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Shaun Johnson Headshot

Teaching as an Art Form

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I've gone back and forth over this question since I got into education: is the practice of teaching an actual science or is it more of an art or trade? It's likely the answer is a bit of both and I'm totally fine with that. In listening to the conversation on teaching and learning over the years, I get the impression that the science is played up to give education a disciplinary authority. The prestige of teaching as a profession could be increased by defining very clear boundaries between what laypersons and what the actual practitioners know about the field. With many claiming knowledge of what goes on in classrooms because they are parents or former students, we've been chipping away at the exclusivity of information that educators should have about technical aspects of their profession.

Even as someone who engages in the more scientific or theoretical aspects of teaching, I start to wonder if we really want to go all in here with this very techno-rational mentality. I start to think about teacher preparation, or the kind I'm familiar with in higher education. Clunky new acronyms replace clunky old ones, fresh initiatives in data collection or assessment arise, and we beat our heads against the wall to figure out ways to integrate technology, the value of which still largely unknown. In some ways we as teacher educators are responsible for this. We get enamored with the bells and whistles of innovative ideas. Because we post assignments to Twitter, set up hip online chats, or repackage the same old information into a shiny Wiki that it is all somehow creating better teachers. The jury's still out.

The quest for universal skills or concepts in teaching is never-ending. It's kind of like the Holy Grail: a small set of comprehensive rules that all new educators can follow. I've tried to find them myself, given all the settings in which I've taught over the last decade. Let's see, I spent two summers working with a very small group of elementary-age children with severe emotional issues, was a primary teaching assistant for an entire school year in a private school for children with special needs, did some one-on-one tutoring with children with autism, taught primary drama and secondary computer literacy at the same school for a summer, was a full-time assistant in a DC elementary classroom, was an elementary classroom teacher in both urban and suburban schools, taught ice-skating lessons to elementary-age children for three years while in graduate school, taught college-age folks for three years in graduate school as well, lead a doctoral seminar as a doctoral student, I continue to teach undergraduates and Masters level students as assistant professor, and I taught, and will teach again, a combined fourth to fifth-grade class during a summer program at a DC charter school.

My purpose is not to spout off all that I've done for its own sake. I'm using it to prove that I've been in multiple settings and I feel like I did not change much about myself across those diverse settings. I got better at my methods, no doubt. I could manage a class better, multi-task, take shortcuts, and change direction on a whim, lots of stuff. But I feel like there must be some universal thread that ties all of those experiences together, and I think it's more than just my personality or unique preferences. When I think about what I do for my students who are to become practicing teachers, and when I speak with colleagues about it, there's a lot that we try to do but there is also so much that we miss. We cannot possibly prepare them for everything, nor should we be expected to do so. I'm not going to simply give up and say to heck with learning any new methods or theories of education. Yet, I feel that the art of teaching, those unknown qualities, the universals I spoke of earlier, will elude measurement and assessment.

We cannot certify those in the arts of teaching, they just have to be there. I do not mean to imply that one cannot learn to teach and be successful. However, I will say that part of me is reacting to the excessive rationalization and atomization of teaching skills and knowledge and wanting some of the magic or mystery to take over. This is probably a terrible place for someone like me, who must conduct and publish research about education. That will come. But I still want to occasionally view green and veteran teachers alike not for the checklist of skills they missed, but for the immersive experience that they create as they interact with students and their classroom environment. Sometimes you just have to tilt your head, parse your lips, and scratch your chin as you do when gazing at a Picasso. Because sometimes in the classroom, someone with a nose on the side of his or her face might not be the strangest thing you find.