I recently heard that a conference speaker told his audience, “We need fewer teachers and more facilitators.” My first reaction was, “1986 called and would like its keynote back.” My second thought was that the speaker is dead wrong!

The use of terms like “facilitator” always makes me queasy. The desire to rebrand teaching as facilitation results more from the low self-esteem of educators than either public opinion or a serious commitment to pedagogical progress. Regardless of the speaker’s intent, “teacher as facilitator” is a cliché that makes teaching sound more mechanistic and impersonal, not more. Modern medicine evolves and changes constantly, yet we still call its practitioners doctors. The invention of Viagra didn’t cause the public to make erector appointments. They call their doctor.

If one truly wants to improve the educational experience of children, then we need more teachers and fewer facilitators.

A popular parlor game among educators is debating the precise moment when “education went bad.” (Whether or not you believe there is a crisis in education.) A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race-to-the-Top are often cited as the tipping point in the decline of K-12 education. I don’t blame a specific piece of legislation or blue-ribbon report entirely for the challenges faced by educators on a daily basis.

In my humble opinion, classrooms became less productive contexts for learning when teacher education became more concerned with training facilitators than creating teachers. The die was cast when professional educators accepted such dystopian rebranding as “facilitator.”

While earning my BA in teacher education during the early to mid-1980s, I was in the last class required to learn to play the piano a little bit, teach physical education, make puppets out of pop-tart boxes, create math manipulatives, design science experiments and setup a convivial classroom environment. When teaching was viewed as equal parts art and science, teacher education reflected that balance.

Around 1985, legislatures across the nation concluded that “teaching ain’t nuthin’” and changed credentialing requirements to ensure that teachers studied something “real” instead of education courses. Today, Teach-for-America spends five weeks preparing college grads to be teachers – less than half the time required for Marine Corps basic training and exponentially less time than I spent becoming an elementary school teacher. Educators know well that when elementary teacher preparation is less child-centered, secondary education gets even worse.

Today, new teachers truly are facilitators. They are “trained” to manage classrooms and deliver the curriculum handed to them. That’s about it.

This is great news for policy-makers and ideologues. Teachers are more compliant and less questioning than ever before. Flip the classroom? Sure! Tie teacher pay to standardized testing? Why not? Abandon labor protections secured by unionization? You betcha!

I remember being taught explicitly how to justify playing Scrabble for days or putting on a puppet show as educationally efficacious. This wasn’t just a “cover-your-ass in the plan book strategy,” but a way of understanding and articulating what your students were learning. The deafening calls for “accountability” are partially the result of teachers incapable of making learning visible. The less teachers have to think about their students’ thinking, the less thinking they do generally. Teaching needs to be thoughtful.

I have been stunned to observe the complete and utter return to whole class instruction in nearly every school I visit (public, private, rich, poor, urban, suburban and rural) everywhere in the world. New teachers have little or no experience with classroom centers, independent work, student projects and the sorts of agency that allow children to enjoy the “flow” experiences that build upon their obsessions and lead to understanding. Even when teachers are not lecturing from bell-to-bell, the classroom agenda is top-down and leaves little chance for serendipity or student initiative.

The most generous rationale for the Common Core Content Standards is that teachers lack a personal compass for what students should know and do. Teachers expert in inspiring long-term, personally meaningful and interdisciplinary projects or thematic instruction regularly exceed the standards, but that realization is lost on facilitators.

Great teachers know their students in deeper ways than any data can provide. They ask kids about their weekends. They chat about what kids are reading and console them when their hamster dies. Teachers spend thirty minutes per month in Toys R Us on the lookout for cool stuff to use in the classroom and as a means to learning about the culture of the children they serve. They learn continuously for themselves and their students. Teachers share their love of reading and are patrons of the arts. They are active citizens and engage students in current events. Outstanding teachers are not afraid to appear silly or create a whimsical classroom environment. They play in the snow with kindergarteners like Maria Knee.

The best thing we can do for children is to have them spend as much time with possible with interesting adults. So, great teachers need to be passionate, competent and interesting humans beyond the scope and sequence of the curriculum.

If we truly wish to make the world a better place for children, then we need many more teachers and a lot fewer facilitators!

NOTE: I am posting my response to a blog post here because Blogger presented an incomprehensible error that I think might mean that my response is too long…

Lee Kolbert, aka teachakidd, raised some provocative issues in her blog post, I’m Not Who You Think I AM.

Lee’s blog post is a reaction to another post on Will Richardson’s blog, A Parent 2.0’s Back to School Dilemma in which he and Alec Couros lament what they’ve observed as parents at back-to-school night. I interpret Will’s blog as a cry for help. I know I have felt powerless when I visited my child’s classroom and found that the environment, teacher or pedagogical practices not to my liking.

Lee wrote the following…

Read Will’s post AND the comments because reading it all made me realize this about myself: I suck!

I must be a fraud. I’m not who you think I am!

People in the edublogger community who once thought I was a great teacher would be appalled if they came into my room! Why?

  1. I also have rules about sharpening pencils. Have you ever had 6 students get up to sharpen their pencils while they should be working on something else. While they are sharpening they are horsing around? All the while you are trying to read with a small group of students? Truly, there HAS to be some organization in a classroom. My rule? Sharpen pencils in the morning and afternoon. Otherwise, take one of my golf pencils (you know the short ones with no erasers?)
  2. I also thank parents for sending in white board markers and copy paper because I’ve already spent $800. of my own money this school year alone. Every little bit helps. By the way, I still need sticky notes, if you’d like to send me some. I’ll thank you too.
  3. I often use the textbook as a guide or [GASP] teach from it, because I HAVE to teach to standards and I have to teach 5 subjects every single day and I don’t have time to create a project-based activity for every single lesson.
  4. If I had a parent send me “helpful” emails and copy the principal on them, that parent would become “that parent” and you can be sure communication on my end would as minimal as possible.
  5. If I had a parent who told their child he/she can ignore my homework because the parent felt it was unnecessary…. the child will still be held responsible for the homework.
  6. My students have assigned seats. They are allowed to talk when the talk is meaningful and productive. They are not allowed to talk when someone else is speaking to the group. My students are sitting where “I,” THE TEACHER, determine each student can do their best work.

And there’s lots more rules! Yes, I have rules in my room. Sometimes I even have to invent more based on some things that occur repeatedly.

Well, first of all I need to declare publicly that my respect for Chris Lehmann has gone up appreciably based on his response and practical suggestions for more civil, learner-centered alternatives to teacher-created arbitrary rules. THAT was a masterful demonstration of why educators should take him seriously.

Lee – I’m wondering why you felt compelled to write this defense of your teaching practices? If I told you that I disagreed with your pencil rules or seating chart, would you change your practice? Under what circumstances would you do so? If some guy from central office carrying a clipboard told you to get rid of the seating chart, or pencils, or rows of desks, or gum rules, THEN would you do it?

Or, are you defiantly proclaiming, “This is the way I teach and if you don’t like it…” ?

There is also a great deal of rhetorical conjuring taking place. Are you defending all teacher’s rights to do whatever they BELIEVE is effective, perhaps even in the face of evidence to the contrary?

Do you want all of us who follow you on Twitter or via blogging to agree with your classroom practices? Are you using your online popularity to dare us to disagree with you or question your pedagogical practices?

I love you to death, but I’ve only hung out with you in non-school settings or interacted via Twitter. Does your presence in social media bestow quality control? How am I supposed to know if you’re a good teacher? Should I trust your nice avatar and the fact that kids like you?

If a teacher spends hours each day lecturing/speaking/teaching, is it unreasonable to expect that person to have well-developed speaking skills or is capable of explaining herself?

I’ve been at back-to-school nights where a teacher had so little charisma that parents walked around the classroom, mumbled “I guess she’s not here” and walked out of the room while the teacher plaintively asked, “Why isn’t anyone staying?”  If a teacher cannot hold my interest for 8 minutes, why should I leave my child with him for 180 days? Should a teacher work on developing such communication skills?

I can tell you that here in Australia the teachers have (on average) exceptional speaking skills and as a result so do their students.

That said….

I think the more important point that Alec, Will, Chris and others have alluded to is, “What if my child is randomly assigned to your classroom for an entire year and I don’t agree with your rules, room arrangement, seating chart or a bazillion other classroom variables?

THEN what options do I have as a parent? What is my child to do? What is the fate of a child whose parent is not an education expert?

coloringHas anyone else noticed that there’s a whole lot of coloring going on in schools? I’m not talking about primary grades. I see an alarming number of high school classrooms decorated with colored reproducible maps, hastily drawn crayon posters substituting for literary analysis and that old kindergarten favorite-the magazine photo collage. This “work” doesn’t represent the efforts of slacker students. It actually satisfies teacher (and curricular) requirements.

I have a hypothesis or two to explain the explosion of primitive expression in our secondary classrooms. It is unreasonable to expect teachers with 150 to 200 students to read, edit and provide feedback for that many written pieces. As a result, student work does not endure a rigorous editing process and its quality suffers. The last thing an overworked teacher wants to do at night is read poor writing. Dumbed-down alternative assignments result.

Anxiety Transmittal

Writing is a skill developed through modeling, apprenticeship and practice. It also needs an audience. It is no secret that teachers are reluctant writers. National contest prizes requiring teachers to submit a simple essay or lesson plan often go unclaimed due to teacher insecurity. Teachers uncomfortable with their own writing skills transmit that anxiety to their students. Since the product and process of writing is learned by observing and reading the efforts of others, too many students are deprived of this vital experience.

Here’s a rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.

I experienced an epiphany while trying to teach a sixth grader to write a poem. The rapid give-and-take led me to realize that you can only really teach one child at a time. The quality and quantity of feedback necessary to help the student express herself to her potential required all of my attention.

The insatiable demands for accountability (testing) forces teachers to emphasize rules and isolated vocabulary memorization at the expense of creative expression and voluminous writing practice. Even when schools focus on low-level mechanics, they are hopelessly out of-step. My twelfth grader is still required to indent paragraphs and insert two spaces after each period years after the real world and APA have abandoned these protocols.

The problems associated with writing instruction are not limited to class-size, teacher ability or testing. Curricular notions of writing need to be revised in the digital age. While kids should certainly learn to express themselves in all forms and genres, we may need to replace a few sine qua non assignments with procedural description; acrostics with proposals; and sacrifice a haiku or two in order to learn how to write a manual. An occasional letter to the editor would be great, too.

Below is a list of teaching felonies for which you may be sentenced to a lifetime of lunch duty.

  • Requiring students to conjugate words unworthy of such effort. I evaporate. They evaporate. We used to evaporate. He evaporated at four o’clock. She will evaporate tomorrow at 3 p.m. You get the idea.
  • Counting words. One of the great lies of writing instruction is that more writing is better writing. Most professional writing is concerned with the process of communicating your ideas in fewer words.
  • Requiring students to write their autobiography year after year. When I mentioned to a teacher that my daughter had written an autobiography as her major writing assignment for six consecutive years, she replied, “Did they write a 10-chapter autobiography last year? I do not think so!”
  • Teaching comma rules. Here’s a new rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.
  • Not completing the writing process. Equal emphasis needs to be placed on each stage of the writing process. Some teachers seem to stop at invented spelling or lose focus after brainstorming.

In an age when people communicate via e-mail, teachers are forced to write grant proposals for basic classroom materials and coherent manuals are in abundant demand, adults in every profession are writing more than they ever anticipated. Schools need to prepare students for that world.

Originally published in the May 2003 issue of District Administration