Teacher Appreciation Week begins May 3rd. With school closures over a year ago and the onslaught of remote instruction, many parents have come to appreciate not only what teachers do in classrooms (and now on screens) than ever before (see here) but also how complex the act of teaching is.
Celebrities sport T-shirts asking that teacher should have higher salaries. Actor Ron Farrell who has three children being home schooled was seen in his neighborhood picking up garbage.
Celebrity parents calling for higher salaries only mirrors now more than ever that Moms and Dads sitting in kitchens and bedrooms hovering over their children have a deeper understanding (and appreciation) about teaching being not only a complex activity but also a relationship built on trust and respect.
That appreciation and understanding were too often unconsidered by many parents prior to the pandemic some of whom, unaware of the organizational and political realities of district operations and funding, criticized teachers for assigning too much homework, having short work days and two months off during the summer.
What many parents working with children at home during the pandemic have come to fathom is how much student learning–no matter how expert the teacher is–occurs because of the emotional bonds between teacher and student. And those bonds make teaching and learning an intricate dance between two partners who depend upon one another for success.
So the act of teaching is complex either in the kitchen or school classroom. That complexity begins with non-educators grasping fully the central fact of effective classroom teaching: It is built on teacher expertise and emotional connections that fuel student learning.
Consider the basic triangle that seemingly captures what happens in classrooms.
Seems simple enough. The teacher teaches content and skills to the student who learns both. But what appears simple is hardly so when each part of the triangle is unpacked and then analyzed for what is contains and too often omitted. Then, complexity blooms.
In a fifth grade class of 11 year-olds, they are all the same age but, oh, do they differ from one another in capacities, motivation, and home experiences–all of which shape their responses to the teacher and the curriculum. The interactions between each student and the teacher are influenced by what the student brings to the classroom from home (e.g., prior learning, attitudes toward school) that shape classroom behavior from paying attention to teacher directions to connecting to classmates. So complexity begins with many factors, many of which the teacher has little control, that impinge upon student academic and classroom behavior.
Like students teachers vary in experience, training, background, capacities, and motivations. Novice teachers tend to focus on behavioral and academic rules, textbooks, and managing groups of students as they wend their way through six hours of elementary school or through a handful of hour-long classes in secondary schools. Experienced teachers, especially those who have taught in the same school for five or more years know well the content and skills that have to be taught and how to manage group and individual behavior during lessons. But variations in expertise and classroom lessons are evident.
Skills and Content
Students learning to parse words and understand what is read, write clear sentences, master math operations, grasp the concept of evolution, and consider the many factors that contributed to World War I cover a partial hop, skip, and jump through the elementary and secondary curricula teachers teach as students climb the school ladder toward graduation.
Hard as teachers try, some content and skills prove too easy for some students, just right for others, and too hard for the rest. Differences in capacity,motivation, and achievement pile up as students move through their school careers. Students appreciate those few teachers who fueled their learning while coping with indifferent teachers or those teachers simply putting in the time.
Of course, teachers vary greatly in their grasp of the content and skills that they must teach at each grade level. Teachers learn that some classes have a personality unlike other groups they have had. Those teachers in secondary schools who face four or five different groups of student daily, for example, may genuinely look forward to the third period class and dread the first period group of students. Nonetheless, most teachers manage to bond with most of their students. Thus, in age-graded schools, teachers differ not only in their grasp and execution of content and skills as students move from one grade to another, from one subject to another but also in how well they bond to individual students and classes.
Like students and teachers, much variation exists in schools because of the one-teacher/one classroom, age-graded segregation of classrooms, and the constant press for teachers and students to firm up personal relationships that are at the core of schooling
All of these differences make teaching a complex act in an intricate and elaborate organization called the age-graded school nested in an even larger organization called the school district. That complexity exists in teaching shows up during a daily classroom lesson as surely as it does in schools with 400 to 2000 students where 30 to 100 teachers teach and equally as certain when moving up another step to the district school board making curricular and instructional policy for both students and teachers. The concept of complexity nested at every level of public schooling becomes apparent.
And awareness of this larger system of schooling may be the blind spot for parents during the pandemic. In their growing appreciation and understanding of teachers and teaching, they may miss the other links in the chain. Parents surely see the complexity of teaching when going through lessons with even one or four of their kids at home; they may even marvel at the simple fact that teachers teach 25-30 students at a time in one room. But each classroom is part of a larger more complex system that many parents may not see or fully grasp.
Consider that a classroom is one small part of a school; the school is one part of a district; and a district may be one of hundreds in a state. That means that classrooms, schools, and districts are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence inside and outside the system yet missing a military or police “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment.
And the last part of the previous sentence gets at where schools and districts are located in a neighborhood, community, and state. Going to school in Johnstown (PA) is surely different from going to school in Jackson (MS). Suburban Chicago New Trier high school offers parents a different menu of classes and services than those parents who send their children to Senn High School in Chicago.
And these varied contexts is why many parents who want to make schools better get aggravated. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply cannot fully grasp complex systems (i.e., classrooms nested in schools that are nested in districts that are nested in communities that are nested in states which make policy and distribute funds) with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings (e.g., hurricanes, pandemics, economic depressions) but seldom move in the intended directions that reformers desire.
The above analysis of the student/teacher/content and skills triangle is a mere slice of this larger complexity within which students, teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers inhabit daily.
What’s missing from the core triangle of teacher/student/content/ , then, is the context. The community and neighborhood in which the school is located, the families who send their sons and daughters to each school, district size, leadership, and organization, and how much the state and district spend per pupil.
The school context for what content and skills teachers teach and students learn is simply one part of the complex factors outlined above. All of this is a reminder just exactly how classrooms, schools, and districts are intricate organizations nested in one another thereby explaining why parents and reformers often see their well-intended plans go awry or get adapted and adopted making their precious reforms unrecognizable.
So while many parents have come to appreciate and understand the complexities of teaching during pandemic-induced school closures, most have yet to grasp the organizational and political intricacies of classrooms embedded in schools, schools in districts, and districts within states–the entire chain of compulsory schooling that educates children from age 4 through 18.
No easy task for even those who work daily in the system of public schooling, much less Moms and Dads.
In subsequent posts, I will elaborate further on these cascading complexities that extend from the classroom to the school to the district and state superintendent of instruction who sit atop this world of cross-cutting ties, politics, under-resourced schools. And I will connect those policy complexities to that 3rd grade teacher who, building relations with her students, constructs daily lessons that get her 30 nine year-olds to learn their times tables and fractions.