Exposure to Exemplary Teaching

In a previous blog (“From Adversaries to Partners”), I noted the importance of the partnership between universities’ teacher preparation programs, and I emphasized the huge influence that mentor teachers (or “cooperating teachers”) can have on beginning teachers.

The mentor teacher is certainly a facilitator and a coach. Under the best conditions, the mentor or cooperating teacher provides the classroom where the novice teacher can attempt to execute lessons crafted under the guidance of the mentor teacher. The mentor observes, collects data about the observation, and engages the novice in reflective conversations about the lesson’s impact and about the plans for moving forward with the sequence of learning experiences.

The mentor teacher serves as the extra set of eyes in the classroom to reveal what occurred during a lesson and to facilitate the process of reflection about efficacy and impact. But the mentor also serves as a model, especially a model for exemplary classroom teaching. This is a lot of pressure, as it should be, because a lot is at stake in developing the newcomer.

The Impact of a Mentor Teacher

Recently I re-read George Hillocks's preface to Reflective Teaching, Reflective Learning (Heinemann, 2005: excerpt available from the Heinemann website).

He titles his contribution "What I Have Tried to Teach My Students."  I think it is something that teachers of English should read from time to time, perhaps once a year. In the preface, Hillocks notes, as he has noted in various other venues, that early in his teaching career he came under the influence of a particularly smart and gifted teacher named Bernie McCabe. Hillocks reports that he saw something very special happening in McCabe's classroom.

While it was clear that McCabe had planned with great care and had orchestrated the learning activities, the students engaged with each other in taking charge of their learning experience. McCabe observed and monitored all that took place and intervened where intervention was necessary. The students were actively engaged and produced high quality written work. Hillocks saw a new way of teaching that he hadn’t known was possible; and he knew that, going forward, he wanted to teach the way that McCabe was teaching.

I believe that the experience of watching a great teacher in action changed George Hillocks' professional life, and influenced his research agenda. Recalling a lesson on teaching middle school students to write haiku poetry, he describes the effect that McCabe’s example had on him:

This lesson became a model for me in my thinking and planning and marked the beginning of my love affair with teaching English. I began planning all my work this way, beginning with a concrete student objective (e.g., to write a haiku) and a detailed analysis of the task involved, including the necessary knowledge of the form, knowledge of the kinds of content, and the procedures involved in actually producing one. I began to plan in terms of the prerequisite knowledge for a task and to delay teaching until that was in place. I began inventing activities that would make initial approaches to learning tasks simpler (e.g., providing the first line of the poem) and sequencing learning activities from easy to difficult. Underneath all this planning lay the concept of inquiry . . . (xiii)

A Search for Great Teachers

All beginning teachers should be so lucky as to come across a Bernie McCabe. At least, they should be able to see some really fine teaching in action. Beginning teachers also need to have the sense to know what they are seeing, and to pursue diligently, responsibly, and passionately the question of why learners respond the way they do to such teaching.

Perhaps it's not too much to hope that every mentor teacher can strive to be someone's Bernie McCabe, and that mentor teachers can seek both to find opportunities to expose beginning teachers to examples of really fine teaching and to engage with them in the ongoing reflective conversations and research that help reveal how they can emulate the fine teachers they have seen.

Of course, the idea of elevating model teachers to the attention and careful examination of beginning teachers makes especially good sense when the model conforms to a conception of great teaching shared by the mentor teacher and the university personnel committed to the preparation of the new teacher. And for that alignment to occur, there must be a purposeful dialogue between people in the schools and people at the university about what great teaching is all about.

Partners in the Application of Knowledge

Student teachers typically report that while they learned much theory at the university, they learned to teach during student teaching, when they had to put theory into practice.

At the university, the teacher-in-training sees models for teaching mostly in the form of the professors who teach the classes in the teacher preparation program. When the emerging teachers participate in clinical experiences and when they are student teaching in the schools, they see the model set by the mentor teacher.

Ideally, this model should at least not contradict the practices promoted at the university, or, the mentor teacher and the student teacher should engage in an evaluative dialogue about why some practices might justifiably defy the “best practices” sponsored by the university courses. But mostly the host schools and the teacher preparation programs at the university operate without knowing much about what each other does.

In the best of all possible worlds, the host school and the mentor teacher would follow practices to exemplify the theory and practices promoted by the university, and the people at the university would be well aware of the specific culture and practices in the schools where the university places student teachers. I am afraid that at the moment, there is little awareness on both sides. I wonder, then, how we can expose beginning teachers to the Bernie McCabes of the world?

How can host schools be more than the laboratories where student teachers make their attempts at impacting student learning, even while this is an important function?

How can the teachers at the university become more aware of the quality of teaching in the specific schools where they hope to place student teachers?

How can mentor teachers in host schools and teachers in teacher preparation programs engage in an ongoing dialogue about what great teaching looks like, sounds like, and feels like?

If you have thoughts or ideas on these important questions, I welcome your responses via the Comments box below.

Works Cited

McCann, T.M.,  Johannessen, L.R., Kahn, K, Smagorinsky, P. & Smith M.W. (Eds.). (2005). Reflective teaching, reflective learning: How to develop critically engaged readers, writers and speakers. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Hillocks, G., McCabe, B., & McCampbell, J. (1971). The dynamics of English instruction, grades 7-12. New York: Random House. Retrieved November 5, 2012, from http://www.coe.uga.edu/~smago/Books/Dynamics/Dynamics_home.htm

Most Recent: November 28, 2012
Sharon Roth

finding our partners

I think Tom MCann’s perpective on the “Exposure to Exemplary Teaching” is a great reminder to all of us. Early in our careers it's the norm to invite others into our classrooms to observe our practices.  However, we often find ourselves later employed in systems that do not support this on an ongoing basis, and certainly not outside of the evaluation processes already in place. I can’t help but wonder how would my teaching might have been different if I had had more opportunities to continue to grow and reflect through activities like peer observation and collaboration. (Activities like these are cited in the NCLE Capacity Building Framework as part of the Deprivating Practice domain - you can read more here.)

When MCann retold the story of George Hillocks and Bernie McCabe, I was reminded of just such a relationship. I continue to be touched by a video on this site of Jodi Manby and how she and her colleagues regularly open their classrooms to visitors. It’s clear that Jodi is somebody’s Bernie McCabe, whether or not she knows it yet. What Jodi does know and understand is just how much she personally gets out of the experience as well.  I am guessing interviews with cooperating teachers would reveal similar benefits. Many of us have probably crossed paths with a Bernie McCabe or Jodi Manby, and perhaps at the time we didn’t realize the significance of their influence. For me it was Janie Schomberg.  While her title may have said school librarian, she was so much more to me, particularly early in my career.  She sat along my side as we jointly planned lessons and participated in a PLC, studying assessment practices.  She was also the first to show me the importance of publishing as a way of sharing my work.

I hope others will chime in here. Who’s your Bernie McCabe? Do you work in a system that continues to support you with ongoing observation of your peers? I think we'd all enjoy hearing some shared stories of what this looks like for others.