Tag Archives: philosophy of education

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.

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.

Bite Your Tongue, Teacher!

Many people mistakenly think learning group advisers need to be the extreme experts in their field. The truth is that the ideal adviser often is one or two steps above the learner. Too much cognitive distance between the learners and advisers creates an environment where the extreme expert focuses on “telling” the learners what they need to know, rather than creating an environment that is open to exploring the topic, solutions and / or ideas.

Excerpted from Expert Advice by Randy Emelo

Shhh... I got this, Mr. Boomsma.
“Shhh… I’ve got this, Mr. Boomsma.” (This is a stock photo compliments of Pixabay.  It is not the young lady described in the article.)

I “borrowed” this quote from the November Issue of Training Doctor News because it’s a common mistake trainers and teachers make with students, particularly when we see ourselves as an SME (subject matter expert). Our real value might be as facilitators of learning, not simply dispensers of knowledge.

Just recently I had the opportunity to spend some time with two young ladies. When I say “young” that means one was a sixth grader, the other a fourth grader. Even though this was not school-related, I tend to believe we who are adults should always be “teaching” children, if only through good role modeling. So I stay alert for opportunities.

They were having a conversation in the back seat that began with an announcement that an adult friend of theirs was pregnant. For reasons I certainly do not understand, the younger asked no one in particular, “When the Mom is pregnant, can the Dad drink wine?”

I tried to look smaller and hoped that I would not be drawn into the conversation in spite of the fact that I certainly qualify as an SME (Subject Matter Expert) on this topic in a relative sense when compared to a twelve-year-old. I was reasonably sure a simple “yes” answer was not going to be the end of the conversation.

Worry wasn’t necessary, the sixth grader accepted the challenge, explaining that while the Mom shouldn’t drink, it would be okay for the Dad. The fourth grader accepted this, explaining that she understood the Mom shouldn’t drink since the baby was in her stomach.

The sixth grader gently corrected this, noting that she’d learned in health class that “the baby is actually in the nest mothers have in their bodies.”

I drove on, both relieved and feeling a bit smarter having learned a new vocabulary term associated with reproduction. I now have a better explanation of the process and successfully escaped from dealing with the topic.

That sixth grader was, in the truest sense, the “ideal adviser” because she was “one or two steps above the learner.” The conversation between the girls continued briefly as they were “creating an environment that is open to exploring the topic, solutions, and /or ideas.”

In fairy tale terms, we all “lived happily every after.”

It reminded me of being in a store once and hearing a youngster ask his Mom a question about something in the store. The mom replied in a genuinely interested way, “What do you think?” It wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to follow them and eavesdrop, but I’ll bet it was an interesting conversation.

Teachers and learners take note. Sometimes knowing the answer just isn’t that important–or necessary! There are times when we need to bite our tongues and sit on our hands so it’s truly about learning and not just about teaching.

Happy World Teachers’ Day!

SeDo Dictionary_34SM
Third Graders learn the “Dictionary Race” during a Dictionary Day Presentation.

Bet you didn’t know today is World Teachers’ Day! Empowering teachers, building sustainable societies,” is the slogan for 2015.

By sheer coincidence, today I will be working with eighty third graders as part of the Valley Grange Words for Thirds Program. The program is designed to give third graders their own personal dictionary. I have the honor of facilitating the process and teaching the kids a little history and some basic dictionary skills.

Another coincidence was that one of the email newsletters I subscribe to included a very appropriate quote by thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900).

Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being, something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else, but that is always difficult to access, something bound and immobilized; your educators cannot go beyond being your liberators. And that is the secret of all true culture: she does not present us with artificial limbs, wax-noses, bespectacled eyes – for such gifts leave us merely with a sham image of education. She is liberation instead, pulling weeds, removing rubble, chasing away the pests that would gnaw at the tender roots and shoots of the plant; she is an effusion of light and warmth, a tender trickle of nightly rain…

There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud – but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.

And therein lies a wonderful way to celebrate this relatively unknown day… thinking about those who have educated and “cultivated” us. We are all teachers and educators. We are all learners and students. I expect to learn something from these kids today. And I hope they learn something from me and the experience they have.

As I read Nietzche’s thoughts I was most struck by his suggestion that educators are liberators. Dictionary Day today will have, for me, a slightly different meaning today. I will be considering how today’s lesson and the book each child leaves with will be freeing and surely contribute to the person each becomes. As the kids would say, “Awesome!”

World Teacher Day