The important work of the teacher really is to think about teaching, to think about it all day, every day, and through the thinking to get better at the doing.
If public education is to be made right, the work will be done quietly by teachers. These will be teachers who spend considerable time, not just teaching, but thinking about teaching—about how to become better and better at the work they know to be important.
Yet teacher improvement often, and necessarily, is about someone else’s thoughts—a new curriculum handed down from school officials, a new way of discipline from a popular theorist, a new technology, a new textbook with the latest insight.
Experts do much good, but when they are used as stand-ins for the thinking teachers must do for themselves, damage is done. This is because the important work of the teacher really is to think about teaching, to think about it all day, every day, and through the thinking to get better at the doing. No new program can achieve this for teachers, no new theory, no latest fix. The work is just too complex to be captured this simply.
The work has its own way—a slow, hard, and persistent way that is best described as “mindfulness.” It begins with mental engagement in the classroom: when a lesson succeeds, considering why; when an assignment fails, uncovering causes; when a program falters, envisioning improvements. Teaching well means taking in events of the classroom, thinking about them, and learning.
But mindfulness goes deeper. It digs into the nooks and crannies of all school life, drawing strength from the intellectual context teachers build for themselves and for one another. Formal learning helps: the workshops teachers attend, the conferences they go to, the advanced degrees they earn. But the layering of a school’s intellectual context is far more intricate, far less amenable to planning and scheduling. It builds from questions teachers raise as they talk in hallways. It grows from practices observed as another’s and wisely adopted as one’s own. It feeds significantly from stories teachers tell one another about teaching, and thrives on helpful advice and shared confidences between teachers.
Even resting places, like the teachers’ lounge or after-school social gatherings, find a way to contribute. Here, communication of a different content flows richly and diversely: casual conversation, personal stories, relaxed humor, and sometimes really good discussion. From time to time, a teaching problem may get introduced, even resolved, or a school policy may get reformulated; but it’s the “other talk” that’s so important—talk of family, travel, books, movies, politics, the economy ... life. It’s this “other talk” that replenishes inner resources so necessary for teaching, resources like intellectual openness, personal connectedness, and motivation. When teachers momentarily set aside the classroom; when they allow themselves to think and talk on a wider plane of experience, they advance as models of learning and connect to the classroom in a larger way. Teachers celebrating together the wideness of life and learning can only mean good things for students.
Paradoxically, a school’s intellectual context grows most generously when teachers pull from the herd to define themselves individually as teachers. This effort represents ultimate mindfulness, thinking at its peak. Teachers on this path do much personal searching to find a best fit of self with teaching. They listen to the influencers, the leaders who direct, advise, and persuade. Nearer to home, they listen to colleagues. But they also pay close attention to themselves: to what they have success with, to what they enjoy, and to what makes them feel good about being a teacher.
Out of all the paying-attention, the trying-on and taking-off of many different ways, these teachers find their center, the personal space that is their very own. They change and adjust within this space, but they have found home. And from its safety, they prevail as examples of what the work of teaching is really about—looking and listening to others, yes, but most of all, a lot of thinking about the choices that are right for them. Teachers who go to the trouble of finding their individuality live forever in the memory of students. Think back to your own schooling and be grateful for the faces and voices memory offers up.
Teacher improvement is complex and contradicts much popular wisdom about how the process occurs. New programs don’t guarantee change, nor do added years of experience, advanced degrees, legislative mandates, or administrative coercion. Change comes when teachers are personally committed to the work of becoming better and better at teaching. And it comes most enduringly when that commitment exists in an open and thoughtful context that supports the work—a context built largely by teachers themselves, layer by layer.
Carolyn Bunting is a former public school administrator and university professor who now works as an education writer. She lives in Durham, N.C.