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Artistry in Teaching: Tales from Master Teachers

During the CRL’s (Center for Research on Learning) 35 years of operation, we’ve worked with thousands of teachers implementing interventions designed and validated by the CRL.  Among these teachers, there seems to be a subgroup that stands out because of the extraordinary results that they achieve with their students. I’ve been trying to figure out what accounts for the remarkable gains that these teachers achieve. Some possible answers come to mind:  they are working with easier-to-teach students or students with less severe problems…or these teachers work in better-run schools…or these teachers have more administrative support…or…(the list can go on and on!). The reality is some of the most remarkable gains have come with the hardest-to-teach students, in schools that are not especially well run, and/or where there is less than ideal administrative support.

Although all of our instructional manuals and support materials have been designed to use the best of what we understand about quality instruction and pedagogy (for example, having teachers use advance organizers, provide clear models and explicit feedback, deliberately engaging students in goal setting), there is no guarantee that students will make the kinds of gains we would expect even if we follow the procedures outlined in an instructional protocol with the greatest of care and fidelity. Why is this? I think the answer may, at least in part, lie in the fact that these teachers recognize that high-quality teaching requires much more than checklists to ensure our instructional fidelity and clever mnemonics to promote student learning!

Although sound pedagogy is necessary for student growth, it is not sufficient! In other words, even the strictest adherence to the procedures outlined in instructional manuals is no guarantee of student success. What are some of the things that the most effective teachers incorporate into their teaching that is above and beyond the instructional protocols and fidelity checklists? I have been privileged to work with and observe many master teachers.   I have noted at least three things that seem to set these masters apart from the rest of the pack. These three things, which CRL’s Mike Hock has termed “artistry behaviors,” cause some teachers to succeed above and beyond everyone else.  The first of these is clear vision, the second is high teacher efficacy.  The third aspect of artistry is deep love and respect for learners.

Clear Vision Before we can reach significant instructional goals with our students, we must have a clear, unmistakable vision in our mind of what we want to accomplish and what we are all about as teachers. So many things can get in a teacher’s way and distract the teacher from doing those things that matter most (for example, the temptation or pressure to tutor students for class assignments rather than teaching them foundational skills and strategies to enable them to independently deal with their assignments). When a teacher has a clearly articulated vision of what his or her role is in the teaching process, the foundation is set for making decisions about what one will do or not do. In his book First Things First, Steven Covey argues that a clear vision enhances our ability to see beyond our present reality, to create and invent what does not exist.

A clear vision gives us the capacity to live out of our imaginations (that is, the exciting possibilities of what we can accomplish with our students) instead of out of our fears (that is, what the doubters around us would have us believe we can’t accomplish with our students). When we have limited vision, we react to what is urgent, the impulse of the moment, our moods and feelings…or other people’s priorities. A clear vision gives us a passion for the important work we are doing as teachers. It helps us realize that we have the capacity to make unique and highly significant contributions. It clarifies our purpose, gives us direction, and empowers us to perform beyond our resources. In short, when we have a clearly defined vision for our work as teachers, we gain the capacity to know, of the many demands placed on us daily, what things we should say “yes” to doing and what things we should say “no” to doing. In the absence of a clear vision, usually those things that are the most pressing and urgent capture our energy and attention. When this happens, teachers often feel fragmented and frustrated about not being able to focus on the things that they know matter the most.

Some questions to consider: What is our vision for the work that we do? Is it clearly defined? Do we have a “shared” vision with our colleagues? Has the lofty vision of our early years in the profession become dulled? Have we lowered the bar of what we expect of ourselves and of those that we teach? When we remind ourselves of the powerful role that a clearly defined mission can play, we can understand why the master teachers among us carefully nurture and remain true to their vision of their role as strategic teachers.

High Teacher Efficacy Closely related to the notion of vision is that of teacher efficacy. As we know, teacher efficacy is the belief that teachers hold about the effectiveness of their teaching with particular types of students and about their own competence to teach those students. A teacher’s sense of efficacy influences his or her thoughts and feelings, choice of activities, the amount of effort expended with students, and the extent of persistence shown in the face of challenging circumstances. Teachers who have a high sense of efficacy believe deeply that good teaching can make a difference with all students, regardless of external obstacles (such as home environment and students’ ability), while teachers with low efficacy express the belief that good teaching cannot outweigh those kinds of influences. Additionally, high efficacy teachers see at-risk students as reachable and teachable and demonstrate a sense of personal responsibility for the success and failure of all students. They take pride in being able to teach students seen as unteachable by others. Clearly, master teachers have a high sense of efficacy. They believe that they can, indeed, make a difference in the lives of the students that they teach. They see themselves as being a transformative force in the lives of their students. They have a firm belief that quality teaching can result in dramatic growth for students. As a consequence, they will go the extra mile in doing everything within their power to effectively teach and reach each of their students.

Deep Respect and Love In her book, An Exploration of Respect, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot discusses relationships that are “asymmetric” (that is, relationships that are characterized by contrasts in power, knowledge, or control–for example, doctors or teachers generally possess more power, knowledge, or control than their patients or students). When relationships are asymmetric, the experts are seen as the ones who should be on the receiving end of the respect. However, when relationships are “symmetric,” respect is seen as something that the experts must show to those with whom they work as much as it is something that they should receive. At-risk students often act in ways that are upsetting, frustrating, or even irritating to teachers. As such, it is often difficult to respect and love them. Because they are often slow in their responses and sometimes give more wrong than right answers, there may be a temptation to “give” them the answers rather than allow them to struggle to find the answers themselves. In other words, although we all know the importance of having students, during the instructional process, move to a point of independent functioning, when we quickly “give” the answers, we build their dependency upon us and stifle the growth that can come only when one is stretched and challenged.

To illustrate how teachers should demonstrate respect to those who struggle during the learning process, Lawrence-Lightfoot relates how Kay, a successful middle school teacher, learned an important dimension of respect from her father when he was teaching her to fly fish as a child. “He was such a wonderful teacher…so patient and so skilled in choosing such few words of advice. I remember how he helped me retrieve and untangle the line. There was almost complete silence in that moment…just patience and gentleness.” Seeking to understand and be aware of how the students we teach feel about themselves is such an important part of effective teaching. For adolescents, in particular, who are struggling with feelings of shaky self-esteem as much as shaky strategies, responses of loving silence, patience, and gentleness can be the most effective way to promote both student confidence and growth. Such responses, at least on the surface, are often at variance with all that “effective pedagogy” tells us about the importance of intensity of instruction, efficiently working toward goals, etc. Master teachers recognize that, at times, the best response during an instructional interaction is one that isn’t found on a checklist or in a specific stage of strategy instruction. Rather, what we do should be determined by what we believe would be the most caring, loving, and respectful response. At times, as in the case of Kay, it is to be quiet and patient. At other times, we are most respectful and loving if we push a student to stretch so that high expectations can be met. To make the right response at these important instructional moments, master teachers are tending to factors generally not found in instructional protocols.

The three factors of vision, teacher efficacy, and respect are, in many respects, hard to define and even harder to operationalize in the complexity that characterizes most classrooms. They can’t be captured into a snappy mnemonic or fit neatly within a checklist for effective instruction. In a sense, they really transcend the things that are captured in the instructional materials we typically use. In the absence of clear vision, high efficacy and a strong sense of love and respect for students, all of the well-designed instructional procedures in the world have an uphill battle in trying to improve the performance of students who are struggling to learn and struggling to feel good about themselves. In contrast, true “magic” occurs in the lives of students when teachers are committed to bringing together the very best that science has to offer through validated instructional practices with such artistry behaviors as vision, efficacy, and respect. Students who live on the margins within our schools deserve the best that we have to offer, something above and beyond well designed instructional materials delivered with fidelity.

Professor Deshler is one of the best-known and most-respected researchers in the field of special education at the secondary level. He is the director of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KU-CRL), which has been providing specialized training to secondary special education teachers for over 20 years. The work of the KU-CRL focuses on academic strategies enabling adolescents to achieve success on state assessment standards, attend college, and compete in the global economy. Dr. Deshler actively works to bring research into practice through his extensive participation in various organizations including: Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Governors Association, the Council on Families and Literacy, the U. S. State Department, and the National Institute for Literacy’s advisory board. In addition, Dr. Deshler has worked with members of Congress to shape policies addressing the challenges of school reform at the secondary level. Most importantly, Dr. Deshler has received many awards, such as, the J.E. Wallace Wallin Award for leadership in educational research, the Maxwell J. Schleifer Distinguished Service Award, the Higuchi Research Achievement Award, the Distinguished Education Achievement Award from National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Educator of the Year Award from the Learning Disabilities Association, and the 2010 AERA Special Education Distinguished Researcher Award.



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