The Building Blocks of Good Teaching

David Brooks wrote an article a few weeks ago about the building blocks of learning and it reminded me of our work with teachers. He said social emotional health is the foundation for kids and it’s a shame we don’t pay more attention to that. If that is what students need, what do teachers need? Brooks references the argument Paul Tough makes in his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. Tough argues that there might be a different way of looking at how effective teaching and learning happens and what “skills” students are developing. Tough writes:

So here’s a different paradigm, admittedly imprecise but, I would argue, a more accurate representation of what is happening in effective classrooms: Teachers create a certain climate, students behave differently in response to that climate, and those new behaviors lead to success.  Did the students learn new skills that enabled them to behave differently? Maybe. Or maybe what we are choosing to call “skills” in this case is really just a new way of thinking about the world or about themselves–a set of attitudes or beliefs or mindsets that somehow unleash a new and potent way of behaving. 

Much of our work with the Teacher2Teacher community has been about understanding the attitudes and beliefs or mindsets that teachers bring to the classroom and what they need to do their best work.

We’ve noticed the importance of motivation and trust in the community. With the push towards Common Core (of which I am an unabashed advocate), it’s often easy to forget what motivates teachers to do their best work with students. We’ve found that teachers are a good source of motivation for each other—they have shared experiences whether you teach in New York or California. #WhyITeach created a shared experience across hundreds of thousands of teachers and was a source of motivation across the network because it reconnected teachers with their “purpose.”

Building a culture of trust in schools is often hard to do in an era where accountability systems often seem unfair or confusing to teachers. But it is another necessary building block if we want teachers to take risks and shift their practices in times of uncertainty. We have noticed in the Teacher2Teacher community the importance of trust and how it can be built through teacher-to-teacher interactions around situations that only a teacher would understand. We have seen teachers take on new leadership roles, seek out advice from other teachers beyond their schools, and even try out new strategies in their classrooms recommended by peers from a trusted community. We are seeing teachers take learning into their own hands rather than rely on the district’s professional development plan.

So if we want teachers to create the conditions for their students to think differently as Tough suggests, we might also remember what “skills” teachers need to help their students make these shifts. It’s too easy to jump to the curriculum tool we think teachers need or frame the skills they need as a “content knowledge” problem. Those tools and skills matter, but trust and motivation do too. Trust and motivation just might be the building blocks teachers need to make the most radical changes in our classrooms yet.