Reflections on Teaching: The Craft of Teaching

School teaching is a craft. A school teacher is an adult in a room full of children and the task is to look after the children, supervise their social behaviour, and give them skills and knowledge.

When I use the word ‘craft’, I don’t mean making things out of seashells. I mean an activity that involves using skill to achieve a practical end. You learn how to teach by doing it. Parenting skills are probably the most valuable skills to have. There are many teaching methods and every teaching situation is different, so a teacher needs to have many techniques and must constantly be thinking about which ones to use.

The craft of teaching has always been like that, although recent technological changes have given teachers some powerful new tools.

It is a difficult craft because the work is never finished, the results are difficult to measure, and everything about the activity, apart from some basic objectives, is subject to doubt.

Respect is at the heart of the craft of teaching. Respect for yourself as a person committed to teaching; for the child as a person who benefits; for the subject as something worth knowing. Teachers shouldn’t take inferior material into the classroom. They shouldn’t mislead or deceive children by telling them things are true or worthwhile when they aren’t. They should study the children, watch them, learn from them and do their best for them.

In Victoria, long ago, teaching was left to teachers. It was presumed that there were people skilled in the craft and they would pass on their knowledge to others. But theory has trumped practice in recent decades. Now teaching has been overtaken by education, which deals with students and clients, rather than children, and which often has little respect for the craft of teaching. But learning begins with teaching, not data collection.

Educationists seek to raise standards by discovering the methods that produce the best results, measured by objective tests. So far they haven’t had much success – not in defining standards, nor in describing methods, nor in measuring results – despite enormous inputs of money and energy and enormous outputs of printed material. Perhaps there are discoveries to be made but none have been made yet. Teachers learn best about what needs to be done in the classroom itself, in relationships with children, and that is where their attention should be.

Most educationists are committed to innovation, believing that research will bring us new knowledge, as it has in most of the sciences. But the teaching methods used by Socrates two and a half thousand years ago are still current. Shiny new practices often thrust aside superior but scuffed old ones. Schools should not be laboratories where untried ideas about education are imposed on children. Schools should be conservative and only embrace things that are likely to succeed. Of course, teachers should accept what has been proved elsewhere, but it is more valuable for them to develop traditional skills in instruction than to pursue every innovation. Every school needs a gate-keeper to interrogate the innovations.

A few years ago the Victorian government invested in a program involving the recognition of super-principals and super-teachers, in the belief that there are a few gifted individuals who know what the rest of us don’t. These people may have had some temporary success because of the extra funding and energy at their disposal but such programs aimed at lifting low achievers usually peter out against the powerful forces of social division and individual difference in our community. There are no quick fixes and no recognized experts in this craft, only practitioners working steadily. 

It took me a long time to teach one good lesson and many years to do it regularly. Sometimes you work at a lesson and it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t, but you can’t teach well unless you work hard. And you have to keep at it. You are only as good as your last class. Teaching is always a challenge but the rewards are considerable. Once in a while the children learn something and show you they have learned that thing and that they know they have gained by it.

Today the rewards are eluding many teachers because they are prevented from pursuing their craft. We are witnessing a decline in teacher morale, a decline in the quality of teaching and learning, and an increase in teacher workload resulting in a high turnover of staff in many schools. This is the product of a cultural decline marked by increasingly authoritarian structures, micromanagement of teachers, and a pervasive lack of trust.

I was a bad teacher when I started teaching. I was no good at telling people what to do. I would ask kids to do the work and get cross when they refused. I couldn’t understand why women with no muscles and little girly voices could command obedience. Forty years ago I would have appreciated assistance with my performance in the classroom. Acting lessons. How to move. How to speak. How to pace a lesson. It took me years to learn the importance of timing, to wear a watch and keep an eye on the minute hand.

Others would gain from a discussion about what children need to learn at particular ages. Then, how this knowledge might be presented, what skills are needed, how they are acquired and how practised.

This may seem obvious but teacher training often skips these basic questions. Too much of what happens in classrooms is about process. When children ask: “why are we doing this?” the teacher must have a good answer, an honest and convincing one that they have thought about. They need time to think. You might get sullen or uncritical obedience without it but you won’t get much learning. Teachers often ask that question of their employers and don’t receive answers. The education industry isn’t very interested in learning.

Teaching isn’t for people who don’t want to teach. It isn’t for people who want a high salary and high status in the community. It is for people who want to be useful and do something that helps. If you are such a person, the next question is: “what do you have to offer?” Then: “who do you think you can help?” If you can answer these questions then you can begin learning how to teach.

Ned Johnson

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