January 25, 2004

Teaching as Organizing

Posted by Michael Arnzen at 12:14 in Theory.

I've been mulling over the definition of the word "teacher." What does it really mean? The dictionaries I've peeked at simply say "one who teaches." I hate circular definitions. What is teaching, then?

The concept is very complicated. I can't answer it here, but I can contrast two sources that I've read recently which define it in persuasive, but distinctive ways. And I can share the ways in which I think the craft of writing is analogous to the art of teaching.

In "Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching," Charlotte Danielson argues that the art of teaching is so complex that it's best to think of it as a synthesis of other professions, "combining the skills of business management, human relations, and theater arts." Teachers must set goals, allocate time, distribute rewards and run a class like a boss; teachers must work well with groups and individuals, motivate and counsel people, suggest career paths like a human resource counselor; teachers must perform lectures, organize activities, construct learning environments and coach others to perfom like a performer and director and producer of a play. We do so much as teachers that it's hard to describe our jobs in a nutshell. Teachers teach.

All of these responsibilites can be thrilling or daunting -- the more aware of the teacher is of these levels of expectaton, the better they'll teach and the happier they'll be as an academic leader. They also need to be organized to give shape to their daily chaos. In fact, a simpler definition of "teacher" comes from an (unattributed) tipsheet I found at the content-rich Honolulu Community College Faculty Development pages. They write: "Teaching may best be defined as the organization of learning." The organizer's task is to "enable a group and the individuals in it to function effectively together" in order to achieve a common goal: in this case, the course objectives. Easier said than done? Not really, if you're organized.

Organization. This idea really says it all, I think. The teacher organizes learning -- they orchestrate knowledge events -- they plan and act on that plan and they hierarchize knowledge in order that others can focus on the most important or valuable components.

A teacher is a lot like a writer, too. I've mused a lot about how teaching and writing are similar acts and this simple definition of teaching as "organizing learning" speaks to me because I think -- when it all comes down to it -- what a writer does is organize thoughts. Whether mapping out a term syllabus or plotting a novel, teachers invent structures of knowledge which facilitate learning as best as they can predict. Disorganized teachers either don't plan, or don't work with an outline: their classes are like rough drafts or brainstorms in the present tense. Of course, just as a good writer needs to have an internal sense of his or her audience and be able to predict reader's needs, a good teacher needs to have a sense of his or her student's needs both before a class begins and during its proctoring. This is probably why Writers often make good teachers, and writing can help teachers develop.

A "writer" is just one of many analogous occupations for the vocation of teaching. Teachers are compared to gardeners, conductors, coaches, generals, wardens, preachers, parents...the list could go on forever. So I'm back where I started. Teaching is impossible to define. But if they are, at root, "the one who organizes" then no matter how free flowing their courses are, they must be in control of all this activity and thinking to some degree, because they also wear the mantle of training others to organize and teach just like themselves, if only unconsciously.

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Teacher- One who encourages knowledge and inspires someone to become better than who they already are.

I know plenty of "teachers" who aren't paid to teach. They inspire those around them and speak to the hearts.

To Teach- To inspire.

Posted by Rebecca Villano at 01:12 on January 28, 2004. #

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