Friday, December 23, 2016

What Does Teaching "Look" Like?

Last semester I took an advanced seminar in Instruction and Teacher Education. Below is a (slightly modified and shortened) reflection from the first week of class. We read large portions of Lortie’s SchoolTeacher. Leaving aside any criticisms, critiques, or insights from the book, I want to share a few questions I think we should ponder.

Image Source: User martaposemuckel,

Lortie’s (1975/2002) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study seeks to answer an almost trivial question — what does it mean to be a public school teacher in the United States? At first glance this is a trite question. We all know what teachers do. One might argue, as Lortie does, that there is not a more visible or witnessed profession in the United States.

Students (and by extension the whole public) learn about teaching mostly from watching the actions of their own classroom teachers. Years and years of classroom experience sketch, rather permanently, an emblematic caricature of the typical classroom educator. Lortie wrote, “teaching is unusual in that those who enter it have had exceptional opportunity to observe member of the occupation at work; unlike most actions today, the activities of teachers are not shielded from youngsters” (Lortie, 2002, p. 65).

The problem with this sketch is that it’s drawn from only one perspective, that of the student. The student sees but the first layer, the ephemeral actions, of the teacher. What lays unseen are the hours of classroom preparation, the late evening continuing education courses, the family phone calls, the administration emails, the professional reading, the sleepless nights trying to figure out how to serve thy students. I could go on and on. What also remains unseen are the deep thoughts, the intellectual challenges, the ethical decisions, the very real work of the heart and the mind.

“What students learn about teaching is intuitive and imitative…This limited vantage point relies heavily on imagination” producing the feeling that ultimately anyone can “do a reasonably accurate portrayal of a classroom teacher’s actions” (Lortie, 2002, p. 62, 63). Thus, the perceived understandings of classroom teaching become normed by the general public. The literal perception of the teacher proves to be the ordering image that future teachers, parents, and policy-makers will never go beyond.

The normed expectations both structure and reinforce the structures of the schoolteacher. A vicious cycle repeats itself, teachers teach the way they were taught. Other people expect teachers to teach the way they were taught. Labaree (2000) uses similar rationale to explain why teaching is a job that “seems easy” (p. 231). Heck, we’ve all seen what its about.

Two and a half questions emerge from this:

  • What does teaching look like? Do we need to change what teaching looks like? 
  • How do we show people what they cannot see? 

While my class post explored some answers to the questions, I am going to leave it here. What do think?

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Labaree, D. F. (2000). On the nature of teaching and teacher education difficult practices that look easy. Journal of teacher education, 51(3), 228–233.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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