The Art of Teaching—What Does it Mean to Teach

by Lizabeth A. Fogel

What does it mean to teach? I am going to start with a brief overview of a few educational ideas and then in subsequent columns I will get down to the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to survive in the classroom. In the future I will share with you useful way to: Handle classroom management issues, use curriculum guides, work with student with special needs, differentiate your lessons, and a plethora of other topics.

What I would like you to do now is think of teaching from three different perspectives: As an art, a science, and as a reflective practice. In 1957 Gilbert Highet a renowned critic and professor of literature wrote The Art of Teaching where he postulated that successful teaching must be considered an art. He believed it involved two things—emotions and values. By this he meant we must get our students excited about learning and we must believe that there is no such thing as an unteachable student.

One of the most important keys to the art of teaching is the ability to be flexible. Flexibility must be put to use in the creation and presentation of a lesson. Flexibility must be in knowing when it is the right time to say or do something. It is being aware that when you have five minutes left it is not the correct time to start a new lesson, because they won’t be listing and open to learning and you will become frustrated. That’s when you stop, take a breath, and find a fun and spontaneous way to review the information you did teach. Improvisation, it is what great teachers execute seamlessly. Remember you will have another day to teach the information and you can creatively find a way to integrate what you didn’t get to, into your next lesson plan.

Lee Shulman, Robert Slavin and other educational researchers in the 1980s agreed on the importance of educating teachers on how to work from a scientific base. This means helping teachers draw on established research findings while avoiding the pitfalls of the latest teaching fads.

Teaching from a scientific base has to do with practitioners becoming researchers. One must understand the importance of the scientific method and how it applies to every teacher and classroom. As teachers when confronted with a student with some type of issue or a new curriculum we must move through the scientific process to solve or deal with the problem at hand. We begin by conceptualizing the problem and developing a hypothesis as to how to handle the matter. Then we try out our idea and watch to see what happens. We then can record that information. After looking at (analyzing) the information, we can draw some conclusions. Subsequently we have an opportunity to make revisions in our practice so the next time we have a better approach to handling the same or similar concerns.

Another important task for teachers is to stay current with the latest research but always being able to read it with a critical eye. Asking questions like: Who were the subjects in the study, can this study/theory be applied to my classroom and students, and what don’t I understand and need to have clarified.

Being open to new ideas and having an on going discussion with your colleagues is vital in your journey to becoming an excellent teacher.

What educational research has found is that great teachers teach from the perspective of art and science and we call that reflective teaching. They think about what they do, why they do it and how their methods affect their students’ behaviors and performances.

Reflective teachers do many different things to get the most out of themselves and their students. They set short and long term goals for themselves and their students, yet allowing for flexibility in how those goals are achieved. Teachers use and incorporate problem-solving skills, reasoning and decision-making skills into their lesson plans, which they hope encourage students to think inside and outside the box. They set specific objectives for a lesson and insure the students are active learners. Being an active learner means; students are making connections, interacting with the teacher and their peers and expressing their thoughts and feelings both verbally and in writing.

Teaching is a rewarding job, but it takes a lot of work and heart. You need to continue to read current research and try to integrate your finding into your lessons. I want you to discuss with your colleagues and students what they think are the characteristics that make an outstanding teacher. Use what I have shared with you about the art, science and reflective teaching practices plus your experiences as a student to develop a personal list of the top 10 best and worst teaching characteristics. Next time I will share with you what current research tells us about what characteristics are critical for you to have in your quest in becoming an excellent teacher and how those characteristics will help you work with the curriculum and management issues.