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.