Wednesday, January 11, 2012


A lot of the time, teaching can feel like a solitary profession. I should explain: Yes, I am surrounded by and working with students all day, and yes, I have opportunities to collaborate and plan with colleagues during meetings. Typically, though, I am the only adult in the classroom. In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, "I am a rock; I am an island."

Okay, so I'm not a rock, nor am I an island. However, being the only adult in the room most of the time has brought me to the realization that most professional growth for me as a teacher will happen through trial, error and reflection on my part. So, I try new ideas, gauge student engagement and response, think through what I did well and what I could have done better, and then adjust my teaching accordingly. There are times when, exhausted from this process, I wish that I had paid more attention to how my own high school teachers did their jobs--how they instructed, how they managed, how they assessed. There are times when I would give anything to turn over the reins and watch a master teacher at work.

There are times when that wish comes true. At least one of those times is a standing appointment. Every year, as long as I am teaching Junior Humanities, and as long as he is in Japan, I will invite Brian, CAJ's headmaster (and a family friend) to show the movie Amistad. Brian designed the Humanities block class, and so has a good familiarity with the philosophy behind the class and the way it is structured, though it has been years since he last taught it.

Fortunately, every teacher since then has brought Brian back into the classroom to teach through Amistad. For a busy school administrator who misses teaching, it's an ideal situation: the chance to teach an engaging and interesting lesson that requires little prep and no marking. For me, still relatively new to teaching, it's an ideal opportunity to learn, not only about Amistad, but also about how to more effectively engage a class, draw students out and lead a discussion.

During the movie, Brian will push pause and comment on a variety of things, ranging from social context to the significance of certain music cues, camera angles and lighting. This is a movie that he clearly loves, and one with which he has built an at-times frame-by-frame familiarity. This expertise is not lost on the kids, who treat the frequent pauses more as stops on an interesting tour than a disruption to an interesting movie. This is convicting to me, as I tend to focus perhaps too much on philosophy of curriculum and instruction. I hope to earn a Master's in education someday, and at times I pursue this interest in the how of teaching to the neglect of my content--I spend vacations reading books on pedagogy; rarely do I disappear into a history book or a good novel. Watching Brian's Amistad commentary reminded me that there's value in developing my content knowledge; that becoming an expert, developing a close familiarity with a particular period of history, a particular book or movie, actually opens the doors to so many more options for curriculum and instruction.

Though we are only a day into the viewing of the movie, my other major take-away from observing Brian is a reminder to keep up my own energy and enthusiasm. As I mentioned above, I learn a lot from trial and error, and if I have a stretch of time where I'm marking more tallies in the "error" column, I can easily become weary and discouraged. I'm a naturally energetic person, and a naturally energetic teacher, but there are some days, even some weeks where that energy is difficult to muster. So, Brian's obvious joy for teaching and being in the classroom reminded me that my enthusiasm and energy should not be hinged on whether a given lesson or activity goes well, but rather from the privilege of simply being in the classroom and actively taking a role in facilitating learning.

I'm sure there are other lessons and observations that I will make over the next few days, but those two are the ones that stood out in my mind this evening as I thought about how Humanities class went. I am thankful for the opportunity (all too rare as it is) to watch a good teacher teach, and covet such opportunities to learn.

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