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Many teachers begin their careers with visions of themselves as Robin Williams reciting Walt Whitman in Dead Poet’s Society while standing on a desk. At the end of their careers, they may imagine themselves as Richard Dreyfus in Mr. Holland’s Opus conducting an orchestra of former students performing an emotional rendition of his final opus.
And why wouldn’t they?
Teachers are often lauded as heroes with superpowers who can magically transform struggling students into wildly successful high achievers. The allure of this myth can be a heady brew.
According to educator and author Cornelius Minor, “the problem with this narrative is that it erases the complicated calculus of becoming a hero, a leader, a change agent, a teacher ”(p. 3). Minor believes that this one-dimensional portrayal of teaching doesn’t elevate our profession; instead, it silences it.
I think he’s right.
The proliferation of this narrative erases many of the realities of what it means to be a teacher: relationships with students, collaboration with other professionals, support from administration, tireless hours of lesson planning and grading, the emotional ups and parents and students, and as Minor writes, “years of careful practice and study” (p. 6).
We need a new story about teaching and learning beyond those depicting teachers riding in on white horses and triumphs that cannot be easily duplicated.
Learning does not occur because teachers stand on desks, wear capes or wave magic wands. Learning happens within the context of teacher and student relationships.
According to Linda Darling-Hammond’s and Channa M. Cook-Harvey’s 2018 report entitled, Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success, “[Student-teacher] relationships help develop the emotional, social, behavioral, and cognitive competencies foundational to learning (p. 15).
When teachers know their students, they can begin to connect school work to their students’ curiosities and interests. Then, through a mutual exchange of ideas, questions, and stories about their lives, together they can co-create curricula, forge meaning, and reach new levels of understanding. Teachers facilitate learning when they not only share their passion and expertise, but when they care about who their students are as people.
According to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, “It’s literally neurobiologically impossible to remember or think deeply about anything that you haven’t felt emotion about.…. Educators need to find ways for students to be emotionally engaged with the ideas and skills they are exploring.”
Teachers who have strong relationships with their students can help them explore the subtleties and nuances that are uniquely their own through meaningful work as they foster students’ capacity to trust themselves and their intuition. When teachers listen closely to their students, they teach students that they can listen to themselves.
Ultimately, students need to transfer their knowledge of what they learn in school to their outside lives to be happy, well-adjusted, and productive members of society. Students need to engage in real world tasks that captivate their interest. Students need to care about the work they’re doing, so they’re motivated to ask questions, conduct further research, and even work well past the required time to complete an assignment.
According to Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine (2018), “Powerful learning — not only in school, but also in life — occurs when learners are trying to produce or do something consequential, when they see the purpose in what they are doing, when they have some choice about what they learn, when they are receiving regular feedback on their work, and when they are part of a community that supports them but also holds them to high standards.”
Students need to engage deeply with work that matters. . . to collaborate with peers to solve complex problems, dissect sheep pluck and cow hearts, interrogate historical documents, see themselves in the books that they read, write in authentic ways, debate real world issues, and establish ties with professionals and organizations outside of school.
Although teachers may not be superheroes, the power that teachers have to impact students’ lives is immeasurable. Anyone who’s attended school knows that there are teachers. . . and there are teachers. For many of us, there was that one teacher, or if we were lucky, more than one, whose name we will never forget
These masterful teachers may look different on the outside, but what they have in common is they possess an unwavering passion for learning, a perpetual sense of wonder, and an honest love for students. They can quickly silence a classroom when the bell rings, and engage students in lessons on ranging from Shakespeare to quadratic equations to thermodynamics.
According to Teller, of the duo Penn and Teller, “the teacher has a duty to engage, to create romance that can transform apathy into interest, and, if a teacher does her job well, a sort of transference of enthusiasm from teacher to student takes place. The best teachers find a way to teach content while keeping students interested.” This elusive quality still does not make teachers superheroes, but without question there is a bit of mystery and magic in teaching and learning.
Professor and author Chris Emdin reminds us that “content and theories with the absence of the magic of teaching and learning means nothing.” He laments the fact that our teacher preparation programs drown prospective teachers in archaic educational theories as they listen to “a professor babble on and on about engagement in the most disengaging way possible”.
The stories we tell about school matter because as Cornelius Minor reminds us, “Stories are a powerful blueprint for what is possible (4).
When we allow ourselves to embrace more complicated stories about teaching and learning, ones that encompass the complexities of what it means to be human, and maybe even a little bit of magic — we will be able to begin the work towards making real improvements in teaching and learning.