Teachers view themselves as actioners, people who implement things and actions to have influence on and impact their clients, students. Those of us who teach focus our efforts on the doing of teaching, the interactions that take place in our classrooms everyday, the immediate success or failure of our students to grasp new concepts, remember new information.
But what if we focused more of our time on what happens before instruction, what happens after? In my years of classroom teaching, I worked very hard during the school day. For many years, my mind was so taken up with the actual activity of the day that I had little energy left to consider and reflect at the end of the day about how well it went, about what difference it made for my learners. As I moved through my teaching career, I got better at what I did, my work was more efficient, the job became second nature to me.
It was when this happened that I actually learned how to be a better teacher. I had time, time to think at the end of the day, time to reconsider the decisions I had made during the day, and what impact they had on my students. I began to reflect, and it changed everything about what I believed it meant to be a teacher.
I went from active instructor to pure facilitator of learning, almost overnight. I realized that I was less than necessary in the learning environment, but that I was also critical. My critical role was to set up experiences for students that would not create barriers for them, to engineer pathways that were safe and risky at the same time, that would allow students to explore, but still in the end ensure that they arrived at the same understanding and growth that common standards for learning dictated to me.
I began to take a backseat during the instructional day, and to take a much more proactive role before and after the instructional day. The moment I stopped asking the question “what am I going to do today?” and started asking the question “What are they going to do today?” my point of view on my job changed, and the results for my students changed as well.
We hear teachers talk often about how there is just too much content to teach, just too many concepts for students to learn getting shoved further and further down the grade levels. This is true. However, when I moved from instructor of content to facilitator of learners, the difficulty and depth of content to be learned ceased to be a problem. I had found my way to the Zen of teaching, where a teacher knows they are simply a guide, and the growth of the students’ capacity to learn – whatever it is they are interested in learning – is the goal.
When we reach this understanding with ourselves, a world of different possibilities opens up to us. We worry less about coverage of content, we think about the longterm consequences of our efforts, we envision our student as a person on the planet who knows how to know, who thinks about how to think, who seeks out his or her own understanding. This Zen of Teaching is something I wish for all teachers. It is a gift, it is the reason we do what we do.