“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
― Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

In his fantastic book, “The Courage to Teach“, Parker J Palmer explains and explores his belief that good teaching isn’t really about what you do, but rather who you are. He believes that teaching is really about connections that teachers create between themselves and students, and that teaching techniques can only be effective if they fit the context of those relationships.

As Palmer explains in the book’s introduction:

Good teaching takes myriad forms but good teachers share one trait: they are authentically present in the classroom, in community with their students and their subject. They possess “a capacity for connectedness” and are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, helping their students weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts — the place where intellect, emotion, spirit, and will converge in the human self — supported by the community that emerges among us when we choose to live authentic lives.

I imagine that experienced teachers nod their heads while reading this. Even if they’ve never considered it before they know it’s true. We see it when a class transforms from a pleasant helpful group of students to a horrible, nasty mob simply because a supply teacher arrives. It happens when I merely walk to the back of my classroom so a student teacher can present a lesson. These other teachers aren’t me and aren’t connected with the class the way I am.

This doesn’t happen by magic. I spend many days planting the seeds of these connections, and every day thereafter cultivating and maintaining them. I love the term “classroom culture” because my science nerd brain immediately thinks of the kind of the culture found in a lab to grow cells. It’s a useful metaphor, because like growing cells, the “complex web of connections” is organic and it grows and develops as the school year progresses. And just like a cell culture if it isn’t maintained under the right conditions it dies.

This view of teaching makes Educrats uncomfortable. It seems too “touchy feely” and not the straight-line, industrial model of education they prefer. They view a classroom as more like a factory, or a machine with inputs and outputs that can be manipulated to maximize efficiency. They believe that if we determine the most effective teaching methods and get teachers to do that, then schools and education improve. But this approach shows a shocking ignorance of how learning in a classroom really works.

The potential success of any particular teaching strategy is largely contingent on the relationship teachers have with their students, and each one of those is different and changes constantly. It’s why we can never be definitive about teaching. It always depends on who we’re talking about and whether or not things have changed.

The use of “best practices” to mandate changes in teaching practice completely disregards this essential truth of teaching. A few years ago a principal told me I had to put up anchor charts in my classroom. When I asked why I was told that a superintendent was coming and he expected to see anchor charts. It wasn’t an option.

This is the worst kind of “classroom engineering”. It has very little to do with actually improving student learning. The mandates come from on high, are passed down the line, and they change as often as the seasons. We are currently in the thrall of “success criteria”, but before that it was “bump it up” boards and before that student generated rubrics and before that…well, you get the picture. With each there was an administrator with a clip board spending a few minutes in a classroom, checking off their list and moving on.

The presumption that someone in a ministry office miles and miles away knows best, someone whose never met me, never been in my classroom or met my students, but thinks they know what I need to do to improve the learning in my classroom seems bizarreIt ignores the unique nature of every classroom and every student.

If Educrats are truly interested in improving education I recommend they try something radical and ask teachers.  They are the experts in their classrooms and know what will work for them and their students. They deserve to be listened to, not talked down to.