Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching
For teachers, being in a classroom with students is a highly demanding activity. At any given moment, teachers are trying to do multiple things at once. One concern, of course, has to do with whatever is being taught at the moment—subtracting with fractions, the geography of the Maritimes, playing the fiddle, or any one of the myriad things that are part of the school curriculum. Are students understanding what is being said? Do they see the connections between one point and another? Is the material of interest to them?
These immediate curricular concerns are set in the context of long-term goals. Are students learning to learn on their own? Are students developing an appreciation of the particular subject? Are students being challenged to think for themselves? Are they learning respect for the views of others, good work habits, and persistence? Most people, including parents and most teachers, believe that these larger goals are more important than the discrete pieces of information in the curriculum, even though it is the latter that receive most of the direct attention in schools.
Teachers also need to be highly attentive to the classroom as a social setting. A prime concern of all teachers—especially new ones—is the ability to keep order in the class. If students are not focused on the task at hand, they will not be learning what the school wants them to learn (although they may well be learning something else). Teachers have to balance their concern for an intellectually stimulating classroom with the requirement that they maintain a certain level of order. In a 2013 Canadian Teachers’ Federation, student behaviour was noted to be a major cause of workload stress for teachers.
An awareness of the differences among students is also a constant preoccupation of teachers. Teachers quickly develop a sense of which students require different types of attention. At any given time, teachers are monitoring different individuals and groups in the classroom in an effort to assess how learning is being facilitated. Do some students have puzzled looks? Perhaps they need more explanation. Are some students gazing at nothing? Perhaps they need a reminder to help them refocus their attention. Are some students busily engaged in talking to each other or passing notes? Some action may be needed to keep the class on task.
Teachers are also aware of the need to be accountable for what they are doing. If students tell their parents about this class, what will parents think? What if the principal drops in? Am I undermining my colleagues by doing something that is different from what they do in their classes?
The teacher is engaged in a constant act of improvisation (Philip, 2019). While teachers begin a class with a plan of some kind (it may be carefully written out or simply carried in one’s head), those with experience know that classes rarely go according to plan. As a class, or lesson proceeds, a teacher is constantly monitoring what is happening and making adjustments to meet changing circumstances.
The requirement to do several things at the same time, and to adjust things as one proceeds, makes teaching very demanding. The teacher’s attention is usually fully engaged all the time. While teaching, the teacher is also carrying on a silent internal dialogue. Students see only the external actions of the teacher, but much of the work of teaching occurs in the teacher’s thoughts, like the 90 percent of the iceberg that is below the surface of the water: “That group doesn’t seem to be following me; I’d better go over this again…. Allan and Nadja are busy doing something else; if I just move over in their direction I may get their attention back…. I need a better example to illustrate this point…. Only 10 more minutes left; I’d better wrap this up…. Have they had enough time to do the problems, or do I need to assign them for homework? … They’re all so excited about the assembly this afternoon that they really aren’t concentrating….”
Endemic Tensions in Teaching
Teaching also has several endemic tensions or dilemmas. These are problems that teachers face constantly. They are also problems that cannot be settled once and for all, but have to be addressed continuously through various sorts of adjustments and strategies.
First, as we have already noted, teachers are faced with the tension between what might make most sense educationally and what is required to keep order. In studying natural science, for example, a teacher may want to send students outside to look at plants or insects. However, this usually cannot be done on the spur of the moment; normally, days or weeks of advance notice are necessary for this sort of activity. Moreover, there are problems of supervision once students are no longer all under the teacher’s watchful eye. How much simpler to watch a video about plants, or even bring one into the classroom. Then again, land-based education is an important means of teaching students about the environment and ecosystem relationships…the time and energy is often worth the hassle for learning and student engagement.
Consider another example. A very common teaching technique is to ask students questions about the subject matter to see how much they’ve remembered. Researchers who have investigated questioning in the classroom have found that when teachers ask questions, they allow only a very short time for students to think about answers. Typically, if nobody answers or puts up a hand almost immediately, the teacher will begin speaking again, either to give an answer or to ask another question. The time between asking a question and speaking again is called wait or response time. Researchers have also found, not surprisingly, that giving students more time to think before they answer results in better answers. Many teachers, however, are reluctant to have very much silence in the classroom because they fear that silence will lead to disorder. They fear that when the teacher gives up some control over the learning process, students may become inattentive or disruptive. Thus, the requirement for order may interfere with what makes most sense educationally.
A second perennial tension in teaching is that between the individual and the group. It is individuals who learn, of course, but teachers are almost always responsible for groups of students. Teachers constantly face the problem of how to allocate their limited time and attention to the needs of all students in the classroom. Is it better to spend the most time with the students who are having the most difficulty, or should one concentrate on enriching the learning of those who accomplished the learning objectives in short order? Or is the best strategy to direct one’s teaching to the middle, doing the best one can with those at the extremes? Can teachers actually do all three? And if so, how? There are no easy answers to these questions of differentiating instruction, even though they are faced by teachers every day.
A third tension is between adequate coverage of the curriculum and following up on students’ interests. We have already discussed some curriculum issues, but it should also be noted that most curricula are designed to use all the available time during the year, and many have supplementary topics that can be taken up if additional time is available. Teachers almost always feel pressure to move ahead with the content, to make sure that all the important topics have been covered. Provincial testing creates more pressure in this direction. At the same time, opportunities constantly arise in the classroom for inquiry learning opportunities. A group of students have an interest in pursuing one element of the curriculum in some depth. A topic that was supposed to be dealt with in one hour piques the class’s interest and stretches into a week of curiosity and discussion. Does the teacher cut this short, thereby losing the opportunity to do something that interests students and is relevant to the subject? Or does one try to scrimp somewhere else in the curriculum?
Finally, there is an important tension in schools between learning and assessment. An important goal of schools is for students to stretch their abilities. This means taking risks and making mistakes. At one level, it is commonly accepted that we can learn a great deal from our errors. But marks and grades are a critical part of students’ school life, and making mistakes is generally not rewarded even if it may spark better understanding than what occurs for a student who completes the learning objective without making a mistake, but learns less about the depth of the content, or about him/herself as a learner.
Teachers recognize these dilemmas. What do we do about the student who works and improves considerably, but still only gets a C? How do we encourage students to be concerned with judging their own learning if, in the end, the teacher’s assessment is what determines their fate in school (and possibly out of it, as well)? A further discussion of assessment occurs later in this chapter.