As I read through Todd Whitaker’s Dealing with Difficult Teachers, I cannot but reflect on my own experiences as a teacher. And I think, maybe we are all the Difficult Teacher’s once in a blue moon. But while we hope that we are the “super stars” or at least the “back bones” that Whitaker talks about, it seems pertinent to consider what makes a good teacher, in fact an effective teacher.
A quick Google search reveals multiple criteria for effective teachers. There are opinions and researches on the effectiveness of teaching and the many ways in which one can observe and measure it. For research indeed, it seems apt to recognize the complexity of teaching. But for a practitioner, for a teacher who is bogged with schedules, record keeping, evaluation of homework, and a never ending list of school related tasks that are beyond the actual teaching, the question of effective teaching should translate into something simple: are my students learning and are they learning to learn?
An effective teacher must have a two pronged approach:
1. To help students learn (but not merely memorize) the content & the skills,
2. To enable students to be lifelong learners.
So how does a teacher go about incorporating this approach in his/her teaching? One solution I recognize is given by the framework of constructivist theory. The 5 principles that constructivist teaching depends on are:
1. Posing problems of emerging relevance
2. Structuring learning around primary concepts/essentials
3. Seeking and valuing student’s point of view
4. Adapting curriculum to address student suppositions
5. Assessing student learning in the context of teaching
By this framework, we must seek to:
1. Ensure that what we teach and how we teach can be connected to/made relevant to real world applications;
2. Plan our teaching around critical and necessary concepts instead of factual minutia;
3. Encourage and respect students contributions to class in a non-judgmental way;
4. Recognize that students come from various backgrounds and that their contexts influence how they perceive and work with the learning in the classroom;
5. Assess and evaluate only those skills and knowledge that we have taught;
so that we can be effective teachers.
A useful way of implementing these principles is outlined in Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Essentially speaking the book helps teachers “plan their teaching” (Stage 3) around the “essential ideas” (Stage 1), by “designing assessments” (Stage 2) that focus on these ideas, all while taking along all students in the classroom with their individual contexts and needs. What remains critical is a student-centered focus that allows students to become responsible and empowered lifelong learners.
 Grant Wiggins passed away last week, leaving behind a legacy of good work and inspiring many teachers to be better at what they do. I am saddened that he departed just while I was beginning to know and understand his work.