Here’s something from the files. While researching for a project I’m working on, I discovered this paper I had written back in 2001. It may be a little off the kids and money path, but I’m a teacher first and foremost and the words reflect the importance of knowing how to teach kids, no matter what is being taught. (BTW, if you read this and are interested in the two programs I talk about but don’t mention (!), let me know, I’m happy to share which ones they are.)
I recently read an article that fascinated me (Education Week, May 30, 2001). It fascinated me because it was about an issue on which I have felt strongly for some time now, that of teacher preparedness. The author, Sam Minner, recounts his experiences in working with K-12 teachers, administrators, and teacher candidates. He described how he attended numerous meetings to discuss issues such as teacher shortages or meeting the needs of students but at none of these meetings did anyone ever mention how to prepare teachers for their awesome responsibility, simply, that of teaching our students.
I related to these meetings because I have sat through my share of them. My most recent was at site council meeting at my children’s elementary school where it was decided to spend thousands of dollars on sending some staff members to “staff development” that focused on how to read the plethora of tests that could be generated by a recently purchased math program. “How does knowing how to interpret PR Range and SS and GE relate to knowing how a child learns or how best to teach certain mathematical concepts?” I asked. The answer given was, “If you want students to do well on the SAT 9 (our standardized test) then we need these computers and this staff development.”
Out of curiosity about this new math program my children may be participating in, I asked for a copy of the teachers’ manual. Although the entire manual was relatively small, the paragraph devoted to what I consider the most significant part of teaching, the part that shows teachers how to teach a concept, was pathetic. I actually memorized it, and for me, that’s pretty good because my memory was shot after I gave birth to my second son. The “paragraph” reads like this:
- teach the concept
- (if the students doesn’t understand), teach it again
- if an explanation is unsuccessful, try having another student explain it to him/her…or
- refer the student to a textbook or other material. (This one is my favorite. After all, why did we become teachers?)
So then I flipped through the manual looking for where it would tell me how to teach the concept. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find it. Hmmmm…
Several days later I found out that our district would be using another popular program at one of their schools. I happened to have a copy of the student text from this program that I picked up from a math conference several years ago. I had never looked at it, but I quickly became interested. I found the part that described how to teach long division. Another “paragraph” to help me, the teacher, teach this often confusing concept. It read exactly like this:
- divide and write a number
- multiply and write a number
- subtract and write a number
- bring down the next digit…
and then gave a visual with arrows pointing from the symbols ‘÷’ to ‘x’ to ‘–‘ back to ‘÷.’
Unfortunately, I’ll bet most teachers don’t even blink an eye when they read these manuals. After all, weren’t most of us taught this way? It’s not their fault they haven’t been adequately prepared, especially elementary teachers whose responsibility it is to teach a myriad subjects. But it’s time to change how teachers teach. Why? Because research (Ma, 1999; Darling-Hammond, 1998) tells us that probably the most significant indicator of student academic success, after the home environment, is, surprise!…the teacher. And Mr. Minner, whom I’ve now decided I like, concurs. He says that that “teacher quality is not just an important issue facing our schools, it is the issue.”
So now what? If our goal is to help students truly become mathematically powerful, then we need teachers that understand the subject they are teaching. To do this, we need to offer our teachers good, quality professional development courses. Courses that teach teachers how to teach not just what to teach. And the how to teaching is the most significant. We know from research that our brain learns in specific, predictable and very active ways (How the Brain Works, 1975, Hart; Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Jensen, 1998) Quality professional development courses are based on these premises.
Finally, I could attempt to say what Mr. Minner says so eloquently so I’ll just let him do the talking: “We know from research much about what superlative teachers are like and how they behave. In general, they have a deep preparation in the subjects they teach, actively engage their students in learning activities, conduct frequent assessments and checks on learning, engage in meaningful and ongoing professional development, and have a desire – a passion – to do the work they do.” Well said!