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4 the Flexible Teacher

4 the Flexible Teacher

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Published by: Altamira Barranquilla on Jan 12, 2011
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The Flexible Teacher 
Leila Christenbury 
Good teaching comes not from following a recipe, but fromconsistently putting student needs first.
 After almost 35 years in secondary and university classrooms, I know something abouteffective teaching. I have certainly seen inspiring examples from other teachers; I havewritten and reflected extensively on the topic; and occasionally in my own practice Iexemplify effective teaching myself.I also have a modest reputation in my part of the academic world for exploring
ineffective
teaching² and the source of my most telling examples is still,embarrassingly, myself. In articles and books throughout my career, I have feltcompelled to detail my recurring instructional struggles and failures (Christenbury,1996, 2005, 2007) to serve as a cautionary tale.This article stems directly from my years of experience and reflection and from mystubborn and consistent aspiration to be a better teacher. I am not yet where I want tobe, but as T. S. Eliot (1952) reminds us,
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. (p.128)
F
or those of us who are still trying to become the most effective teachers possible, itmay be useful to consider a bit of history and a recent real-world example.
Scapegoats and Superstars
 Although it might seem self-evident that effective teaching is at the heart of studentlearning, teaching has not always been a central part of the public discussion oneducation reform. Changing the patterns of school days and school years, establishinga common core curriculum, linking assessments to that curriculum, holding schoolsaccountable for student test scores, altering administrators' preparation andresponsibilities, incorporating new technologies into instruction, empoweringcommunity groups and school boards²these have all been and continue to be topicson the education reform discussion board. The teacher, an individual who is crucial tothe success of any reform effort, has often been sidestepped, minimized, or evenignored.Only recently has it occurred to a number of otherwise bright people that effectiveteaching is central to education success. Yet rather than being a wholly hearteningdevelopment, as many of us initially hoped, this belated recognition of the importanceof effective teachers has had unintended and even pernicious consequences. Both atthe height of No Child Left Behind and in its current twilight era, the significance of theteacher's role has often been hijacked and distorted.
 
Some have claimed that because individual teachers are so important, they should beable to overcome any and all instructional, contextual, and societal issues andconsistently raise student test scores every year. Some have argued that teachers areso vital that they must be strictly regulated; they must follow scripted curriculums andbe tracked, rewarded, or punished for the performance of their students (again, asmeasured by test scores).
F
urther, because teachers are so central, some pundits and policymakers now proposethat the best way to improve schools is to strip teachers of tenure and seniorityprotections so that newer and supposedly brighter and better teachers can quickly takethe place of "underperforming" veterans. Certainly in the past year, the wholesale firingof an entire Rhode Island high school's teaching staff and the dismissal of hundreds of teachers from the District of Columbia schools were premised on the idea that teachersare all-important.The public discussion no longer ignores teachers and their centrality; now it lays mostof the onus of blame for student failure on the individual teacher. And it must bereiterated that in these days of high-stakes testing, student success is mostlydetermined by only one measure: test scores.Can the individual teacher bear this responsibility alone? Carter (2009) critiques theimage of the "teacher-as-saint" (p. 86). The public, he contends, expects teachers towork miracles and blames them when the miracles somehow do not materialize. In anonline forum on teacher effectiveness, Kate Walsh (2010) points out that these"superstar" teachers are relatively rare. And although good teaching is integral tostudent success, it cannot by itself supersede the many other factors that contribute toeducational success or failure.
Wh
at Is Effective Teac
h
ing?
I teach preservice teachers at the university level, and one of the hardest messages Itry to impart to them is that there is no definitive recipe, no immutable formula, nosimple list of do's and don'ts to ensure effective teaching. As they stand on the brink of entering their own classrooms, many of my students find this news frustrating. Somewould prefer the deceptive comfort of Chester E.
F
inn Jr.'s (2010) reductionistdefinition, "An effective teacher is one whose pupils learn what they should while under his/her tutelage."Only when preservice teachers have gained some experience with a range of studentsand some sense of themselves as teachers do they understand that the individual,idiosyncratic, and contextual aspects of effective teaching are what make it bothenormously rewarding and enormously challenging. Students will always learn more,less, or differently than "what they should." Good teachers understand this. Most
 
people outside the classroom, especially those who want to regularize and routinizeteaching and learning, do not.But although there is no precise recipe, we can recognize effective teaching by anumber of characteristics.
ffective teaching is variable
. Effective teachers use a variety of strategies and a rangeof methods, and they change and refine these over time. They do not teach the sameway and use the same instructional repertoire year after year. Effective teachers alsodiffer from one another; both teachers who use traditional methods and those whoemploy the most up-to-date pedagogy can be successful.
ffective teaching is contextual 
. It responds to individual students, school andclassroom communities, and societal needs. Effective teachers alter, adjust, andchange their instruction depending on who is in the classroom and the extent to whichthose students are achieving. Effective teachers are not so devoted to their practicethat they ignore the students in front of them.
ffective teaching is premised on students' intellectual curiosity 
. Effective teachersbegin with the belief that students are smart and can be enticed to learn. Despite their own skill, knowledge, and experience, effective teachers neither patronize nor condescend to students of any age.
ffective teaching must be somewhat autonomous
. Reflective and accomplishedteachers do not need to be controlled, managed, or strictly monitored. Such teachersare close to their students in intellectual as well as psychological ways, and they mustbe empowered to use their judgment to make classroom decisions.
Ultimately, effective teaching is fearless
. Because the goal is learning, effectiveteachers must adjust curriculum, methods, and pacing to meet the needs of thestudents. Effective teachers put a priority on student needs rather than on the strictlyinterpreted demands of the school district curriculum guide or the year-end test. Again,to do this, teachers must have a great deal of independence.
W
alking t 
h
e
W
alk
In spring 2010, I had a teaching experience that illustrates some of the decisions andissues that confront all teachers in all classrooms as we strive for effective teaching.Because of a scenario that has become common during these recession-plagued days,my university instituted a new round of budget cuts, and I found myself unexpectedlyteaching an undergraduate writing course that is cross-listed in English and ineducation. I had created the course, Teaching Writing Skills, 20 years ago. But myresponsibilities had evolved and I had not taught it for a while; it had recently beenhandled by experienced and talented adjuncts. Now it was mine to teach again.

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