#TeachingIs Messy (And I Like It That Way)

During National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 4-8, 2015, the Center for Teaching Quality invites all teachers to share their #TeachingIs story in an effort to dispel the popular myth of bad apple teachers and failing schools. Bill Ferriter, a CTQ blogger and 20-year veteran teacher in North Carolina, recently posted “#TeachingIs According to Twelve-Year-Old.  He had asked his 6th graders to describe their best teachers, and one of them responded:  “The best teachers are close and personal with the students, even if it is messy.”

That “even if it is messy” socked me right in the gut, because – can I get a witness?— teaching is all MESSY. From the first bell of the first day to the free-at-last bell on the last day, things rarely go as planned. Technology fails.  An announcement over the intercom destroys a quiet meditation of literature. A fire drill interrupts a science lab. The student who critically needs to understand a formula is absent on the day you cover it. If you have bus duty, it will rain. If it’s sunny outside, you mysteriously will be relegated to gym duty.

Teaching is messy because life is messy. Humans are flawed.  The teacher who recognizes that vulnerability in both herself and her students will succeed. Flexible teachers will endure. Teachers who can seize the day and capture a teachable moment that has arrived unbidden and unplanned become exemplars in their field. Teachers must recognize the vicissitudes of a school day as an opportunity for students to learn instead of a failure of the teacher to teach.

I’m not endorsing sloppy teaching, which should not be tolerated by the students, the school or the teacher himself. What I’m endorsing is the awareness of the chaos of life and the teacher’s ability to capitalize, even embrace, that disorder.

The central rub of creating a free-market business model for education is just that: there are no single products being produced. There are 49.8 million different products being produced, with 49.8 million different combinations of mechanical, chemical, thermal and physical properties. What creates malleability in one student doesn’t faze another. An exercise that serves as a positive catalyst for one may create spontaneous combustion in another.  A smart teacher understands the individual needs of her students, meeting them where they are instead of forcing them to fit a tidy mold that ultimately may harm their ability to learn and to grow.

Yes, we should understand and appreciate the power and utility of teacher-initiated and student-specific data. Yes, we should understand and appreciate the need for quality assessments and authentic measurements for student growth.  But at the end of the day, teaching is much more magic than it is science.  It’s as much astrology as it is astronomy and as much an intuitive art as it is a designed and measured product of craft. The teacher who recognizes the beauty and the untidiness of each little soul in her classroom is the teacher who understands the essence and power of education.

I am one of those teachers who love the idea of organization. I love school supplies— new ink pens, reams of pristine paper, tight binders, boxes of folders, clips, tacks, staples, containers. I own three label makers. I start every year with a multi-colored, 15-drawer rolling organizer, fresh boxes of tissue, a can of sharpened pencils. But seemingly, by week two, those items – the trappings of school culture – are just that: external props for the serious business of learning and growing and life.

If the curriculum map states that on Tuesday you will synthesize competency-based outcomes for 21st Century learners and a student who has just lost a loved one, who is quietly crying as he raises his hand, asks an off-task, off-topic, off-map question, it would be cruel and unusual not to quietly and seriously address that question.  The fluid intuitive quality of this side of teaching is not taught in Colleges of Education; it’s only learned by experience in the painful, learning-as-you-go dance between goodwill and clumsiness.

I would be lost without a curriculum map, I would not be able to function without my vertically-aligned instructional blueprint that charts my 175-day path, but I will never turn my back on that moment when I sense a shiver run through my classroom.  When I know a tipping point of epiphany is about to happen that will throw that map out the window, that will unscope and unsequence my careful design, I will take it messy every single time.

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