Teaching is an Art

Teaching is as much an art as it is a science. Let me give you an example:

I have recently come to the realization that I had been a very poor teacher of vocabulary for the first 4 years of my career. I made that a goal at the start of this school year to become better at this. For the first semester - nothing big. Over winter break, I started writing a list of the vocabulary words kids would need to know for the next unit on the French Revolution.

The first light bulb moment was realizing just how many words made it on my list that were not in bold in the book. I call this a light bulb moment because I knew the problem existed before. Hart and Risley came out with a study in 1995 that showed that children in affluent homes hear 382 words per hour while children from low socio-economic homes hear 167 words per hour. (You can read about the issue more here. Hart and Risley were one of many studies on the issue.) If I knew the issue existed, then why could I not figure out a better solution?

What I decided to do this current semester was to make vocabulary the central pillar of my teaching. Each Monday, I would give a new set of vocabulary terms. The students were given quiet work time to define those terms and it was done. Through the week, I would make a point to reference a vocabulary word any chance I got. And each Friday, I would give a quick, silent, but difficult vocabulary quiz. The catch was that the kids could use their vocabulary pages - this gave them encouragement to prepare for the quiz and took the emphasis off of pure memorization.

After the third week of the semester, I decided it was time to collect some data. I asked three simple questions (view the whole survey here), the third being "Does the vocabulary list each Monday help you understand things better in class?" Of the 86 kids who took the survey, 80 of them responded yes. There is no doubt in my mind that a large part of being a teacher is taking the time and effort to study pedagogical theory and practice and collect data on what does and does not work. Teaching is certainly a science.

But it is not all science.

Last week I had a student come up to me and tell me a heart-breaking story of her life at home the past week. Without sharing any of her details, her life had turned into a mini-hell for reasons that had nothing to do with her or her life choices. She was caught up in a whirlwind and was just riding out the storm. We talked for a while about what was going on and I asked her what I could do to help - unfortunately, not much. I gave her a hug and told her that she shouldn't worry about any due dates for a bit. We would work together to keep her caught up from the days she had missed. I told her that she had built up great trust with me over the year and that sometimes school isn't the most important thing. I told her that sometimes we're asked to be adults earlier than we want.

All the vocabulary acquisition and strategy building in the world doesn't help me to handle that situation. In my several years of teacher education, no one ever talked about dealing with this aspect of teaching, yet it is without a doubt in my mind the most important aspect of my job. I think the problem with high-standards testing, at its core, is that it only measures the science of teaching and not the art of it. I don't know what test does measure the art of teaching or if that test could possibly even exist.

 This past weekend, I attended something called an #edcamp conference in St. Louis. In my fourth session of the day, a group of us were talking about academic and personal interventions for students who are starting to fall behind. One of the other teachers pointed out that the flaw in our conversation was that no system or program would ever fix every problem. There are a thousand and one different students without a thousand and one different issues. We can only get to know our kids, love them and do our best to predict what will help them with the next steps in their lives.

There are many quality conferences out there, but I'm not sure any of them get at the art of teaching quite like an #edcamp.

If you teach and have never been to an #edcamp, you need to find one and go. If you're in Kansas City, #edcampLiberty is coming up on March 7th and a big group from Center will be there. If you don't teach and want to understand teaching better, go to #edcampLiberty and just talk to some teachers. That, by the way, is the coolest part of #edcamp - there's a schedule, but if you get caught up in a conversation and it's great, you're encouraged to skip sessions, grab a cup of coffee, and keep up the conversation.