Futures: Teaching Excellence

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A key reflection in the Futures exercise, described a few blog entries ago, is the importance of teaching excellence. In these Futures entries I am sharing some thoughts from this exercise. This week, you have a reflection on teaching excellence.

Students will learn however life lets them, as has been the case since homo first became sapiens. However, at our School we believe learning should be excellent, not haphazard. Certainly at our School, our over-arching emphasis is on learning excellence; teaching excellence is its inseparable twin. As we move into the future, assuredly, our conception of teaching excellence will change, and some people will mourn that change. The charismatic, entertaining teacher will still exist, but the prize teacher will probably be the patient, imaginative teacher who knows the student, is available, and intuits the questions the student is unable to articulate. Teaching is already changing, and the transformation is unfolding at our school, and at those schools who are on the path to deeper learning.

In the nineteenth century, schooling was clearly considered only one chapter of education, not its whole, and certainly not its most useful chapter. Equally or more useful were months travelling to Rome or Greece, or meeting interesting, thought-provoking people, or exploring the natural world, collecting specimens and sightings of fauna. To Mark Twain is attributed the quotation, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain’s schooling ended after elementary school, yet he was among the best educated people of his time.

Literature provides a parade of woebegone, feckless teachers who are the butt of – usually – schoolboys who go on to great things later in life, achievements that further diminish the pretensions of their teachers. Sentimental and colourful accounts swear that the most important lessons were probably delivered under the threat, and the frequent display, and even administration of the strap or the cane. In addition to its offering of terrible teachers, literature offers a procession of inspiring teachers. The Harry Potter series depicts them all. Judging by the legends handed down by our alumni, the history of SMUS at one time or another has also had them all. It is fitting that the Reg Wenmans of the school – whose statue stands looking down on the fields below the Head’s house – are honoured.

I say repeatedly that hiring the best teachers we can find is the Head’s most important task. Next in importance is providing these men and women with professional respect and expectations, followed by creating the conditions to do their work effectively: conditions like professional development, a deeply engaging learning environment, resources and adequate facilities. A school cannot have learning excellence without excellent teachers. However, a new sort of teacher will emerge. Online schools and online lessons such as offered by the Khan Academy are proposed as disruptions that will put an end to schools as we know them: after all students can go online and find the best teachers. This observation is true only if the old, existing model prevails, which it won’t. More likely, in ten years, or perhaps a bit longer, these specialists will no longer be called teachers, but explainers, or lecturers, or some imaginative and marketable term still to be invented. They may even make more money than real teachers. The work of real teachers, with its inherent idealism and belief in the future, will begin once the students finish with these other purveyors of lessons.

Ironically, it will be the reluctance to let go of the many existing definitions and delineations of teaching excellence that will also be the biggest obstacle to future teaching excellence. Schedules and calendars will change. Students’ programs will involve much student voice and choice. Parents will be part of the team. Pedagogy will more explicitly serve learning, and will occupy more of a teacher’s attention. Teachers will demonstrate that they are, in fact, lifelong learners.

As a former teacher, who still thinks of himself as a teacher, my most touching communication comes from teachers who made a difference in my life, or former students who say I made a difference in theirs. This will still be the case.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.

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