Twenty-two years ago I began my first student teaching experience. Filled with delusions of a soon-to-be teacher, I thought I knew what a superior teacher’s classroom would look like; how the master teacher would teach and how he’d interact with students. I believed I knew what great teaching looked like.
Walking into Mr. Golden’s middle school classroom, I immediately noticed the relatively bare walls—the few existing posters probably had been hanging since the school opened. Students, who would only be called by their last names preceded by Mr. or Ms., filed into the class in an orderly manner. They sat, took out their notebooks and prepared for the day’s lecture.
Mr. Golden’s lectures were relatively dry and student interaction was minimal. After the lecture, students completed a desk assignment. Only after completion of this individual work would students begin to talk as they moved into their pre-assigned groups to prepare for their weekly quiz.
Every day was the same—lecture, individual work, cooperative learning.
For the first two weeks, I wondered why my college placed me in this class. What was I to learn from this robotic, formulaic teacher? I soon learned the answer.
One day while the students were on a field trip, Mr. Golden got right to the heart of the matter, “You probably think my lessons are pretty boring and lack something.” Before I could even muster an apologetic, “No,” he began to explain. “I haven’t always taught like this. But this is what the students need (nearly 100% were poor, minority students from tough neighborhoods). For many students, this is the only structured and predictable thing in their lives.”
Why this style worked for Mr. Golden
Over the next couple of weeks, I began to realize he was right.
His classroom procedures brought order to their middle school lives. Although mild-mannered, he established high behavioral and academic expectations. Students were always on task. Most importantly, students learned.
We can all learn from my naiveté. We cannot standardize what a great classroom environment looks like or what an expert teacher does or doesn’t do. Nor can we standardize what great teachers do and force these standards on all teachers. Administrators cannot rely solely on observation checklists.
Teaching is hard work. Teachers should be held accountable, but we cannot impose a one-size-fits-all approach on our teachers. Instead we must honor each teacher’s individual strengths. We must treat them with the respect they deserve and support them and work with them.
Doing so will give our students what they deserve: excellent teachers.