by those assessments is being used for nefarious purposes: to label children, to falsely “evaluate” teacher practice, to rank and grade schools in very different contexts.

#2) The Common Core is not voluntary and flexible. Teachers cannot pick and choose the most relevant and useful standards, like I could, or re-align the standards for their particular students’ developmental levels. It’s all or nothing.

#3) The Common Core has been vastly oversold. I believe the testimonials from teachers who say that the Common Core has changed their practice, for the better. But I do not believe that the Common Core, as national driver of teaching practice, is better than what went before. In fact, it drives me crazy when anyone--journalists, policy-makers, advocates and especially educators--credit the Common Core with marvelous new ideas that good teachers figured out decades ago. The music standards I so appreciated were written by music teachers who were already doing the things I found new and compelling--I was merely standing on their broad shoulders.

The assertion that the Common Core is THE answer to better teaching and learning, that teachers no longer need to trust their own observations and judgment, is both false and dangerous.

Standards can be a valuable tool in building an expert teaching practice, guiding teachers through the multiple aspects of building custom-tailored curriculum, developing their own appropriate assessments and instructional strategies. But it takes time, practice and the unique insights that come from experience and reflection.

What do you think--how do teachers learn to teach well?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.