November 25th, 2016 – This picture of a blackbird perched on a branch singing over a marsh of cattail reeds in the early morning hours of a new day is one my favorite images of teaching.  I invite you to take some time and look closely.  What are the signs of good teaching evident in this image?  What are the conditions of the environment that allow for the presence of good teaching to present itself for examination?  How would you begin to compare this male blackbird and his song to all the other males singing that day?  How might we use this image of a singing bird to talk about the ineffable or hidden qualities of good teaching?

First let me make an argument for the ineffable, that which we know exists but frequently can’t see; courage, passion and grit for instance.  One way bird lovers make distinctions between birds are their songs, each species has a signature melody.  But a song, like many aspects of good teaching can be heard but not seen, except when the right conditions bring the ineffable forward for examination.  In this image we can actually see the song of the blackbird in the exhaled breath.  Each curl, curve and break makes the unseen elements of the song present for inspection.

An important lesson in this image for anyone interested in the unseen aspects of teaching is the importance of the right conditions for the ineffable to materialize.  Externally, there must be a rising sun that back lights the scene, the temperature must be cold enough for the breath to condense into visible droplets, and the wind must be perfectly still or the notes will be distorted.  Internally, the bird must exhibit a certain confidence in his song, head back and throat full of commitment.  Additionally, without a compelling urge to sing the marsh will be quiet and the song of the blackbird will remain invisible.

What are some of the essential learnings that might help with ways of making the unseen or ineffable elements of teaching more evident and available for examination?  The first learning is that the right conditions, externally and internally, must be present. Only a teacher who is encouraged or supported by colleagues or school leaders will take the risk of singing while perched on an exposed branch.  Only a teacher with strong internal sense of calling to teach will throw her head back and in a full-throated way announce with authenticity her particular teaching style.

What might be at stake if we stop paying attention to the ineffable qualities of teaching?  The  graphic novel “Watchman” by DC Comics (2014) warns of the dangers of becoming too analytic in our studies of nature or teaching.  The narrator, whose superhero persona is an owl, muses on the danger of narrowing the investigative eye to only technical qualities when describing what makes a bird a bird:

“Looking at a hawk, we see the minute differences in width of the shaft lines on the under-feathers where the Egyptians once saw Horus and the burning eye of holy vengeance incarnate. Until we transform our mere sightings into genuine visions; until our ear is mature enough to order a symphony from the shrill pandemonium of the aviary; until then we may have a hobby, but we shall not have a passion.  When I was a boy, my passion was for owls. Somewhere over the years; some-place along the line my passion got lost, unwittingly refined from the original gleaming ore down to a banal and lusterless filing system.”

When it comes to describing good teaching we must look past the external qualities of “best practices” as defined by standards and accountability rubrics.  We must learn to un-see the world of teaching as solely a technical process that has the potential of de-evolving into “a banal and lusterless filing system”.  We must regain the passion and vision to see the mystery and magic of teaching that is only visible, although always present, on certain cold mornings in the face of a rising sun.

November 16, 2016 – The profession of teaching and teacher education seems overly preoccupied with the external qualities and characteristics of effective teaching.  A quick search of an online book seller lists 500 books under the search term “teaching best practices” with several of the titles in 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions.  A similar search for “teacher inner life” yields just over 100 books with only a handful directly related to the daily craft of teaching, instead, themes like meditation, mindfulness, prayer and spiritual awakening dominate the list.  The emphasis on the external and technical domain of teaching makes sense given the increased attention teaching has experienced since A Nation at Risk (1983) arguably spurred the modern day accountability, teaching standards and pay for performance movement. I don’t want to suggest that the technical skills of teaching are unimportant.  They are actually essential to good teaching in the same way that any profession is defined by a discreet set of skills that require regular training, research and professional development to improve and enhance practice.  I wouldn’t go to a surgeon who never learned to handle to scrapple or trust my car to a mechanic who was unaware of the difference between a crescent wrench and a box-end wrench.

To paraphrase the author and educational reformer, Parker Palmer, “technical problems require technical solutions and non-technical problems require non-technical solutions.”  What I hear in Palmer’s analysis is a call to pay attention to the root cause or source of teaching dysfunction or deformation.  Sometimes teachers struggle with external best practices such as lesson planning, culturally responsive pedagogy, seating arrangements or assessing student performance.  But at times the root cause of ineffective performance lies in a different direction, which Palmer variously describes as heart, courage, identity, integrity or calling.  Although speaking from the technical and standards side of the educator effectiveness coin, the Council for the Accreditation of Education Programs (CAEP) also calls for a recognition of and accounting for the “non-academic” aspects of teaching (Standard 3).

What might these non-technical, non-academic, heart-centered elements of teaching look like in practice and how might we recognize them when we see them?  First, let me argue that since teaching as a profession has adopted the language of “best-practices” to define the technical that educators should begin using the term of “deep-practices” to refer to the inner qualities of teaching.  This will perhaps help with placing these attributes on a similar plain of importance while elevating the shared language of practice which differs from the outer to the inner elements of teaching. What might deep-practices look like in teaching?  Based on my reading and synthesis of the literature I would propose the following categories as a way to get the conversation rolling: calling, presence, authenticity, wholeheartedness, and imagination.

Kate Newburgh, a Ph.D. student in the Morgridge College of Education Curriculum and Instruction Program, is working with Eagle Valley Schools to design and implement curricula that reflect the skills needed in today’s world. Newburgh, who joined Eagle Valley Schools earlier this year, supports the district’s middle and high school English and Language Arts departments. Her curriculum development incorporates “performance tasks” supplementing traditional content to develop “global-ready skills,” a concept created by Harvard University professor Tony Wagner.

The performance tasks prompt students to create projects that have a real-life impact in their communities; elementary-school students are working to research and install “buddy benches” on their playground to address bullying. Additionally, a ninth-grade class creates podcasts to tell the story of a local hero. Projects still in the works include one seventh-grade class working on a lesson in identifying and examining stereotypes by studying slam poetry and writing their own, with the intent of sharing their work with the community.

Eagle Valley Schools will measure student engagement in the performance-oriented curriculum to continually assess how to improve and expand upon a system designed to prepare students for a modern, global, and connected society. Her work in the district is particularly important in regards to people development because of the need to support the region’s growing immigrant and refugee population in an area that is isolated from the rest of the state.

The Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program (ELPS) offers a Mountain cohort option in its Executive Leadership for Successful Schools (ELSS) Certificate program. The cohort expands opportunities for educators and administrators to benefit from the program’s expertise and earn Certification for Colorado Principal Licensure. ELPS—which earned a top 20 ranking in Best Education Administration and Supervision by the U.S. News and World Report in 2016—launched the Mountain cohort in the 2014-15 academic year due to increasing interest from the region’s district superintendents.

Because the communities are far from higher education institutions on the Front Range and Western Slope, options for educators looking to expand their skills can be scarce. The cohort was created to address the unique needs of growing mountain communities and their schools, and to enable them to invest in school leaders who were already part of those communities. According to Assistant Professor of the Practice, Ellen Miller-Brown, Ph.D., the cohort provides a “high-quality, hybrid face-to-face and online program without the need for extensive travelling.” Face-to-face classes are held at locations in the high mountain region where the majority of the students reside.

Members of the 2015-16 cohort had great success; three graduates—Kendra Carpenter, Laura Rupert, and Robin Sutherland of Summit School District—applied for, and were accepted to, principal positions in their districts after completing the ELSS Certificate. Additionally, cohort members Hank Nelson and Clint Wytulka served as interim principals at their Nucla, CO schools during the program and were promoted to full principals after completion, and cohort member Will Harris was appointed the Education Technology Specialist in his Eagle County district school after completing the program.


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