When it comes to conversations about teaching practice, I feel like I have known two different types of schools. I will simplify them here, making them polar opposites, to make a point:
Model 1: Best practices are dictated to teachers from “above.” In this case, we receive PD or directions for practices—both curricular and pedagogical—that the school, district, or someone else has decided are best. This decision dominates conversations about practice because either teachers comply with the directives, implementing the practices, or they rebel in small or large ways. Conversations about teaching practice are all in relation to agreement or disagreement, compliance or non-compliance, with the mandated “best practices.”
Model 2: Curriculum and pedagogy are left entirely up to individual teachers. Teachers decide for themselves what to teach and how to teach. So long as we are using state standards as a guide, collecting data and analyzing student progress toward the standards, the rest is up to us. If a teacher has classroom management issues, administrators want to look into it, but so long as “management” is under control, teachers can teach in any way they want.
There are limitations to both models.
Problem with Model 1: I’d sum up the problem in the first model by calling it “the teacher is always wrong,” when it comes to curriculum and pedgagogy. The mandates are implemented as a means of controlling teaching quality, and teachers’ professional opinions are generally not considered helpful in this process. This makes no sense, since the teacher is the one doing the teaching, knows the students, and ultimately does make the decisions. Attempting to shut out teachers’ critical thinking is a big waste of our knowledge, and it can backfire in a variety of ways.
Problem with Model 2: I’m going to sound weird here, but the limitation is more that this model considers that “the teacher is always right.” I’m a strong advocate for teacher voice, and I don’t like teachers being told how to teach through hierarchical structures. But in schools where every teacher determines curriculum and methods for him or herself, there is often an unspoken statement that all practices are equally effective, and that all teachers will take time to read up on developments in the field. This is not really true. While the notion that there are actually “best practices” may be bogus, there are certainly “better” practices. In model 2, teachers may not see it as their business what another teacher does unless they are in a formal collaboration—and of course time is a big obstacle.
While I definitely prefer Model 2 to Model 1 because of the freedom, in both models, the overarching problem is a lack of real discourse about teaching practice.
I think the onus actually falls on teachers to change this, though administrators can provide time and structures for such conversations to happen. I think teachers should have a lot more discussion about what we do and why we do it. This will naturally lead to arguments, and we should let these play out in a professional manner. If we do not discuss and disagree about “best practices,” whether we work in a school that resembles Model 1 or Model 2, others will do the arguing for us, out there in the non-school-based education world, and dominate the discourse.
At the same time, inside our schools, teachers, administrators, and parents will be left to come to the dangerous and somewhat insulting conclusion that teachers are more or less successful due to their personalities. While personality does affect teaching, this misconception leads to the false claim that teaching is an innate talent that doesn’t develop over time with hard work and help from mentors, professional reading and… professional discourse. This ideology is one of the factors that keeps teaching from being a full profession.
So, for our own sake, and for the sake of our students, let’s have some of those arguments!
[image credit: community.sparknotes.com]