Understanding 21st Century Teaching
Linda Darling Hammond in her book, Preparing Teachers for a Changing World writes: To a music lover watching a concert from the audience, it would be easy to believe that a conductor has one of the easiest jobs in the world. There he stands, waving his arms in time with the music, and the orchestra produces glorious sounds, to all appearances quite spontaneously. Hidden from the audience – especially from the musical novice – are the conductor’s abilities to read and interpret all the parts at once, to play several instruments and understand the capacities of many more, to organize and coordinate the disparate parts, to motivate and communicate with all of the orchestra members. In the same way that conducting looks like hand-waving, teaching looks simple from the perspective of parents and administrators – it seems to be merely about covering basic knowledge, being patient, and staying active.
But picture this: You enter a room full of three-year-old children. Four are on the carpet, systematically emptying the blocks bin, one block throw at a time. Two are stretching their bodies on the soft play furniture in what looks like an upside down yoga posture. Six are quietly sitting with their hands in the sensory tubs. A few others are with a co-teacher who is letting them hold big brushes and paint on the art tables. Two are crying as if they have been abducted and one is relentlessly tugging and pulling at your shirt as you try to balance the crying ones on your lap.
As a teacher responsible for taking care of this -or any other – group of children, you are in charge of regulating and setting the social-emotional climate of the classroom. This can be done by modelling effective classroom management strategies such as “criss-cross applesauce”. To do this effectively, it is preferred that you spend individual time with each child to know how they’re doing on different developmental and learning indicators. Use this information to plan and implement a strong play-based, interdisciplinary, child-guided curriculum; which is simultaneously open-ended and rigorous. Rigourous for math and literacy, of course. Don’t forget to engage in meaningful conversations, ask good-questions, and listen to children’s words. You’re also to physically design and reset the learning environment, every week or two to make sure the set-ups are inspiring, the resources are engaging, and the layout is predictable. Make sure to plan some art projects, outdoor play, and storytelling sessions so children can explore the world, express themselves, and learn pre-academic skills. Document and assess these learning experiences in an authentic way for two purposes, namely to improve teaching and to measure children in relation to performance and developmental indicators rather than in comparison to other children. Effectively, in eight hours you are to be a teacher, designer, role model, analyst, mentor, resource person, and troubleshooter. All of this while being mindful, peaceful, and positive!
Teaching is very much like conducting an orchestra in that you have to balance several complex elements, but it is showtime five days of the week instead of one and the audience is interactive!
Few administrators and parents understand what teaching means and the complexities involved in teaching, often blaming teachers for being under-motivated and under-prepared. Now more than ever, the preschool teacher’s role is highlighted as being critical to a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Everyone knows that 80 percent of a child’s brain is developed in the first 3 years so the experiences you provide will have effects that last a lifetime.
But what does high-quality teaching look like?
Traditionally, a teacher’s role was that of a “sage on the stage”. Now, the teacher has transformed to a “guide by the side”. In preschool, where play is learning and learning is play, the role of the teacher is multifaceted. Teachers set the stage for learning through play while being keenly aware of how they are supporting each child’s developmental goals. Intentional teachers respect and observe children, encourage them when needed, ask questions, build relationships, plan engaging experiences, and share actively to make a comfortable and trust-filled learning environment. Watching a high-quality teacher is like watching a well-orchestrated musical performance. The fluidity of the child, the teachers, and the environment working together is beautiful. Children learn as they play and as they interact with their peers and teachers through talking, discussing, collaborating, creating, and sharing perspectives.
Preschool teachers are carelessly called “caretakers”, almost undermining them over grade-school teachers. No word can better define the role of the preschool teacher than the word “care”. If you rethink the definition of “caring”! To be caring is to put aside your own choices, preferences, and ideas to welcome another person’s preferences. It “involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference and into the other’s” (Noddings 1984, 24). To be an effective 21st teacher is to listen to and see your children, to meet their interests and needs with appropriate and relevant challenges. To develop this zen frame is fundamental to becoming an intentional teacher and serving children.
The intentional teacher sees children in a true competence model – focusing on their strengths and what they can do. This, in turn, leads to a trusting relationship where children can thrive and develop the skills and dispositions for a lifetime of learning. Elinor Fitch Griffin, a clinical psychologist and early childhood educator, said it well in her book, Island of Childhood: “One of the most important things a teacher does is to respect a child. Her focus on understanding rather than on changing him makes him able to change himself”. This inherent respect high-quality teachers give to a child’s voice helps children develop confidence and persistence that are critical ingredients in the 21st century classroom.