Category Archives: Teaching

Teachers — Born or Made?

“Teaching  is a natural gift; it cannot be taught through college training.” This statement posted on a substitute teacher’s forum was actually directed to me based on some previous discussion around the qualifications for a substitute teacher. I decided not to engage in a “nature versus nurture” debate and actually fell back on my “it depends,” answer to the question “What do you say?”

One of the things teachers must learn is to make sure you understand the question before you answer it.  I’m still not sure if this was a question about teaching or a question about the value of a college education.  But it did set me to thinking.

I think some of the fundamental qualities required to be a teacher are not easily taught. A couple of examples:

  • A love of children
  • A love of learning
  • A love of teaching/nurturing
  • Flexible thinking skills

I do think those qualities can be learned. There is a, however, a difference between learning and teaching. I know a lot of people (kids included) who are tired of being taught but are anxious to learn. One of the distinguishing features of an outstanding teacher is his or her ability to engage the learners and make learning “fun.”

When I started in the business of education, my focus was on adults. Macolm Knowles was just developing his adult learning theory and the word “andragogy” was becoming commonplace. They were heady times for educators.  As is often the case with new concepts, an unfortunate polarity developed. The term “pedagogy” had been around longer, applied to child learning. No one thought to raise the question of whether or not it makes sense to draw such a solid line between child learning and adult learning. We were too enamored of the labels and the differences.

But I digress–mostly to make the point that adults tend to be more task-oriented and self-directed learners than kids.  For most adults, learning is about application rather than memorization.

Colleges have been too slow to recognize this difference as an opportunity. Ironically, there has been a tendency to cling to teaching methods more suited to kids. Another digression we could take–what is the teacher’s role in teaching students how to learn?

When we look at teaching, there’s a lot that can be taught in a classroom–college or otherwise– including strategies and techniques. But if we’re not careful, we end up with the equivalent of trying to teach someone how to play tennis without spending any time on the court.

I “interviewed” my niece (Thanks, Abigail!) for this article–she’s currently completing her student teaching, a 75 day (15 weeks–one semester) assignment. She estimates that 15-25% of her college program involves actual teaching–partly because she ended up team teaching during her observations.  Not all students get that opportunity–much depends on the supervising teacher.

Can teaching be taught in college? We need to be cautious about one-dimensional thinking and yes or no answers. If  we think the answer is found in whether or not the teacher can pass the test, let’s remember that the real test isn’t a final exam or achieving certification. The real test will happen in the classroom–one reason it’s important to learn there.  Or maybe in a Dr. Seuss like way, we should be learning “here, and there, and everywhere.”

A Page in Mr. Boomsma’s Brag Book

Teachers are, I think, students just by nature of the profession.  But in this case, I became a student both officially and formally by completing an online course offered by STEDI (Substitute Teacher Division, Utah State University) titled “Advanced Classroom Management.”

I wish I could tell you that it was a grueling and stressful experience. Truth be told, I’d actually taken an older version of the course some years ago. So this was a bit of a review and I was able to complete the self-paced course quickly.  Being a typical adult learner, I undervalued the material–at least until I finished.

Then I remembered, sometimes the greatest value of a course is that it reinforces what you already know and increases your confidence. I use many of these techniques while teaching. They are integrated into the Substitute Teacher’s Workshop I offer in conjunction with several adult education programs. So, as the saying goes, “It’s all good.”

Students of all ages often ask, “Do we have to learn this?” I understand the question but also find it a sad one. What happened to the joy of learning?

Seth Godin recently posted some thoughts about the smoker’s lounge at the Helsinki Airport. (There’s still one there.) He observed that most smokers in the lounge didn’t look particularly happy. They had the appearance of doing something because they had to do it.  He also observed many people standing about the lounge checking their phones. They didn’t seem particularly happy either–probably for the same reason. He wondered when we are going to start building social media lounges.

One thing to like about Seth is he makes you think. I’m not sure if his post is about addiction, human nature, social media or something else.

But I do know this: Things that initially bring us pleasure can easily turn into habit and drudgery.  We continue to do them because we have to do them even though the value has diminished. That may include learning.  But when we really start to think about it, the cigarettes, phones, and I would include lessons, do not change. We change–collectively and individually.

But when we really start to think about it, the cigarettes, phones, and I would include lessons, do not change. We change–collectively and individually–how we think about things and our attitude towards them.

Let’s make learning fun.

Emotionally Intelligent Communication

Here’s a short video (seven minutes) that demonstrates a couple of things… First, a currently “hot” presentation method called “Pecha-kucha.”

Second, and more importantly, the presentation offers some great examples of “emotionally intelligent signage.” Understand this is not just about signs, it’s about communication. It might even be about “emotionally intelligent teaching.” It’s definitely about how we can connect with those to whom we are sending a message.

Pecha-kucha presentation on emotionally intelligent signage from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

What’s Your Label? Who Are You, Really!?

Thank you so much for your book, received it yesterday and have read a chapter or two so far. I have many questions already, everything is just so well done. Through mass-marketed media its perceived that adults take for granted the words of a child, and their hold and place in society. Your book defies that stereotype, finding the deeper meaning in education and brains of our youth. Coming from someone who wants to study child-minds and thought processes, it was very humbling and insightful reading the first beginning pages of your experience with the young Amish girl…

What is not to like about a review like this!? It’s written by a high school senior who contacted me for some “collaboration” on a writing project… her planned vocation is to become a child psychologist and her avocation is to write and publish.

I love her suggestion that I defy the stereotype that “adults take for granted the words of a child…” She definitely has a future as a writer, because that is a previously not-so-well stated mission. Maybe even an obsession. I often quote Stacia Tauscher:

“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”

Children are really just little people, not so different than those we consider adults. Admittedly, they have less experience being a person than an adult, but they are no less a person. They see things with curious minds and fresh outlooks. Their observations are often insightful.

Just this week, we received new identification badges at school. They are quite formal and official looking. We wear them on a lanyard so people can be assured we belong where we are. I don’t question the need and logic. But a second grader did.

He grabbed my badge, studied it closely and looked somewhere between puzzled and horrified. “Mr. Boomsma, this isn’t right. It says you are a substitute teacher. You are a REAL teacher.”

I suppose I should have “corrected” him, but truth be told he made me feel pretty smug and really good. He also gave me a lot to think about and I ultimately decided that what he thought was probably more important than what my badge said.

One reason subs sometimes have difficulty managing a class is the students will view him or her as “not our teacher” and decide the day will be a bit of a holiday. When I teach the Substitute Teacher Course, we spend some time discussing this potential power struggle. Part of my approach is that we must establish at the beginning we are there to teach, not to babysit. Yes, things will be a little different, but it is still about teaching and learning.  A substitute who establishes that at the start will have far less “classroom management” issues.  In age-appropriate language, I make it clear I am not there to manage a classroom, I am there to teach and facilitate learning.

So I think it’s pretty cool that second grader thinks it’s wrong to call me a substitute. I also think it’s pretty cool that he was able to read the entire badge, including the word substitute.

Labels are certainly a necessary tool in our society, but they come at some cost. The biggest cost is the loss of true identity when we become seen only as the label.

Don’t forget. A child is a person–a smaller and less experienced one, but no less a person.

Great idea, but…

In Brief... a short thought, idea, or story!
In Brief… a short thought, idea, or story featured as a brain leak or musing!

The phone rang yesterday and a number I didn’t recognize appeared on the screen. Usually, that means “junk,” but I answered anyway.

The caller began talking rapidly and it became clear we were going to suffer a language barrier, but since she used the word “suicide” I knew it wasn’t a junk call.

Slowing the conversation and lots of repeating revealed that the caller was associated with a school and her question was, “I know you do suicide training for teachers, but would you do it for parents?”

I of course answered, “Yes!” My mind racing ahead to consider the idea of a school sponsoring a program for parents. I’m often approached by parents who are concerned about their kids but this was truly a first. Hmmm…

As we explored the idea, it occurred to me to ask where she was from. She replied, “Brooklyn, NY.” It didn’t occur to me to ask how and why she’d decided to call me in Central Maine. I was just glad she called.

I was able to refer her to some more localized resources using my NAMI connection and encouraged her to call again if I could help further. I hope she has success putting something together. I confess I felt a bit smug that I got the call–even though I don’t know how she found me. But I felt even smugger that the conversation around suicide prevention is becoming increasing normalized and easy to have.

Look for more on this topic…