Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Fog of Teaching

I’ve spent the last couple of days at a “retreat” for one of our grade levels where we have spent very valuable time discussing the meat of what we do as teachers. We’ve interspersed really deep discussions about curriculum and instructional strategies with hilarious stories of bathroom mishaps and “the things children say”. It’s been both intense and relaxing, and we’ve gotten an incredible amount accomplished.

If only teaching could always be like this.

Unfortunately, too often we can’t or don’t spend time discussing the “meat” of our teaching with our colleagues because the clutter of daily school operations gets in the way. Meetings become clogged with lists of complaints or field trip details and organizational tasks take up the planning time we could so much better use to reflect on our teaching effectiveness. And no one knows better the flustered feeling one gets when eight kids need to go to the bathroom, someone spills their drink on the carpet, and the technology won’t work, all as the principal enters the classroom with her clipboard for an observation.

The best teachers are able to teach on the fly and adapt as needed, but for many teachers daily life in the classroom can feel very much like “the fog of war”. I think of it as the fog of teaching.

The fog of war is described as the degree of uncertainty and lack of situational awareness that occurs in a large battle. It’s the confusion that tends to stop forward progress and sometimes even cause instances of friendly fire. In the classroom, at least, we don’t have to worry about fatalities due to the fog of teaching, but there are casualties. If we succumb to the sense of confusion we feel in the midst of the daily bombardment of information and operational/classroom management requirements, then we lose our forward momentum and the vision of where we’d like our students to be.

How do we prevent the fog of teaching? In actuality, I don’t think there’s a way to completely avoid periods of time during which the fog descends. There will always be report card weeks that fall on a full moon and a holiday weekend. But for the times in between, we have got to set aside sacred time to discuss the meat of teaching. We have to ignore the operational and discipline issues in order to focus on the curricular and instructional decision-making that is at the heart of teaching, and then share these ideas with our colleagues. Just like a soldier working through the sleep-deprivation, harassing orders and harsh conditions of boot camp in order to condition himself to think clearly on the battle field, as teachers we have to force ourselves to maintain intentional practices even in the most adverse of conditions. Otherwise, we’ll all just wander around in a fog.

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