Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Good Teaching

Yesterday in class, my coteacher Phil Dituri (amazing, amazing, amazing) was asking our kids to be silent for the start of the class. We've been trying this out for the first three minutes of class the last few weeks just to get them settled in and working, so that when group work starts they can really bring themselves fully into that conversation.
Yesterday proved to be on the difficult side. The kids had had a rough morning (last day of the quarter, NYPD metal detector surprise that morning, typical season affective disorder type blues) and weren't getting quiet. After a couple of minutes of reiterating instructions, and individually trying to help kids focus, Phil went around with big blue paper tape, drew smiling mouths, some with tongues out, and gave it to kids to tape their mouths closed, which they all wanted to do.

This looked ridiculous to anyone who came in at that moment. Comical, maybe even inappropriate. But the thing is, Phil could have yelled, made the kids feel bad, expressed his frustration, disappointment, he could have sent kids outside, called home, whatever. Instead kids were "smilingly" (both on the tape and underneath) trying to be quieter than their neighbor. They ate it up.

The tape didn't exactly turn our kids into models of focus and undivided attention. But kids got some individual attention, which they seemed to need, they got a structural intervention to help them follow instructions and get quiet, and the room stayed positive and focused on the math.

I realized after I watched it happen that this kind of thing is something they didn't teach me in grad school. I've never even (consciously) heard anybody talk about it before. But it seems like a vital part of that magic that good teachers have: to be able to keep the forward momentum, the mathematical focus, the positive energy, in the face of whatever the kids throw at us. It can be so easy to take a momentary failure personally, to get frustrated, feel like the kids aren't listening, whatever. Or just to run out of ideas. What Phil did in that moment was magic because he didn't drop the expectation: the kids were still supposed to be quiet. But he didn't get nego either, on them or himself. He gave them a new reason to follow directions, perhaps clarifying the directions for some kids in the process, and then back to the math.

Phil transformed what could have been a power struggle into a collaboration. He turned what could have been rule-following into a game. He was able to honor the kids, acknowledge their state and their need, give them total respect, and still help them transition and move forward towards our mathy goals. It was beautiful.

The whole thing took maybe 60 seconds. It wasn't such a big part of classtime. But I think it's those moments, the decisions we teachers make in those moments, that set the tone and culture of the class. We are in this together. We teachers aren't going to pull the authority card just because we can. We want to have fun with you while we work. For me, cultivating this feeling in the classroom is the best leverage I've got, for getting a class working, and it's way more fun to be in a room where that's the vibe.

I love teaching with Phil. May you all be so lucky in your teaching collaborations.