Friday, October 15, 2010

Inside a Teacher's Brain

There is a powerful image early on in Waiting for Superman that I can't get out of my mind.

A cartoon teacher stands in her classroom, cartoon students seated before her.  She walks along the row of desks, stopping behind each child just long enough to open up the top of their brain, pour some knowledge in, and pop it closed again. 

Soon, though, countless edicts and policies begin to arrive at her small school, so many that they require most of her attention.  Holding her pitcher of knowledge in one hand, she picks up a booklet of policies with the other.  With her eyes on the booklet instead of on her student, she opens his head and begins to pour the knowledge -- but, because she isn't looking, she pours it on the floor beside him instead of into his head.

Put aside for a moment this incredibly poor metaphor for good teaching.  The image of the teacher with her eyes elsewhere, missing her student, is spot on.  Any moment when my "eyes" are on something other than my students is a sub-par moment of teaching.  Sometimes those things come from outside the classroom, such as frustrating schedules, unreasonable or tardy administrative requests, or the lack of basic supplies such as paper towels.  Other times they come, as the movie suggests, from proclamations and expectations that are overwhelming, hard to understand, or just plain harmful to our kids.  These external pressures and stresses take valuable teacher energy away from teaching every day.

The majority of the time my eyes aren't on my kids, though, it's because of my own brain.  The number of things a teacher's brain must do simultaneously is staggering.  During my first year of teaching, my brain was so full of, "What question will I ask next?" "What should I do about the kid who's picking his nose over there?" "How do I teach that kid to read?" "Why hasn't Jojo come back from the bathroom yet?" that when a student would raise her hand and ask to get a drink of water, I would stare at her, blinking and stammering. "Um, hmmm.  Well.  Let's see.  Can you get a drink of water? I'm not sure."  While inside my mind, I wondered, Is this a good time to get water?  Should I let her?  Will everyone else want water if I say yes? But it's not okay to deny her water, is it? When is a good time to get water?

I spent yesterday morning watching a first-grade teacher with her class at another school.  From an observer's perspective, it doesn't look too complicated.  She introduces a concept, models it, asks the students to try it, then sends them off to work independently.  She manages behavior with a look, a touch, a reminder.  

Watching her, though, I knew that what to me looks like a serene morning requires vast effort on her part.  While she gives examples from her own life about the kinds of stories they might want to write, she is noticing out of the corner of her eye the student who is playing with her shoelaces.  She glances at the clock and sees that she is five minutes behind her plan, which will give them less time for Writers' Workshop or make them late for Music.  She wonders if the quiet boy in the front is following the lesson while he looks out the window.  She sees a student go to the bathroom for the fourth time this morning, and remembers that she needs to call his family to make a meeting with them.  She thinks about how to get the writing materials distributed in an orderly and efficient manner in the next five minutes.

I recently read a piece by Atul Gawande about what goes on in a surgeon's mind, and the kinds of nuanced judgments a doctor must make every day.  His point was that these kinds of judgments are not things that can be learned in a class or from a book; the ability to know the right thing to do, and to trust your professional intuition, comes only with experience. 

Even on the easiest days, a teacher's mind is in at least fifteen different places at once.  A teacher's ability to know everything that's going on in the room, while also holding in her mind the kid with the shoelaces and the parents she needs to call and the student who isn't sure how to start the problem -- this is what Jacob Kounin calls "withitness." (I learned about "withitness" from a Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker.)

Research shows, though, that we can't really multitask.  We don't do as well at things when our brains are handling too many ideas simultaneously.  This is why my best teaching happens when I have the fewest distractions and stressors.  The more students with challenging behaviors I have, the more directions my brain is moving at once.  When I have a more cooperative class, I can concentrate on teaching (which is, after all, why I do this work).  Even with the easiest class, a good teacher has to know how many of her 20 students are on board with her lesson.  This is enough to manage -- too many other distractions take away from your ability to be a skillful teacher.

With time and experience, good teachers learn how to manage everything that is going on in their brains.  It's not something you learn from an education school.  Some days I am better at it than others.  At least now, after ten years of teaching, I know when to let my kids get a drink of water.

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