What Is Teaching?

Back when I was still in the classroom (it seems like months already), I taught a unit I’ve been using for several years about the power of definition. One of several things I allow students to discover in our reading is that definitions help us to see to the essence of something. Using an exercise I borrowed from the book Megacreativity by Andrei G. Aleinikov, I ask students to define the word “table.” I tell them they can define multiple types of table, but that they must address the piece of furniture – and they must not use the dictionary.

Some of give very straight forward definitions. A table is a square surface on four legs. A table is a rectangular surface on four or more legs. Some of them think a little deeper and go for the essence: a table is a raised surface used for doing things or storing things. We discuss the definitions, as the author suggests. A table can have many legs, three legs, one leg in the center, or two or no legs if it is attached to a wall. A table can come in nearly any shape imaginable. It does not have to horizontal – my drawing tables where I draw comics are on a slant. And so the essence of a table is both its form (a raised surface) and its function (a place for doing or storing things).

As part of our discussion of the purpose of education, I ask students to define “school” as its essence. (Later, I also ask them to define it metaphorically; the number of them that say “School is a prison” never fails to both amuse and depress me.) Does a school have to have a building? Does a school have to have textbooks? Does a school have to have administrators? Standardized tests? (The answer, apparently, is no!) Does a school need to have students? A teacher? Something to be taught and learned? It leads to some interesting discussion.

If I’m feeling a bit passive aggressive, I’ll also have them define “student.” Many of my students (however you define them) will insist that they are actually sitting in classes with many “un-students.”

The place I don’t take them, because I don’t want to have to referee a discussion of colleagues, is “define teaching.”

But here I’m willing to go there. Because what is happening right now in the midst of this pandemic crisis strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a teacher.

In my strip, the incredibly exaggerated Mrs. Merritt wants to be called a “Quantitative Learning Gains Facilitator” instead of a teacher because she’s all about the test scores. She is currently having an existential crisis that will be addressed in upcoming strips. In the wake of tests being cancelled across the nation and the world, it seems teachers are not merely test-score-getters. I am pleased with this development.

I was actually a little bit “excited and scared” as Little Red in Into the Woods puts it (Happy belated birthday, Stephen Sondheim!) to journey into the realm of online teaching. Teaching a new way will certainly make me learn something new myself, right?

But our district, as I predicted in yesterday’s post, has opted in this crisis to go the standardized route. The platform I am being asked to use for my teaching is one where the assignments and assessments are all pre-loaded and can ‘t be “enhanced.” If you have seen my work at all, you know that this is Teach-By-Number – The Digital Sequel. Thank goodness for my Creative Writing class, which is all up to me!

And so I’m left with questions leading to more questions. How do we define teaching? What is the essence of teaching?

Is teaching assigning and assessing assignments? Is teaching getting students ready for tests? Is teaching “relating to students” (whatever that means)? Is teaching a personal calling, or is it merely a job? Is teaching more like being an artist or more like being a factory foreman on an assembly line? Is teaching, as I have suggested, like writing, where the order in which you reveal things, and the way you present them to the audience matters? Or is teaching just following someone else’s instructions without question and without thinking?

Is teaching a downloading of information, where teachers are the master computers and students the flash-drives? Does teaching these days amount to being a user of educational products?

Is teaching merely the conveyance of standards? Do put a learning target on the board, explain how to meet it, see that students meet it, and move on? Or is teaching a journey of discovery – a raising of questions and a hunt for answers? Do we teach only the intellect, or the emotions, the morals, and the whole person, too?

Teaching can, I suppose be many things. And its essence is hard to pin down. For me, teaching is an “intellectual apprenticeship,” as Jeff Wilhelm puts it. But if it is an apprenticeship, what if the teacher is not allowed to use their intellect? How can anyone apprentice to a teacher who is not allowed to think?

I have more questions than answers, but I intend to keep on questioning. Because when teachers are told not to question, we should all be afraid.

One thing I do know: when I am handing out the ready-made assignments that I can’t “enhance” next week online, I may relate to my students like a teacher – but I won’t quite feel like one.