The Biggest Obstacle Isn't a Reality: It's a Dream
Here's the old model, the time-tested, incredibly persistent concept of "school:"
The teacher teaches the student.
It's simple, easy to understand, and has the ring of truth. We say things like "he taught me so much!" or "I learned so much from her." The teacher is a vending machine, a talking textbook, a knowledge dispenser. We keep the wisdom and dole it out.
what did your favorite teacher actually teach you?
But when that ain't working for you, when the students are bored, lost, or detached-- these are awful teacher moments. Your students loll in the harsh light of your artificial sun, they list in their seats, darkness pervades, and the clatter of the lecture plays like a rusty chain on the pavement.
We love a brilliant genius around whom the STUDENTS orbit.
Anyone can teach anything, we think.
The Great Teacher Fantasy
Often, teachers of teachers claim to want to debunk this model. The better part of professional development that I have seen in the last 10 years as a teacher seems to be grounded in the idea that the teacher should not be the "Sage On the Stage." But I don't believe we actually want to debunk this at all. When we talk about a great teacher, we often talk about this brilliant genius around whom the classroom orbits.
This old model IS the problem, of course. We love the fantasy that teaching is simply imparting wisdom. The best teachers are ones whose kids learn the most from him, we think.
We live in a "Guru culture." To be a "great teacher," you just have to be a respected resource of knowledge or skills. Anyone can teach, we think, as long as a person has content mastery. Are you a great chef? Then you can teach cooking. Are you a professional baseball player? You'd be a great coach. Are you a great surgeon? You'd be a great science teacher. We've even created our computer models around it. Data is "downloaded" from an original source. It's "copied." Knowledge is not mastered-- it's copied and pasted.
The ramifications are enormous. We have come to think of teachers as simply "info and skill distributers." Our whole student testing and teacher evaluation model is based on this presumption. Our cultural conversation about teaching isn't based on teaching; it's based on a fantasy of teaching.
What Teachers Actually Do
Student teaches herself. Teacher teaches student to teach herself.
Our fantasies about being a great teacher hide what great teachers do. Great teachers don't teach anything; they teach learning. First time parents have no teachers. Nobody could teach Mick Jagger how to sing, Warren Buffet how to invest, Oprah Winfrey how to produce, Michael Phelps how to swim, or you how to do whatever it is YOU are good at. Of course, teachers helped Mick and Warren and Oprah and the rest-- but no one taught them-- at least, not in the traditional sense. They taught themselves. Their mentors/teachers taught them (and you) not WHAT to do but, rather, HOW to do it. As have all the great teachers in your life.
Heck, you taught yourself language. How to walk. Do you ever think about how your brain must worked for that to have happened? For it to happen to everyone, everywhere, in every culture around the world? Great teachers know that students HAVE to teach themselves.
Great teachers don't teach subjects;
it's true in every field:
The fantasy model needs a real challenge, especially as our cultural and political conversations about good teaching begin to gain more and more traction. How can we attract great teachers when we don't even talk about what a great teacher does?
When on the job, the best teachers are barely there. They elegantly and efficiently drop in and out of the learning process. Doing this is complicated and requires extraordinary awareness. It's a profession that is all about "how," not "what."
Great teachers aren't vending machines. They are catalysts, context makers, inspirers, models, and value multipliers.
It's why I say teaching is like entrepreneurship: it's about engaging others in answering a question or solving a problem. It's why it's the most important profession in the world. Teachers impact every market and every other profession. How we think about teachers impacts everything.
This is not a moral argument. It's an economic one.