Gordon Tanner

Educator, Artist, Learner

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In brief

Below is an essay summarizing my thoughts on educational philosophy, but it may be a little long-winded for some. Here are my thoughts in brief:

  • Strong student-teacher realtionships are the foundation of a safe and inviting learning environment,
  • Classroom management is a collaborative endeavour. If students aren't excited about learning no effort to "manage" their behaviour will help them become better learners,
  • Critical thinking is just as important to education as curricular outcomes, but without solid grounding in core skills critical thinking is impossible,
  • Helping students to become compassionate citizens is just as much a part of the job as helping them learn to read,
  • Incorporating technology in the classroom represents an amazing opportunity, and a great responsibility. Literacy with ICT is a new challenge for 21st Century teachers.

Some thoughts on the philosophy of education

Written for 1:362 The Professional Teacher

Being a teacher is one of the most important jobs in the world. I’m not exaggerating. Starting at age 4 and continuing until they become adults, virtually every child spends most of their waking hours in the company of teachers and fellow students. Teachers are responsible for creating the environment that will shape every child that comes through their doors into functioning members of society, and providing them with the knowledge and skills that they will need to thrive. It’s hard to imagine a more important job than that. Teachers are responsible not just for providing the knowledge mandated by the current curriculum, but for going far beyond that, teaching and instilling values by providing a living example to the best of their ability. And this isn’t just for the kids that are easy to like, or the ones that soak up knowledge like a sponge; it’s for every single one of them. Every child has an equal right to the best possible education we can provide for them. This means that teachers need to be prepared to teach vastly different students in the ways that are best suited to those students’ differentiated needs, and throughout their careers to be actively upgrading their skills through professional development. It’s an exciting, sometimes daunting prospect.

Of the six orientations to teaching presented to us in The Professional Teacher, I’m going to talk about Perennialism, Progressivism, Essentialism, and Existentialism as the four that I feel most align with my own view of myself as a teacher. Having said that, I honestly believe that all six of the orientations can provide valuable insight and a way of looking at the world in a given situation at a given time. Perennialism, or the belief that students should acquire knowledge of the great enduring ideas is important to me because without exposure to the great ideas that humanity has generated through its history, students are left without a context in which to understand the world. It’s beyond the scope of our mandate to teach them all the great ideas, but when we talk about teaching and modelling values for them, such as generosity, empathy, tolerance, compassion or curiosity, we are talking about values and ideas that have traditions and histories that can ground them in the context of human history, and make them better citizens of the world. And then there are the great ideas of literature and science and mathematics which we are definitely responsible to teach. To me Progressivism, or tailoring our teaching to the needs and interests of students, needs to be carefully interpreted. Because students in the early years come to us with many needs and sometimes very limited interests, I think it’s our responsibility to be aware of their needs and to teach them what it means to be interested in the world. Only once we’ve inspired a sense of wonder can we help them explore what it means to follow those interests and see where they lead. I think this is a valuable tool for creating student engagement, but it needs to be used thoughtfully. We as teachers need to be able to figure out how their needs and interests can be leveraged to help them learn the things we know to be essential. Because I do believe that there is a core of essential knowledge and skills that all students need to be taught in order to be able to fully participate in society, more or less represented by the curricular standards and that teaching those core skills and knowledge is one of the fundamental purposes of teaching. If those core skills can be taught effectively they open up many possibilities for further learning, and engaging with students’ interests. I really think that Progressivism and Essentialism work best not as opposing beliefs, but as complementary ones. Children need a core of essential skills and there are time-tested systematic methods for teaching them which are often highly successful, but if we aren’t teaching these skills as part of a bigger picture of developing one’s own interests and questions about the world, driven by a desire for knowledge then they aren’t properly motivated, and in today’s educational environment, “learn it because I told you to” just doesn’t work the way it once did. Another way of putting it is Essentialism is about methods, and Progressivism is about motivation; together they make a complete system. As to Existentialism, I believe that if we do our jobs properly, giving the students the grounding they need in essential knowledge and core skills, and a spirit of wonder and inquiry about the world, they will be able to start asking the question, “What does it all mean?” When we begin not only asking that question, but are equipped to start coming up with meaningful possible answers, then I would say our teachers have done the most for us that they can. I know it sounds a bit lofty there at the end, but I think our highest goals should be lofty ones, and we should always be striving for them, even if we know from experience that many of our students won’t get even halfway to that goal. Our job is still to do the best we can for each one that comes through our doors.

Creating a culture of respect in our classrooms is the most essential of all the philosophical concepts we have covered in Professional Teacher. Without it, everything else that we do is built on sand. If such a culture exists, then students feel safe, both physically and psychologically, and with that feeling of safety they can open themselves up to the learning opportunities we create for them. It begins with creating meaningful relationships with all students, by greeting them by name at the door every morning, learning about their interests, really listening to them when they are talking, and never speaking down to them, or being unkind. Respect also means holding them accountable for their own behaviour and teaching them that they are the only ones responsible for it, and showing them that you accept responsibility for your own behaviour as well. In the words of Leo Babauta, “The example we set for our kids – how we act when things don't go our way – is much, much more important than the rules we set for them.” From the very beginning it’s important to have open classroom discussions about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and to build a team that will work with each other to help those who are having difficulty controlling their own behaviour. And to not always focus on the negative, but to celebrate even small victories - for kids who aren’t used to having victories showing them what it feels like will make them want more.

In today’s school environment it isn’t enough for a teacher to be skilled at teaching content or creating relationships with healthy, happy students. Today, more than ever before we must accept some share of responsibility for the social welfare of our students. So many students who come through our doors are coming from situations that are very complex, to but it mildly. They come from unfortunate family situations, or have complex physical, emotional or psychological needs, are in the care of CFS, or are members of the LGBTQ community. As teachers we need to educate ourselves about their needs, and be prepared to assist them with empathy and compassion. Of primary importance is awareness of the supports and resources that exist in the school, the Division and in the wider community. It is the teacher’s responsibility to be aware of their students’ needs, and, consulting with colleagues as appropriate to privacy legislation, ensure that the supports are put in place to give the student any help they need in order to thrive. Under new legislation it will be possible to share information for the good of the child if there are concerns about safety and wellbeing. It is the teacher’s responsibility to report any suspected abuse, physical, sexual or psychological. Teachers also need to remember that we’re not operating in a vacuum; we are members of a professional community, and when we need support in order to offer support, we should seek it.

Bullying in schools is one of the greatest ongoing threats to student wellbeing. In Canada as of 2012 at least 1 in 3 adolescent students report having been bullied recently. The growth of social media use by students over the past decade has resulted in increased opportunities for cyber-bullying which is harder to combat due to its often anonymous nature. Bully-proofing your classroom is essential if you want to create a learning environment where students feel safe both physically and psychologically. If you’ve already started working on creating a culture of respect in your classroom, then you’ve laid a good foundation. Students need to know that you have zero-tolerance for bullying behaviour and that you will consistently call it out whenever it is observed. Teachers need to be able to identify signs of bullying behaviour in both the bullies and their victims, these can include fear of coming to school, change in personality, low self-esteem, losing possessions, and isolation. If you suspect bullying you need to act on the intervention plan you have put in place, talk with both the bully and the victim, and communicate with parents. It’s important to offer victim support, and just as important to realize that bullying behaviour occurs for a reason and we need to figure out what the reason is in order to help the bully change his or her behaviour. It’s also very important to talk with your class about the role of bystanders, as often bystander intervention could prevent much of the bullying that occurs. If taught early and well, learning how to deal with bullying behaviour is something that students will carry with them as an important life skill.

Technology is constantly changing, and these changes have had - and will continue to have - dramatic implications for the teaching profession. Technology provides tools that can enhance our ability to teach, and enrich learning for students by making material interactive and engaging. But it’s important to remember that not all tools are created equal, and just because something is “online” or “interactive” doesn’t automatically mean it’s better than the offline human equivalent. Technology needs to be assessed before use. I’ve seen it used like television was used by parents in the 70’s – as a babysitter in the classroom, with students told to “go on the computer” when they are at loose ends. If you don’t know exactly how the software you’re putting them on helps to achieve the outcomes you’re teaching to, then you need to do some more investigation. Having said that, I do think that technology offers some amazing opportunities to enhance learning when used thoughtfully and with intention. Obviously the world of social media needs to be taken very seriously both as a teacher, as a teacher interacting with students, and as a teacher teaching students about the proper uses and dangers of social media.

When I think about all of the things there are to learn as I become a teacher it sometimes seems overwhelming. But in those moments I try to remind myself that it really comes down to caring about kids, being open to their needs, and remembering that I am part of a community of professionals with the same goal who are there to support me when I need it. I’m old enough to know that there will be days I want to scream. That’s life. I’m confident that I’ve made a good decision, and I’m looking forward to getting out there, and continuing to learn the things I know I don’t know yet for as long as I can.