This summer I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I taught a class of rising tenth and eleventh grade students. It was only for a week, but that one week changed the way that I do my work and think about teaching.
I decided to go back into the classroom because I missed teaching and working directly with students. So, a principal friend of mine arranged to have me teach an AP summer bridge class for students who were taking AP for the first time this fall. Although I believe I gave my students a good foundation in study skills, navigating the AP course culture, and analytic thinking skills, what I learned far exceeded what I taught.
I learned that mastery teaching takes practice. I haven’t taught for six years and I was really rusty. In fact, during the first few hours of the first day I was pretty awful. It wasn’t from a lack of planning or preparation. It was that I couldn’t get my rhythm. I was doing all the “right” things but I wasn’t integrating them seamlessly. I learned very quickly that great teaching is about more than just doing the right things. Unless it is a seamless synthesis of skills, unless I have practiced those skills and strategies so much so that they are my natural response to students, I am too distracted by trying to do all the right things that I cannot pay my full attention to my students. When I can’t pay full attention to my students, I miss subtle shifts in the classroom that signal I need to switch gears and I am slow in my response to students’ needs.
I learned that mastery teaching requires flexibility. Certainly I can come to school with a plan for the day’s work, but the one thing I cannot plan for is my students. When the lesson I so carefully planned backfired, I had to adjust. I didn’t change my objectives – they were non-negotiable, but I did have to shift tactics. I wouldn’t have been able to change direction on the spot like I did if I didn’t really understand what my students were supposed to be learning that day. Because I was clear on the objective rather than merely invested in a particular activity or strategy, I understood that there were a variety of ways I could help them achieve the objective and could adjust my approach mid-lesson to better meet their needs.
I learned that mastery teaching requires passion. My students dragged into the classroom each day. No matter how much they believed that such a course would help them in the fall, the last place they wanted to be during their summer vacation was in school. Sometimes, the only reason they paid me any attention at all was because I was so passionate in my delivery. I used to think that I had to be passionate about my subject in order to bring passion to the classroom but to be honest, I am not so passionate about Cornell note-taking or understanding how to read a text book. What I was passionate about was my students and helping them learn something that would make them successful in their coursework this fall. I don’t think I understood until now that the passion we bring to teaching isn’t really about what we are teaching but who we are teaching. Sure, I might be an avid mathematician or think that learning about the life cycle of plants is the most important thing on the earth. But, until I am passionate about my students, until I am invested in their learning whatever it is I am teaching, my passion will not move nor motivate my kids.
I learned that mastery teaching is really hard. Not in the sense it takes a special amount of effort to apply the mastery principles. In fact, once you get to the point of mastery, the teaching part is pretty easy because by synthesizing the principles of effective instruction, they become your natural response to students. It’s almost as if you cannot help but teach well. No, mastery teaching is hard for another reason. It’s hard because there will be times when you give students your best, and for whatever reason, they are just not interested. In spite of all of your planning and effort, sometimes they still put their heads on the desk or fiddle with their cell phones or talk while you are talking or refuse to raise their hands and participate in the discussion. Frankly, it’s hard not to take it personally.
And that’s because teaching is personal. My students are not inanimate objects and neither am I. We’re people and what happens in the classroom is a relationship. It’s an exchange. I give you a part of myself and expect to receive a part of you in return. What makes teaching so hard is that I have to continue to give you a part of me even when you refuse to return the favor. That’s tough to do.
I made a lot of mistakes that week, but here is the most important thing I learned from my time back in the classroom. When my lesson miserably fell short or when I made a seemingly irreversible mistake, it was not fatal.
The first few hours in the classroom were a revelation to me. It wasn’t that I was particularly bad; it was just that I wasn’t particularly good. I was even awkward at times and my teaching seemed forced. At one point, I found myself writing on the board and talking faster and faster while my students slept or gazed off into space and I realized to my utter embarrassment that I was working harder than my students. At that point, I simply stopped teaching and said to my students,
“This isn’t working is it?”
At first they looked at me wide-eyed, shocked that I would admit the obvious. Then they nodded.
I sat down.
“Here is what I need to teach you today and it’s important,”
I began going over the objectives and explaining why they were important. When I was finished, I asked,
“So how can I help you learn these things?”
The students looked at me blankly and I waited quietly. Finally, one student in the back said,
“I don’t know how you are going to teach us those things but I do know that I have been sitting for a long time and I just need to get up.”
A lifeline! And like a drowning woman I grabbed it. I got them up. I got them in groups. I had them discuss the article we were reading. I had them argue with the author. I had them argue with each other. I moved them to different groups and I had them argue their point some more. A half hour later, I stood in the middle of a very different classroom. All the groups were working hard and I had nothing to do for the moment. I was teaching at last.
But more important, that was when I realized something that I’d forgotten. I realized that while teaching is a tough profession, it is a forgiving one. You can begin again. Right in the middle of a lesson that’s bombing. You can begin again.
And that is why I love teaching and will return to it again and again no matter where else my career path may take me. Because good teaching, mastery teaching is indeed a gift. It’s a gift I give and a gift I get in return a thousand times over and I cannot imagine doing anything more meaningful or important.