UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Teacher, or just Presenter?

Sometimes I worry that I’m not a very good teacher.

It’s not that I’m inexperienced or unskilled or lacking in knowledge of my course content and basic ideas on pedagogy, curriculum, and instruction. After thirty years in the classroom, both in public and private schools in the United States and abroad, I am undoubtedly a veteran educator. And as one of the most experienced honors and AP teachers in the English department of one of the nation’s top high schools, I think I can claim to be pretty good at my job.

However, there are times when I wonder whether I am just a talented presenter of information. When a teacher works at a high achieving school in a well-run district with a supportive community and scores of highly motivated students, the distinction of truly exemplary teaching can be more difficult to discern. Granted, in an environment with high expectations and exceptional results, the consumer is no doubt attentive to the product being offered. And that expectation to be excellent in order to maintain a tradition of excellence is a great motivator for an educator. 

After many years of successful teaching with positive feedback from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, I have no doubt that the content and instruction I provide is well received. And in classes that have a national test as a benchmark, I can be pretty confident that the results I am helping students achieve are appreciated by the stakeholders in the game. At our high school’s recent Back to School Night, numerous students from previous years came to see me, and that was one of the more validating feelings an educator can get. When they come back to see you, when they want to simply check in and say hello, you know you’ve connected as a teacher. 

However, self reflection is, I believe, one of the most important tasks of any teacher. Effective educators must ask whether the students are achieving because of the instruction, or regardless of it. Engagement is the key. Carol Jago, an esteemed teacher and education researcher, has long noted that there is a difference between a fun classroom and an engaging one. In an engaging classroom, learning will happen. In a fun one, that’s not necessarily the case. At the high school and college level, especially among high achieving students, it can be all too easy to lapse into the role of lecturer. And, while in the era of TED Talks, engaging presenters can be seen as impressive and engaging, the presenting of information is not actual teaching.

As I’ve noted before, I am an English teacher, but I don’t like to think that I simply teach English. I teach kids. I teach the skills of English to kids. But the students are the objective – teaching them. I teach them how to read, write, and think. There is a huge difference between teaching a subject and simply assigning material. Being a responsive educator is about teaching the kids in front of us, as opposed to simply talking about our subject. In planning lessons, teachers are tasked with three important questions: What do we want them to know? How will we know when they know it? What will we do when they don’t? 

That last question is where many educators fall short. What do we do when the students fall short of our goals? While a students’ education ultimately resides with them and their individual efforts, effective educators do not simply present the information and hope for the best. It’s when students struggle that true educating, the art of pedagogy, comes into play. Cris Tovani, the author of “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It,’ has noted the importance of continuing to actually teach the skills of reading throughout school. Sadly, when many kids struggle to discern information from text, they are told to just read it again more carefully.

There are two key models for education – the Sage on the Stage versus the Guide on the Side. While I believe strongly in direct instruction and the idea of the teacher being the expert in the room, I also know that simply standing in front of the classroom and presenting information is not necessarily effective teaching. As the old teacher adage goes, school is too often a place where children go to watch adults work. If they just sit and listen to information, research suggests they won’t actually learn much.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com