Teaching Profession Opinion

How Expert Teachers Teach More

By Ariel Sacks — October 05, 2017 5 min read
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“Remember, the curriculum is everything that happens in the classroom,” Madeleine Ray said frequently to our cohort of teacher candidates at Bank Street College. She spoke these words with such certainty that they resounded in my memory long after, looking for their proper place among the many lessons I learned in my graduate studies at Bank Street. About a decade later, I had an epiphany about what she meant.

I always understood that the scope of my teaching was not limited to the objectives and plans I had prepared for a given period, but I needed substantial experience to actually understand and utilize Madeleine’s message.

Now, I believe this concept of teaching the whole curriculum is, in many ways, what defines an expert or master teacher.

Let me back up a bit. My epiphany about the curriculum being everything that happens came when I turned a lousy exit routine—dismissing too late and rushing students out without requiring them to properly clean up—into an elegant student-run procedure. Initially, I did this to solve my own problem. I frequently found myself stuck having to straighten up after my students between class periods. (Raise your hand if you’ve been there too!)

My new routine did more than simply solve this problem, though. I now got to watch my eighth graders straighten up the space on their desks, pick up stray papers from the floor around them, and wait to be dismissed. The Director of Maintenance, a student in each class who had applied for the position for that marking period, inspected the space around each cluster of desks and dismissed students table by table as they were ready. This student watched closely to see that classmates pushed in their chairs and noted any exceptions.

After several weeks of watching this process, I realized what was happening. I had expanded my curriculum to include a daily practice of respecting communal space, attending to detail, self-monitoring, punctuality, and developing student leadership.

This realization led me to better understand that in each moment of classroom life, I teach not one, but several things, whether I’m aware of all of them or not. For example, if I take the time to use precise language in the classroom, I teach students that word choices matter (alongside my primary objectives). If I take time to listen to my students, I teach them that their voices matter. Conversely, if I ignore a student who quietly jabs another student, I teach the class that it’s okay to quietly hurt another person. The teacher I was becoming saw the opportunity to teach self-awareness, empathy, responsibility, and forgiveness without suspending or overhauling the academic objectives of my lessons.

Gaining awareness of the multiple levels of teaching we do in a class period can empower us to literally teach more—and do so with more purpose—in the same amount of time.

It’s a little overwhelming to start to see this. In my own words, I understand Madeleine’s message of “the curriculum is everything that happens in the classroom” to mean that whatever I think I’m teaching is just one layer of the learning experience for students. The curriculum I am actually involved in teaching includes every single moment that transpires in my classroom with and among students. The more I can see opportunities in each layer, the more powerful and potent my teaching and students’ learning experiences will be.

Recently, we’ve seen a push—especially with the popularity of Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion—to maximize class time for efficiency. I propose that efficiency only scratches the surface of what master teachers can do with their time with students. Master teachers are aware of the multiple layers of curriculum in their classrooms and become fluent at utilizing them to teach a broad array of essential academic and social-emotional skills simultaneously.

In the career world, success depends on both the hard skills relevant to the job and the soft skills that allow us to get along with coworkers, adapt, and build trust. According to an article in Business Insider, the the top reasons employees get fired from positions involve issues of character and personal habits rather than actual job performance. Being untrustworthy, not being “a team player,” getting involved in office gossip, and harassing co-workers are some of these pitfalls. Tomorrow’s workers are today’s students, and they need more than just academic instruction to thrive.

One lesson I learned at Bank Street College is that the social-emotional, intellectual, and physical development of children, do not occur along three isolated tracks. Rather, there is a constant interaction between them as a child grows and learns. These interactions take place every instant in the classroom whether we choose to acknowledge the reality or not.

When teachers, schools and school systems do not consciously engage the multiple threads of children’s learning, students often receive confusing, contradictory messages. For example, a student sees a rule on the wall that reads, “Respect others.” However, when one student shows disrespect toward another member of the class, teachers regularly rely on consequences to address the misbehavior (generally in accordance with school policies). Instead of teaching the many lessons needed to create a community of respect, at best, the consequences only make harmful behaviors less visible. This common reality creates cognitive dissonance for students at school, on top of other stress they may experience in their lives outside of school. In fact, it’s the rare exception to find an entire school community—not just a single classroom—that is truly safe and accepting of all its members.

We have an amazing opportunity to create a far healthier, more robust education for all our students in the very classrooms we possess, with the time and money we already have. If we utilize the knowledge and skills of expert teachers—who are in every building and who empower students on multiple levels, every minute of the class period—we can uplift our entire teaching force and school system.

[Photo by Chu Tai at Unsplash]

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.