Good teaching is more of an art—a "craft"—than it is science—"a formula"...
Every good teacher knows that teaching is more of an art than it is a science. Contrary to how much of the professional literature portrays teaching—namely, as a science—the simple fact is that good teachers spend much of their time experimenting in an effort to get their lessons "just right." And, just when these teachers seem to get it "just right," inevitably everything falls apart as elements in the classroom environment conspire against one's best laid plans. Most good teachers capably "nip" these threats "in the bud." They know just how to intervene as elements in the classroom begin their conspiracy. But, even the best laid plans sometimes fail.
Good teachers, though, envision a "disaster" not so much as a professional "failure" as they see it signaling that it's time to start the noble experiment all over again. They don't wallow in self-pity (feel bad about it) or fear (worrying about what others are thinking) but look upon the disaster as an opportunity to learn something new about teaching, something they've never confronted before (at least consciously). These teachers conceive of teaching as an "art," an activity whereby they give expression to one's values, beliefs, and intellectual interests, where one works with raw materials to fashion objects of enduring value.
The "craft" metaphor likens teaching to a potter working at the wheel with clay. Through the master craftsman's sense of "feel," the potter knows whether to add more water or clay, precisely when the object is nearing completion and what additional work is yet required, or whether to recognize that this particular object is a failure and that it's time to start over. This metaphor also likens teaching to a chef de cuisine, a person who is able to transform ordinary groceries and kitchen staples into a feast. Gazing upon the ingredients, a chef de cuisine organizes a menu, works with the groceries and kitchen staples, and—in what appears to be a seamless transition from raw materials to six-courses—presents a feast that is as dazzling for the eye to behold as it is for the palate to savor. Not to be overlooked, however, is how in the middle of the process a chef de cuisine oftentimes will make subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle adjustments to the ingredients as environmental conditions intervene and threaten to turn one's first course, entree, or dessert into a disaster.
Like these craftsmen, good teachers also have a "feel" about what they need to do if they are to translate their pedagogical intentions and plans into positive learning outcomes. The basic problem student teachers encounter, however, is that good teachers—like master craftsmen—have the "feel" down cold and are able to anticipate where matters are headed before they conspire to destroy one's work. Good teachers attend to cues in the classroom environment. For example, if a lesson is progressing well, good teachers continue along the pathway charted. But, when good teachers intuit that something in the classroom environment has the potential to derail instruction and learning, these teachers adjust accordingly so as to keep instruction and learning securely on track.
To neophytes, it all looks so simple. What these individuals have yet to realize and to learn is the incredible amount of time, patience, and practice—like the master potter and chef—that good teachers have invested in learning to teach. This commitment of time and reflective thought and contemplation is what makes it possible for good teachers to promote positive instructional and learning outcomes and avoid disasters.
As odd as it may seem to those who believe that good teaching is a science learned from textbooks and professional journal articles, the best opportunities to engage in learning about teaching are those "disasters" where neophytes fail to achieve their pedagogical objectives. Being human, many neophytes feel frustrated, hurt, and angry—feeling just "lousy"—when disasters occur (and they do) because one's best intentions did not translate into desired instructional and learning outcomes. As neophytes struggle at learning to teach, there always seems to be something in the classroom environment that interferes with a neophyte's best intentions, things that never seem to interfere with a master teacher's best intentions.
If neophytes really want to learn to teach, they have to recognize that many of these negative feelings stem from self-pity (one's actual failure) and from fear (one's worry about how others are evaluating the neophyte's performance). These feelings have very little to do with learning to teach. Indeed, they actually can function to keep neophytes from learning to teach!
Viewing teaching as an art rather than as a science challenges neophytes to direct their attention upon disasters with the explicit intent of learning to teach. By casting aside self-pity and fear, the issue for neophytes is not whether any period on any given day (or day, for that matter) is (or was) "awful" but whether neophytes are beginning to recognize what really is transpiring in the classroom, are consciously adjusting to its requirements—which shift from moment to moment, period to period, and day to day—and are thinking continuously about attending to the cues in the classroom environment which signal that it's time to focus on improving instruction and learning. If, indeed, a period was "awful"—and it probably was—what is important is not that it was awful but that it was awful to the neophyte because what transpired did not meet one's criteria for success as specified in the lesson plan, that the neophyte did not adjust to what the classroom environment required, and that the neophyte wasn't actively engaged in thinking actively about how to improve instruction and learning. Wallowing in self-pity, worrying about what others are thinking about one's performance, and droning on with one's lesson plan—all the while remaining oblivious and unresponsive to the classroom environment—is the best recipe for disaster.
But, there's a second recipe for disaster brewing. This recipe has to do with fear and how fear motivates neophytes to think that if they just imitate what good teachers do, then everything will work out just fine. If all neophytes do is spend their time and energy in a vain attempt to conform to what good teachers (and others) say is correct—and it may be for them, not for neophytes—neophytes will not develop into the good teachers only they can be. The goal is to build on one's idiosyncratic strengths and not to be someone else!
Along the way and as part of one's professional training, every professional learns the theories and skills associated with best practice from others who've "been there and done that." Thus, the criticism neophytes receive from good teachers—especially criticism about one's disasters—provide some of the best data for neophytes to learn the "feel" associated with the art of good teaching. But, if neophytes are motivated by fear, they will be ensnared by the trap of conforming to others' expectations or of imitating them rather than integrating their knowledge and experience into one's expanding repertoire of professional knowledge and skills. The goal that neophytes should keep in mind is not to teach like someone else (as if good teaching is a science) but to develop the refined tools of pedagogical practice that will enable neophytes to become the good teachers that only they can be.
As counter-intuitive and unprofessional as it may sound, disasters are the best place for neophytes to learn the craft of teaching. After a disaster, rather than wallowing in self-pity or fear, neophytes should ask themselves the following questions:
These are the most important questions any teacher can ask, framing what is called "reflective practice," that is, the act of considering the self-change in one's beliefs, values, and assumptions that is the precursor to professional success. It is over the course of several years' experience that neophyte teachers develop into good teachers, but only if they are willing to engage in this type of professional learning.
More importantly, reflective practice is actually a discipline that functions as the ethical basis of pedagogical practice by linking theory (ideas about good teaching) and skills (the techniques of best practice) in a way that good teachers make the best decision about what ought to be done in each particular instance or, as Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, "doing the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, and in the right way." It takes good teachers several years to hone this capacity and much humility in being able to confront and to deal with one's disasters honestly, openly, and reflectively. Only through experimentation and the humble recognition and admission of one's disasters can neophytes begin to engage in the "craft" learning that is the defining characteristic of good teachers.
Student teachers should keep this image of teaching firmly in mind as they ponder their "failures," "disasters," and their successes, too.
For those who are student teaching in Catholic schools...
One oftentimes unstated problem that confronts neophyte teachers in Catholic schools (and many who have been teaching in Catholic schools for years) is that they feel "unqualified" and "unprepared" as well as "embarrassed" at leading classroom prayer. Many teachers come to this unnerving awareness the very first moment when they stand before a classroom full of students (some of whom undoubtedly are disinterested or even, snickering) and initiate the Sign of the Cross.
Some teachers deal with these feelings by "going through the motions." They begin class with a rote prayer having little if any relationship to classroom and student life. Some other teachers elect to skip classroom prayer altogether. Many of these teachers justify this stance asserting that prayer is more of a private matter and public prayer is best left to the "professionals." (This is absolutely antithetical to Vatican II, especially the document on the role of the laity, which challenges lay Christians to make of their work an "apostolate" that will serve as a "leaven" in the world.) And a tiny minority of teachers adopt the posture of Jesus' disciples whom Scripture records as asking of Jesus, "Lord, teach us how to pray." These women and men seek assistance, whether it be from the principal, campus ministry staff, or their pastors, so that, as teachers in Catholic schools, they might formulate classroom prayer rituals that meet the needs of both the students and themselves.
The issue of teachers in Catholic schools leading their students in prayer is a crucial matter because these women and men are not only the human face of the institutional Church and of the faith. Moreover, these teachers are the embodiment of discipleship—what it means to be a Catholic—for their students. Kids look to their teachers for direction and challenge, especially in matters of the faith and morals. If teachers in Catholic schools fail to provide a quality role model as disciples whose lives and work center on prayer, should we not close shop and put these kids in good private schools because that's all Catholic schools really would be?
Teaching in a Catholic school is more of a vocation than it is a job and, for those who dedicate their lives to the ministry of Catholic education, the all-important question is: How is one going to pray so that one's students understand the centrality of prayer in Catholic life? While teachers are present in Catholic schools to teach secular subjects, these women and men are in Catholic schools, more importantly, to give witness to the Catholic faith and to do so in a way that challenges students to mature in their faith. As this relates to classroom prayer, what is a teacher going to do to make sure that, as a consequence of experiencing one's classroom, every one of their students will have grown to appreciate what prayer is and the important place it has in every aspect of daily life in and beyond the school?