How to Build a Teacher in 10 Steps

Introduction: On Touchstones and Magic

Right now there is an aspiring teacher who is working on a 60-page paper based on some age-old education theory developed by some dead education professor wondering to herself what this task that she’s engaging in has to do with what she wants to do with her life, which is be an educator, change lives, and spark magic. (Christopher Emdin)

Student teachers. I don’t have them often, but when I do, I am dismayed (that’s right, dismayed) at how they are evaluated. Obviously I only see this part of things, but how they are evaluated must speak in a large way to what they are taught at university. And it seems to me that in their lectures, more attention is paid to the orderliness of their resource files than on teaching them to find amazing content, that more weight is given to how well they stand and deliver than on teaching kids to find things out independently, and that learning to discipline a class is more important than learning to keep them engaged.

Of most concern to me is the fact that teaching the syllabus always seems to be more of a touchstone than teaching the young people in front of them.

Is it any wonder that it takes dynamic teachers years to recover from their teacher training years? And, sadly, the great majority some never do.

In his amazing TED talk (quoted from at the beginning of this post), Chris Emdin talks about what he thinks should be happening during a teacher’s training years:

Magic can be taught…You teach it by allowing people to go into those spaces where the magic is happening…You’ve got to go in there and hang out at the barbershop, you’ve got to attend that black church, and you’ve got to view those folks that have the power to engage and just take notes on what they do. At our teacher education classes at my university, I’ve started a project where every single student that comes in there sits and watches rap concerts.They watch the way that the rappers move and talk with their hands. (T)hey start learning these little things that if they practice enough becomes the key to magic.

I love what Chris has to say in this TED talk. And I do know, from a few personal chats on Twitter, that he has a LOT more to say on the subjects of teaching and teacher training (when he is not confined by the time limits of the TED format). In what follows, I would like to sketch out these and a few other ideas.

How to Build a Teacher:

  1. Add a solid backbone of alternative assessments. Teach teachers that there are a myriad of (better) ways to assess besides formal, standardized tests. Just because almost everyone at their future schools will be test-obsessed doesn’t mean that this is the best way to do things. In fact, it might very well be the worst. And when these teachers say “But we need to prepare them for their exams”, teach them to ask if it isn’t also possible to prepare them for their future beyond those exams by stimulating curiosity and the love of learning for learning’s sake.
  2. Fuse in some technology. Show aspiring teachers the power of educational technology in enhancing independent, personalized learning and engagement.
  3. Take their hands off. Demonstrate the power of letting go: Give teaching apprentices the confidence to allow their classes to work independently, to discover for themselves, to flounder, to argue and to generate their own conclusions. (I call this ‘hovering’: hanging back and seeing where they go – with the odd suggestion, question or challenge thrown in now and then.)
  4. Remove their fear. Teach them to teach their students to fail (safely) – and then to learn from those failures. Assigning authentic problem-solving tasks, for example, will always involve a measure of failure – it’s part of the process. And it’s part of any other learning process too.
  5. Give them a brain that grows and changes. Help them understand that intelligence is neither preordained nor fixed. Kids do not ‘achieve to their potential’, they achieve to our expectations. Our cognitive ‘limitations’ are nearly always self-imposed, and good teaching can help kids to learn to smash through them. (Oh, and while we’re at it, please can education students learn about some other neurological myths as part of their training?) (And why not throw in some stuff on metacognition too?)
  6. Remove their blind trust circuit. There is no skill more important to learn at school than critical analysis. Teach future teachers how to reflect and think critically so that they can transfer this skill.
  7. Open them up – and put in some creativity. Creativity in education doesn’t mean creating pretty worksheets – or getting kids to make showy things. It means creating authentic opportunities for kids to find and express their own interests.
  8. Encode the fun algorithm. Making school fun and creating magic are always more powerful than amassing an arsenal of disciplinary tactics. The easiest way to have fewer discipline problems is to make them want to be in your class.
  9. Give them a taste for high calibre teaching. One of the primary roles of a teacher is to unpack, interpret and customize the canned syllabus, not just to crack it open and serve it cold. Rookies must know this as part of their training. It means that your students and their individual needs always take precedence over the syllabus. Oh, and teach them to be very careful of how they use ‘taxonomies’ of learning.
  10. Add some thick skin and steely determination. Finally, noob educators must know this: The more experienced teachers at your future school are not always the best ones. As someone somewhere said, forty years of experience may just be the same year repeated forty times. The world changes all the time, and teachers need to adapt their methods accordingly. Don’t be afraid to innovate, to experiment and to grow. And to spark some magic…

Catch Chris Edmin’s TED talk here:

Oh, I almost forgot:

11) Teach them that by and large, homework sucks. It truly does.





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