Our classrooms may be public places but in some ways they are very private. Unlike other professions my teaching is a deep and meaningful expression of who I am. Long before the new evaluations and reform many teachers were consistently seeking to improve their craft in substantive and long lasting ways that reflect closely held beliefs.
However, no matter how much a teacher reads, studies or implements good classroom practice, nothing can replace watching an experienced, gifted, self reflective teacher at their craft in their own space.
For years my sister Stephanie Morrison and I have toyed around with the idea of visiting each others classrooms. She teaches in the suburbs and I teach in a city. So a few months ago I asked my BFT (Best Friend Teacher) Lelia Craigg if she would be interested in leaving her classroom to go watch my sister teach and to my delight she said Yes! Several weeks later Mrs. Morrison came to our school to observe us teach.
These are the smiling faces of Mrs. Lelia Craigg Grade 3 (left) of Morse School, Poughkeepsie City School District, NY and Mrs. Stephanie Morrison Grade 4 (right) of Central Valley Elementary School, NY.
On January 6, 2017 after planning and discussing our learning focus and goals via google docs and a conference call, we traveled to CVE to visit Mrs. Morrison and observe her instructional day. We took notes asked questions during the day and debriefed at the end of the school session.
I took the above photo in Mrs. Morrison’s class. She is a well respected 20 year veteran in her school district.
What did I learn?
I came to observe the math lesson of the day while Mrs. Craigg focused on guided reading.
I had questions about math algorithms. I did not really understand the difference or relationship between an algorithm and a math strategy. I also had questions about the efficacy of teaching first graders multiple math strategies.
What I learned was that an algorithm is the step by step solution to solving the math problem at hand and that any strategy used to solve the problem, is based on the specific algorithm that is being taught. Also, on the ride back home Mrs. Craigg reminded me that student knowledge of fewer strategies with thorough mastery is more important than their acquaintance with many strategies and weak mastery.
As I watched Mrs. Morrison teach the double digit multiplication standard algorithm lesson it reminded me that:
1. First graders MUST KNOW their math facts cold.
2. Student focus and stamina play a pivotal a role in math.
3. The importance of teacher patience during a long math lesson.
Small inaccuracies in calculation are very costly in the upper grades. Hence my belief and emphasis of math fact mastery in first grade is warranted. Math stamina is another area of importance. Children must endure to solution in math. Focus and control are important here.
(You might want to listen to my posted interview: What Kind of People do We Want our Students to Become, with Marianne Goodwin) for a discussion of early life skills like focus and control.)
Mrs. Morrison’s students seemed quite accustomed to long math lessons and followed along. She kept this direct instruction lesson upbeat and was very positive while moving throughout the class encouraging students frequently. She deftly corrected imprecise calculations, redirected behaviors and kept the lesson humming with 100% student engagement. Watching her reminded me that there is no substitute for content mastery by the teacher and that the spirit with which we teach is just as important.
I believe there are essentially three C’s to good teaching.
Know the CONTENT
Know the CHILDREN and
Know your CHARACTER.
Before we go any further there is something that I want you to know.
If you are going to teach…then teach
There is no substitute for knowing your stuff period.
Expert knowledge of a subject frees you to flow and teach in the spirit. It gives you license to teach the subject at hand with transforming grace. The subject does not matter. Students are soul hungry and they need to be fed. Good teaching offers utensils with which to dine. That’s what I like about Mrs. Craigg and Mrs. Morrison – collaborating with them is a study in content and teaching with the soul in mind. Their passion to change lives is evident in the rich feedback I get whenever talking to them. I rarely interact with them and leave empty. In the same way, they challenge their students to think critically not because of the lesson’s objective but because it’s how they think.
I listened to them talk about the lesson and then ease into a conversation about their own teaching philosophies. They actually had many shared understandings. Both hold high high expectations, have a no nonsense approach to classroom management and believe in skillful student centered planning.
On several occasions Mrs. Morrison has told me, “I put so much love in these children! I fill them up!” She knows the secret. Love is the best motivator in the world and it works. This is where our shared history comes in.
Teaching in the spirit means that we teach so fiercely that we go beyond the texts and tests and reach for a testimony. In church, a good testimony is the powerful verbal declaration of spiritual transformation. I always ask students at the end of the school year if they can “give a testimony” that is stand and tell what they have learned.
Sometimes the testimony is academic in nature and sometimes more personal. Older students (I have also taught upper grades) often give heartfelt testimonies of how friends got them through tough times. They report that they do not know “what would have happened” if it had not been for so and so. I have had to fight back tears and remind myself that I was listening to fifth graders.
These are the most poignant and the testimonies that have taught me the most. I did not realize how much children currently rely on each other for moral support.
After a few giggles and with gentle coaxing most first graders get up and testify too. Their testimonies are of personal milestones (learning to ride a bike for example), mastery of specific subjects (math), recent topics taught and of course, learning how to read. Some of these are purposefully funny and we laugh at the shared stops along our together journey. “Remember that time!…” Some very mature first graders give more formal testimonies and specifically thank me.
My testimony is last and is sprinkled with a few catch phrases from mini literary sermonettes given through the year. (The diligence of Katy in the book Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton for example.) Afterwards we all clap smile at each other we close the school year.
I share my experiences with Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Craigg and they share with me. This has kept me going going for many years. Adding this recent experience was priceless for entering the others sacred teaching space was truly inspirational. There is nothing like visiting a teacher who is on fire to watch them burn!
To end I want to say that while I understand, appreciate and uphold the sound cognitive goals of school reform my prayer for my students is that they are blessed with successful lives that do not exclude faith and hope. These are the bedrock upon which I stand and teach. If I have learned anything in life I know that above all else these will sustain them.
Teaching Through a Storm
What does it take to survive and thrive as a career teacher in public school in America? In this article I share my thoughts about what has kept me teaching after all these years despite the stormy challenges of our day to day most noble calling.
This week I took the time to read a few blogs written by public school teachers who have left the profession. These stories are heartbreaking and very disturbing. While I do not know the current percentage of teachers who are leaving the profession I do feel safe in saying that I understand their pain. Most of us enter the profession with great optimism, much enthusiasm and the bright eyed wonder of unwavering hope.
Along the way we encounter the stormy challenges of public school teaching and we must make difficult decisions. It happens to all of us. Outside of my first year teaching 25 years ago, last year was the most difficult year of teaching. I was truly in embattled. But nurtured by my faith in God, enveloped by the love of my family and friends and propelled by the lessons of my history I survived.
In this profession some years are especially emotionally draining. If you can take it…you can make it.
The truth is that we are engrossed in the most embattled profession in this nation. I’m reading through Dana Goldstein’s “The Teacher Wars,” a well written 175 year historical account of our profession I might add. I highly recommend this book to you if you are a teacher. Her book reveals that teachers have been embattled since the beginning. The book summary notes that:
‘The Teacher Wars upends the discussion about American education by bringing lessons of history to bear on the dilemmas we confront today.”
History is the best teacher that I know. I truly believe that understanding history is crucial to human survival. I have also come to the conclusion that the lessons of my history prepared me to teach through the storms of this profession in a very unique way.
My father was a proud Black man. He required that I understand how my personal history intersected American history. He was born after the depression in Sampson County, North Carolina when Jim Crow laws were in full effect. African American families of this period placed a particular value on education as they knew it was “the way up.” He was determine to instill as much wisdom as he possibly could into me. He took fatherhood seriously and often said, “You see I am your father, and if I don’t tell you this nobody will. And things like “Black people are the smartest people in the world.” He used post civil rights era television news to teach me his Black daughter the politics of life. The sting of southern bigotry still fresh in his mind could not deter his hope for me.
When I was little they (my parents) would tell us stories about the south. Editing the details according to our age, we came to realize that “down south” had been a terrible place. From time to time my mother would tell the story of two slave women who while preparing food were rushed to serve it and not given the chance to obtain rags to pick up the scorching hot pans. They had to pick up the pots with their bare hands and when they set the pots down their flesh was affixed to the pots.
Becoming educated was not a choice in my home.
And there were other stories too. The consistent and systematic demeaning of grown men in public as noted by my mother and veiled references to African American women’s sexual vulnerability when it came to white men. This past summer my Aunt Mavis who is my father’s sister told me that her grandfather sternly proclaimed that none of his girls would EVER work in the homes of whites. You must remember however that at that time this was one of few jobs available to African American women and many families were poor. From a modern point of view his proclamation seems to ring of pure fatherly pride, listening to it with a historical ear reveals much more.
All of this and much more form the backdrop to my life.
And when oppression is a tangible point of reference in your life you view life’s challenges differently and you approach life differently.
Tonight I am finishing Elie Wiesel’s book “Night.” As soon as I put this laptop down I will pick up his book and read the last 26 pages. I cannot explain to you the impact of his words. No human should ever have to endure his concentration camp experiences. But all through the book he is teaching. He is teaching us what it means to have nothing but your thoughts and to still be rich, he is teaching us that humans can and do horrible things that no one would believe and they sometimes get away with it…maybe, his life teaches the teacher inside me that the storms of life can be survived and have purpose. Painful they may be they have purpose.
Could it be that teaching through the storm is somehow tied to fulfilling the moral mandate placed upon our calling? Difficult as it may be to accept, we are living on the front lines of social transformation and economic tumult. When in this country has this ever been easy, safe or pretty? And why are we surprised when we have to fight? Have we been listening to the lessons of history?
Maybe Daddy was really showing me what this world truly looked like through the lens of his heart and challenging me never to forget that nothing could deter his hopes for me to survive it.