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Confessions of Great Teachers

By Shannon O’Dwyer
Confessions of Great Teachers

“You know, I don’t own a Himalayan Singing Bowl. I don’t really do mindfulness.”
School leaders must assure teachers that mindfulness is much more than guided meditation. Great teachers already recognize the importance of social and emotional learning, as they are not teachers of curriculum, but teachers of children.
Great teachers already help students to “be here, now” in a variety of ways. Any time they stop the class for a moment of stillness, a period of noticing, or a deep, colorful breath, they are modeling mindfulness. Any time they invite one child to run a lap, another to find a quiet spot, or another to plunge their hands in a bucket of goo, they are teaching sensory integration and self-regulation.
Mindfulness is an exciting field with an abundance of resources to enrich our schools. Certainly, the introduction of meditation and yoga can be very powerful. However, mindfulness means teaching the whole child by implementing a range of strategies for focus and attention, emotional awareness, self-management, and ultimately, wellbeing. Leaders, be mindful of the mindfulness in classrooms, even if there are no tiny cymbals!
“I still make kids line up and raise their hands to speak. That’s not very student-centered, is it?”
In a “hands-down” classroom, teachers actively break the cycle of IRE (initiate, respond, evaluate), to avoiding leading discussions and asking every question. It’s an exciting idea, which often works well. But it’s not the only way to run a student-centered classroom. Great teachers already know that the person doing the thinking is the person doing the learning. In a class of 25, they know who is likely to raise their hand immediately, without deep thinking, and who will never raise their hand because they need more processing time, more encouragement, or would prefer to write/draw their ideas.
Teachers generally ask students to stand in lines and raise their hands for organizational purposes, not as a means of retaining control. They may invite students to take the lead in multiple ways: asking questions to drive inquiry, choosing their own resources/areas of interest, or documenting learning in a manner of their choosing. Great teachers will always abandon lesson plans to follow students down a rabbit hole of an inquiry, making a lot more work for themselves in the process! They honor student voice by listening, watching, and responding to readiness. Teachers can certainly experiment with hands-down discussions, Paddle Pop sticks for choosing a speaker, and flexible seating plans, but they must be assured that these are tools, not pedagogy in itself. Great teachers put students at the center of the learning, with or without their hands up.
“You know, I really prefer plastic counters for Math. That’s not very Reggio, is it?”
There is a lovely misconception that unless it’s a pinecone, it’s not best practice in early years’ education. Great teachers know that hands-on manipulation is essential for constructing deep understanding. They also know that resources tend to be most useful when they are open-ended, attractive to students (aesthetically and sensorially), and presented in an inviting way. Sometimes, natural items work perfectly, such as stones for counting, twigs for drawing in sand, rocks for hefting, and leaves for patterning.
Other times, the most flexible tools are colored counters, weighted bears, commercial measuring cups, and MAB blocks. It depends on the intended learning. It is important that schools provide materials that inspire wonder, curiosity, and discovery. And it is important that great teachers have the freedom to choose the best material for this child, to explore this concept, in this moment. Natural or otherwise.
“When nobody’s watching, I still do worksheets and phonics. That’s not true inquiry, is it?”
It can be! Inquiry is not a prescriptive set of strategies. It’s the process of engaging students as active thinkers, who wonder, ask questions, seek meaning, create, reflect, and come to new understandings about themselves and the world around them. Certainly, worksheets can be restrictive, repetitive, and boring. But great teachers use them discerningly to create powerful scaffolds for recording and connecting ideas, analyzing perspectives, or drawing conclusions. The impact depends on the implementation.
In addition, great teachers understand that phonemic awareness is the foundation of literacy, and phonics is a helpful building block. However, they do not take the whole class on a pain-staking, all in-step march through the alphabet. They invite students to inquire into the workings of language, provoked by rich literature and purposeful play, finding authentic reasons to read and write, and teachable moments to explore a letter, phoneme, digraph, root, or derivation. Leaders, never underestimate the power of conventional teaching methods in the hands of thoughtful, creative experts.
Every child needs a great teacher.
Every teacher needs a great school leader who “sees” their pedagogy and celebrates their success when they doubt their own impact.

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