Thursday, January 10, 2008

Great Teachers

In Chapter Six of What Great Teachers Do Differently, Whitaker writes, "Great teachers know who is the variable in the classroom: They are." Again, my first reaction was to quit reading. Variables are inconsistent, whimsical, and lack a bit of logic. I don't think that a great teacher is inconsistent as my initial reaction to the word might indicate.
But I wanted to give Whitaker the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he intended the word variable to connote the capability of changing. Which, if that is true, I can see his point. If we want to become great, we must recognize when our methods lack efficacy and change those methods. But, Whitaker's first paragraph under the subheading on page 37 reads:
How many of you could predict which teacher in your school will send the most students to the office next year? How about the year after that? When I ask a roomful of principals this question, pretty much every hand goes up. I then ask, "How can you possibly know this? Do you already have the student rosters made up?" The answer is very simple: They know because the main variable in a classroom is not the students. The main variable is the teacher.

So I remained frustrated with Whitaker. Maybe I am just not getting it, and if that is the case, I'd like clarification. But that example seems to show that teachers tend to have consistent behaviors, not inconsistent ones.
Throughout the chapter, Whitaker offers the premise that great teachers understand that student failure, in whatever capacity--behavior or academics, is the result of teacher action. Is it only because I am a classroom teacher that I find this belief incorrect? I hope not.
I take pride in analyzing my actions as a teacher. I feel aware of my failures. But, today when I tried to redirect my freshmen, when I tried proximity, when I tried direct statements and that one boy refused to take out a pencil to complete the assignment, I couldn't help but wonder how exactly that was my fault. Every other student in the room had his or her pencil out and worked actively. My behavior was consistent with my behaviors from the day before and with other students. So how was I the variable in that moment?
Whitaker is right, that great teachers anaylze their failures and change. But great teachers also understand that not every failure is their fault.

4 Comments:

At 4:13 PM , Anonymous Joe said...

If Mr. Whitaker ever states or implies that "great" teachers never have students who aren't into it on any given day, then Mr. Whitaker is an ass (to paraphrase Dickens). I suspect, though, that he is talking about the overall effect of a teacher in her/his class, not the behavior of every single student on every single day under every single circumstance. Certainly, he must understand that the students walk into the room carrying all kinds of baggage--baggage, we can't make disappear.
But really, that's beside the point. I'm assuming you are reading this book not because you want to find out about the Michael Jordans, Tiger Woodses, Abraham Lincolns, or Mahatma'Ghandi's of the teaching world, but rather because you want to get some more information on how to improve your teaching.
So then, here's the deal, if you want to be a great teacher you won't worry about fault, in fact, you won't ever use the word again. If that boy is not obstreperous tomorrow, then problem solved. If, however, he is not learning in your room, and you want to be a great teacher, you will try way after way after way to help him to learn what he needs to know. And NOT because you want to be a great teacher, but because you are a professional and he is a valuable human being, who has made the effort to walk into the classroom and somewhere within him , he wants to come out better off than when he entered.

 
At 4:27 PM , Blogger Crystal said...

My guess is that he is using the term "variable" in the noun form, the science experiment sort of way, meaning that the only person we can truly change at any given moment is ourselves. It's not that we are wishy-washy but that we choose how we react to the situation. We can only fully control ourselves, in any situation, including our classrooms.

I think Whitaker is making sorta reacting to (or predicting) the argument put forth by some that nothing that everything in their classrooms is the fault of the students, and they have no control.

Just my thoughts... :)

 
At 12:32 PM , Anonymous Bryan Bessette said...

This is my take on what Whitaker is saying...

Whitaker says great teachers are the variable in a classroom. I read that as great teachers are flexible or have more of the ability to be flexible. This is opposite of a student that must conform to a teachers methods.

His example of predicting which teachers will send the most children to the office is illustrating that the teachers in question are inflexible and rigid. Meaning any student that does not fit into those teachers scheme is sent off. Therefore that teacher is not variable or flexible and by Whitaker's standard not great.

In regards to your example using the freshman and your question, "How was I the variable?" I would say you were not variable, by my first interpretation of Whitaker's standard. You had even mentioned your consistency. You were not flexible and by my first interpretation of Whitaker's standard, at that time, not great.

Then again, Whitaker could simply be saying that great teachers know that all teachers are not created equal, thereby being variable. Some are better than others. In his example, the principals knew which teachers would send the students to the office because not all the teachers were great. There was variation. Who knows…

I would say we could all benefit if Whitaker wrote with more clarity.

To comment on your last statement about fault. I would caution laying fault or blame. Focusing on responsibility is more constructive. Learning is a shared responsibility of the student and the teacher. So, to use your terms, it may not be a teacher’s fault but it is a teacher’s responsibility.

 
At 12:11 PM , Anonymous eauk said...

I think this website about the Cypriot teacher, the late, Orhan Seyfi Ari may be inspirational http://www.geocities.com/teachertoteachers/index.html -(for tributes to him -click username)

 

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