Guest post by Brandon Brown, AP U.S. History and American History II Teacher, Lake Norman Charter High School
Brandon is in his 11th year of teaching high school Social Studies. He is the 2016 North Carolina Charter Schools Teacher of the Year. This essay was included in the Teacher of the Year finalist process.
Philosophy of Teaching
by Brandon Brown
A lot of times in life, it is not what one knows, or whom one knows, but instead, what one believes. This dictum can be applied to teachers. What a teacher believes about students and what a teacher believes about his/her role can have tremendous effects in a classroom. Therefore, I have prioritized two basic beliefs about teaching and learning because I feel they have helped create an advantageous learning environment for my students. First, a teacher must see the best in students and second a teacher must embrace their role as a teacher of thinking not simply content.
The ideal classroom teacher is one who motivates students. There are many different schools of thought on how to best motivate students. Many teachers believe that fear and coercion is the most effective tool to motivate students. However, creating a culture of fear in a classroom will only provide short-term motivation in students and ultimately can intimidate and alienate students from the learning process. Opposed to the “fear and coercion” school is motivating a student through respect and responsibility.
For an example, if a student forgets his/her homework, “fear and coercion” teachers would spend class time berating a student with the hopes that student would be scared into doing his/her next assignment. However, the teacher has potentially lost that child’s interest and respect that could pay consequences for the remainder of the year. In addition, the teacher has wasted possible learning moments, as well as, created a classroom culture where other students fear making a poor choice or mistake. Students should not fear failure in the classroom, the classroom is a place for risk-taking, a place to challenge one’s self.
Instead, the focus should be on the next homework assignment, while stressing the importance of making good decisions. By expecting students to make good decisions, the teacher is respecting the student and encouraging the student to be responsible. Teachers should treat students as capable individuals, not incompetent kids. We have all heard “glass half full or half empty” cliché, but it really does matter how a teacher sees the glass (the students) – it can make all of the difference in student performance. Those teachers who expect the best effort possible from their students often receive it; those teachers who see the worst in students often receive their worst.
Furthermore, with the current emphasis on standardized testing, many teachers feel that their job is to make sure their students pass the state mandated test for their content area. Newspapers print passing rates and in some cases funding and pay can hinge on results. However, if we as educators only prepare our students for the test then we are ultimately doing a disservice to the student, hindering not only the student’s educational growth, but also personal growth. Going further, I would argue the ultimate purpose of education is not to teach students “history” or “math” or “French” or specific answers to specific content questions like “whose assassination set off WWI?” but instead, dating as far back as Socrates the purpose of my profession at its most basic level is to teach students how to think. With the ability to think, a student is armed with a greater and much more useful tool for life than knowing how to solve a quadratic equation or answer “Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austria-Hungary Empire.” This is because a student that knows how to think can add to their current knowledge and understanding of the world; their knowledge is not dead – it is alive and evolving as they leave the classroom, the schoolhouse and the academy. Therefore, if their knowledge and understanding of the world is constantly evolving their options of where they can go or what they can do are open; students who can think can truly survive in a world that doesn't yet exist and ultimately if we admit it or not the world our students will live in does not yet exist.
Embracing the role of thinking teacher and not just content teacher has changed the way I teach. The desire to teach thinking drives how I teach because if I am “teaching” in a traditional sense, then I am the one thinking and students are merely containers (to borrow a phrase from educational theorist Paolo Frieire) for information to be deposited in. Or put another way, the best I can hope for within the context of a traditional stand and deliver model is that students will end up “information-full” (to borrow from another educational theriort, Derek Cabrera) but most likely my students will not be truly “knowledge-able.”
So to truly teach thinking, the teacher has to let go of their traditional role as a deliver of information and embrace their role as developer of skills. Letting go of their role as deliverer is scary for many teachers in the high stakes world of pay for performance and growth scores, where it feels good to be able to say you covered every little tidbit of information in your class in case it shows up on the test. However, to embrace thinking skills is not to abandon content, instead if content knowledge is presented in the right way – in the context of a thinking skills it can be chance for students to develop their thinking skills and construct their own knowledge. The French historian Etienne Gilson once said that “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.” This quote informs my instruction; I do not just teach content in my classroom, I teach historical thinking skills like causation, synthesis, interpretation, and contextualization. I try to use the past with my students as a conduit to model, practice and hone these thinking skills and I feel they are better for it.
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The opinions shared in this blog belong to Craig Smith (or guest blogger) and do not represent the school or district in which he works.