Um . . . Yeah, like, teaching stuff

“There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” (Lola J. May, educator and writer)

On it’s face, May’s advice rings true. Who could argue with a prescription requiring teachers to master their subject, tailor their lessons to fit their students situations, and teach with style?

The best answer to that question lies in the details. What does it mean to master a subject? What does it mean to teach to an audience? What does it mean to teach elegantly? And, last how does the word “stuff” shape May’s message and reflect on teaching style?

Just as work ethic better predicts success than grades, how a teacher answers those questions gives more meaningful insight into his or her effectiveness for the challenges of the 21st century classroom.

Know Your Stuff

Virtually any Education major who manages to get a diploma can satisfy the Commonwealth’s requirements for a teaching license and in so doing truthfully claim subject matter expertise as well as qualify for “Highly Qualified Teacher” status.

Merely satisfying requirements is neither an effective nor particularly meaningful measure of a teacher. At best those data points imply competence, at worst they hide incompetence.

Learning does not stop with the terminal degree nor the Professional license. Indeed, “The illiterate of the 21st century,” writes furturist Alvin Toffler, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Great teachers commit to life long learning. They live Toffler’s prescription. They study their subject ferociously and fearlessly question their knowledge over the course of their careers. They model this wisdom and weave it into their lessons. They develop ways to balance the demand for excellence and accountability with rewarding risk and earnest failures that lead to growth.

Know Whom You Are Stuffing

At the risk of stating the obvious, high school teachers should actually like working with adolescents. Teachers should take the time to form authentic relationships with their students and invest in their education–even when it appears that the investment is taken for granted. Many of the “seeds” sewn in high school do not come to fruition until later in life.

For sure, teaching to a diverse student body is tricky business. Students in public high schools present with varying levels of intelligence, social and intellectual maturity, and motivation. They arrive at school every day shouldering heavy backpacks and dragging the less visible baggage of their home lives and cultural backgrounds. This presents objective challenges to the precept “know whom you are stuffing.”

Districts help with a thoughtful placement process which builds cohorts of students of similar abilities and match them to teachers with demonstrable success with that group.

Likewise, curricula established by administrators and classroom teachers who are familiar with both the Commonwealth’s frameworks and the idiosyncrasies of their community help. Pre-qualifying in public schools with heterogeneous populations and limited resources ultimately create diverse classrooms.

That puts the burden on classroom teachers to reach as many students as possible. To do so, teachers must rely on their expertise, life experiences, wisdom, and people skills to  to create clear pictures of their students and, to the extent possible, employ strategies which balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few.

Stuff them Elegantly

The work of “stuffi[ng] them elegantly” requires balancing two (sometimes seemingly mutually exclusive) absolute necessities: treating students as individuals and insuring the majority of the class masters the curriculum by year’s end.

Solving the problems of teaching to diverse populations might stand as a good candidate for the definition of “teaching elegantly.” Elegance implies good communication and organizational skills, It implies creative teaching strategies and rapport with students. Yet, the phrase glibly ignores reality. Good teaching is hard work. It requires energy, flexibility, compassion, a commitment to high standards, a sense-of-humor, patience, and the ability to inspire.

Good teachers aspire to those intangible qualities. Whatever happens with data driven teacher evaluations, educators who are not life-long learners and who do not practice Toffler’s regimen of learning, questioning, and relearning doom themselves and their students to mediocrity or worse.

Parsing Stuff

On the most basic level May’s advice about teaching works for me. Being a language person, however. I am sensitive to the subtle changes in the word “stuff’s” function in each clause and how that affects the semantics of her message.

“Stuffing” students full of “knowledge” presupposes a passive learning situation in which the teacher gives and the student receives. “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon,” (E. M. Forster).

Students learn to the extent of their investment in their education. Data driven evaluations and high stakes testing may be useful tools but they do not and cannot measure growth in work habits and commitment.

Face it, no matter how much we as educators and students love our fields, our students may not. When they’re 50 years they probably will not remember how to solve a quadratic equation or diagram a sentence, but they will rely on the mental and work habits developed during their formal education. That makes a collaborative learning experience so very important.

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