February 4, 2010

Education Optimism

As a substitute teacher, I have a peek inside a variety of schools and teaching methods, as well as age groups of children.  Sometimes the teacher remains in the room for a while after I arrive, and at such times, I try to glean as much information as possible by watching them: how they deal with the children, which students are trustworthy, which ones whine or instigate trouble, what the discipline system is like, what the feel of the classroom is.

Even a five minute observation tells me a lot about a teacher and their classroom.  Often, I critique internally whether I agree with the teacher's methods, tone and general manner with the class.  But sometimes, on a rare, pleasant occasion, I find myself becoming a student of the teacher's method, an avid observer of the details, in awe of the smooth way a classroom can be run by a good teacher.  I was in such a classroom yesterday.
This teacher guided her young class through their routine with a quiet voice and calm manner, and they responded immediately.  At one point, she literally spoke in a voice barely above a whisper; her students dropped what they were doing and listened intently.

Instead of prodding students or creating a power struggle by giving an order and then staring at the student until they obeyed, she would quietly request that the student, for example, clean their work area.  Then she would leave them alone.  This can sometimes be really difficult to do.  But what she did was give the student time to obey her at a child's rate.  Maybe it took the student five minutes to do a job that could have taken an adult half a minute, but she was patient and knew her students' abilities.  And when they finished a job, she would say a quiet "thank you."  The request and the thanks were given in an equal spirit of calm courtesy.

Yet she was also no push-over.  When the class got out of hand, she put a firm stop to their behavior and gave them consequences.

In short, she was a truly remarkable teacher.

Sometimes, I worry about the education system in this country.  It is easy to feel like an island, as though the only thing standing between the flood of unhappy ignorance and the students is you, and you'll be easily swept away by the waves.  But every now and then a teacher like this, or a determined parent, or a child's 'light-bulb' moment, reminds me that we aren't alone.  Those of us who care about children and about their education, don't have to stand against the flood by ourselves.  There are thousands who care.

And the simple fact is that as long as there is even one good teacher passing the gift of learning on to even one student, there is still hope for education.  At the end of the day, I remain optimistic.

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