Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

Where Do Teachers Do Their Best Work?

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Here’s a challenge: Ask your faculty, “Where, in all your efforts here, do you do your best, most important work?”

If your school is truly mission-driven and values-based, and if you provide your students with anything more than a daily sequence of instructional modules, you’re likely to get a peek into the heart of your school in which academic instruction is only a part of its “best work,” even when judged by your academic instructors.
Great teaching happens, often enough by role-modeling but as frequently simply through dialogue, all over the place in schools: in hallway banter, in sports, at lunch tables, in rehearsals, at club meetings, at recess, during detention, in serious heart-to-hearts in advisory meetings, even at dances—and detentions.
Lately I’ve been visiting some boarding schools, where dormitory life is yet another rich—the richest, if you ask some students—medium for substantive teaching and learning.
Educational reformers across the spectrum, from Ravitch to Rhee, put a huge emphasis on coursework, on mastery of content and skills, and on the competence of the teachers to teach this content, as if these were the only things that matter in schools. It’s all about the material, coverage, standards, and—often enough—tests. No wonder there’s so much excitement in some quarters about replacing teachers with computers.
As if. Because if there’s one thing teachers know, and that students know, and that even people who once went to school know, it’s that the most important lessons we learn in school generally have little to do with algebraic formulas, parts of speech, or the elements of a cell; their effect is not to be measured on a Scantron sheet. What great teachers put across may include these things, but the big lessons of great schooling are about who we are and what we might do with our lives. They’re about values, and—dare I say it?—character.
Yes, of course, schools are about those formulas, that content, those skills. They’re critical, essential, the foundation for other things including (of course) success in college and career. And the smartest of the reformers are focusing not on more testing but on expanding teachers’ capacities to design thoughtful, purposeful curriculum and assessments that help students acquire these more effectively. But academic content is only part of the picture.
My boarding school visits remind me that it’s kind of funny, really, how het up we are these days about grit and resilience, foundational as they are to growth mindsets and paths to life’s purpose—the buzzwords of “character ed” in our moment. Great teachers have been focusing on these since long before Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck came along, before Theodore Roosevelt extolled “the strenuous life,” and even before Socrates pushed his followers to explore life’s persistent questions. Instead of being merely another set of “21st-century” characteristics, resilience, stick-to-it-iveness, empathy, curiosity, and optimism are the central, timeless elements of a great education.
Sometimes, we know, this kind of teaching, even from the greatest teachers, can’t trump or outweigh other lessons drummed into kids in their homes or in their communities. There are lessons taught by poverty, want, prejudice, neglect, and violence that only the luckiest of teachers—blessed by great timing as well as great empathy and skill—can counteract or eradicate.
But the more time I spend in great, mission-driven schools that aren’t afraid to embrace the challenge of helping students grow as people, the more aware I am of lessons taking place in the very air of such schools, lessons that not just complement classroom learning but build in each child the framework of character that will support a lifetime of creativity, engagement, and just action.
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