Thursday, October 1, 2015

Great Teachers are Boring!

A teacher is one who makes him/herself progressively unnecessary.” 
Thomas Carruthers

As someone whose title is “Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning,” I spend a great deal of time in classrooms observing--not surprisingly--“teaching and learning.” In the past few years, many of these visits have been very brief. This year, I enlisted two colleagues in our T and L Department, @mfaust and @arubin98, to kick off the year by spending a full hour in one classroom at every grade level and every subject area across our district. One goal we have in doing this is to focus on great teachers across grade levels/disciplines to analyze what themes emerge regarding what great teaching looks like. As of today, the three of us have observed for a full hour in the following grades/subjects at different schools in our district:

1st Grade
2nd Grade
3rd Grade
4th Grade

5th Grade            
6th Grade Math
8th Grade ELA
8th Grade Social Studies

Fortunately for Amy, Marcie, and me (and, more importantly, our students and parents), our district employs scads of outstanding teachers from which to choose if one wishes to observe top notch teachers. Not surprisingly, these rock star teachers readily agreed to let the three of us barge in and spend an hour closely observing teaching and learning and taking notes on what we observed. We still have many observations scheduled for the weeks ahead, but after just a few, I made a general “observation” about my “observations,” which, honestly, went contrary to my expectations. Some of these 60-minute chunks of time were largely student-centered, while others were largely teacher-centered. To test my observation, I posed a question to my PLN: “Which lessons do you think have been more fun to watch, the student-centered ones or the teacher-centered ones?” For anyone reading this question, what is your own guess?

I would not be surprised if you answered as did my PLN. With near unanimity, they quickly replied, “The student-centered ones!” That certainly seems the logical choice; after all, we regularly promote the idea of “student-centered” classrooms as a point of emphasis. Although there needs to be a balance and there is nothing at all wrong with teachers leading the learning, we have spent considerably more time and energy working with teachers to create student-centered classrooms in which students are more in control of the learning with much less time devoted to traditional “stand and deliver” teaching strategies. However, after just a few observations, I realized that the teacher-directed lessons were actually a bit more “fun” and somehow “easier” to observe than the student-centered lessons we observed in which the teacher did little in the way of traditional, direct instruction. Why is this? What meaning might we take away from this generalization?

When I observe lessons in which “traditional” teaching is occurring (i.e., the teacher is doing the majority of speaking, the teacher is standing up and leading discussions, the teacher is providing direct instruction to the whole group, etc.), I am in my comfort zone and know just what to do. I draw on my own eighteen years of teaching experiences and am able to focus on everything the teacher is doing. It is easy to provide feedback, highlighting what worked and offering possible alternative actions the teacher might consider. In a great teacher's classroom, when traditional teaching is occurring, I am entertained and marvel at the way the teacher rolls out the sequence of learning events. I suspect kids are, too. I reflect on comments teachers offer, questions teachers pose, movements teachers make, stories and jokes teachers share, body and facial language teachers employ, and their pacing of the lesson segments. Moreover, it matters not whether I judge the traditional teaching to be outstanding or unsatisfactory; with either extreme, it is still somewhat fun and certainly easy for me to observe this type of teaching, providing appropriate feedback. I am comfortable with this type of teaching and learning and look forward to sharing my insights on this type of teaching and learning with the teacher.

On the other hand, during my recent observations of less traditional, more “student-centered” learning, I have found myself feeling almost a bit bored and having a harder time focusing. The teachers weren’t doing anything! They were not at the front of the room, they were oftentimes silent, and nothing they were saying or doing seemed worthy of writing down to reflect on later. How could I provide feedback on their “performance” as a teacher when they were not “performing”?

The realization that I found “traditional” teaching more interesting and fun to observe than “student-centered” teaching bemused me; how could this be and what did it mean? The answers, perhaps obvious, are still worth remembering when we are observing “teaching and learning” in our classrooms:
  1. Why is observing “traditional” teaching “fun”? I get to sit back and watch and am often entertained. The teacher does the bulk of the work; I am off the hook.
  2. Why is observing “traditional” teaching easier than observing “student-centered” teaching? I simply focus on everything the teacher says and does. I know and am comfortable with this type of teaching. I have done it, seen it, and have provided tons of feedback previously on such teaching. 
  3. What does it mean and what must we do? In many schools, we have encouraged teachers to leave their comfort zones and release more responsibility for the learning to students. We must understand that this may push many of our students outside their own comfort zones as well. Sometimes, “traditional” teaching is easier and more fun for our kids, too. We need to push teachers and push our students to leave their comfort zones. At first, it may not be as fun or as easy, but fun and easy should not necessarily be our goal. Hard work and fun go hand in hand and this is an even better outcome. Finally, anyone who is observing a teacher (and I hope that includes not merely formal, administrative observations, but also teachers observing teachers), needs to work harder as well; it will be fun (not boring!) when we do. Instead of sitting and simply watching the teacher and noting all s/he says and does, we need to get up, immerse ourselves in the learning, and focus on students: What are they saying? What are they doing? What is the task? How are they collaborating, communicating, creating, thinking?
And now, a confession: I do not really believe that great teachers are boring; in fact, a few truly great teachers I have observed recently in our own district are also the very antithesis of boring. They are all ridiculously great teachers; in addition, they are among the most unique, interesting, passionate, energetic, and dynamic human beings you could ever hope to find. So, admittedly, I am trying to be a bit provocative with my blog post title; at the same time, I do believe there lies a hidden truth within this statement. 

Too often, we still equate great teaching with teachers who play the leading role in the classroom; charismatic, entertaining, sage-on-the-stage, stand-and-deliver orators and presenters of information. This still has a place in the realm of great instruction, but I have also learned that great teaching (maybe not teachers) can look quite boring, including the “teaching” I saw in a recent observation in which the teacher said nary a word for 13 consecutive minutes while the kids did all the talking--and teaching. In this sense, then, great teaching can indeed be “boring.” To shift this mindset and understand this type of teaching is not boring, we need to shift our focus when observing in classrooms, observing the teacher less and students more and observing “teaching” less and learning more. Focusing on learning, not teaching, is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!


  1. Interesting to read thank you. Useful for reflecting on my own process of trying to get out of the way of kids learning.

    1. Thanks, Hillary! Appreciate you reading and commenting. Best, Jeff

  2. I have made the comment " I am bored" when referring to being in my classroom. When my students are engaged and self directed in their learning, I am thinking, "Okay what am I supposed to do? They clearly do not need my help." I use this 'Boring" time to make connections with my students. Sit in with them 1:1 as they work. I ask them questions about what they are doing and why. I use this time to praise efforts and do some formative assessing on what I see as they apply skills learned.

    1. Michelle, Thanks for reading and commenting! Love your insights and suggestions about what we do when we are not engaged in whole group teaching. Thanks for serving as such an awesome 1st grade teacher! Jeff

    2. I admit to the same thing Michelle. I have found that my new class (CMA) is extremely student driven in comparison with my former class, that I find myself looking for new ways to connect with student. I used to connect through conversation, Q and A, and chats before class started. Now I find myself jumping into projects and listening to conversations and giving feedback. They are the experts and love teaching me new things. I had to train myself and still remind myself of this because it is a huge change. Handing leadership over is the best thing a student can be given.

  3. I can certainly identify with Michelle's and Jeff's description of boredom when the kids are off on their own and "exploring" new material or avenues of thought. I also feel like I should be doing more at those moments. Yet, when sitting with the kids in their groups and "just chatting" or seeing how they are doing with the tasks at hand, I feel less like a teacher, more like a mentor and, inevitably, closer to the students. This is when the "personal time" takes place--the teachable moments, the one-on-one reinforcement, or encouragement. This is when I know I'm having a lasting impact on how students think about the learning going on in the classroom or his or her power to be involved in the learning.

    I've often said that teaching is personal. These "boring times" are the times when the most important learning occurs in my classroom--the big idea discussions, the intellectual connections, the caring. I sometimes feel guilty that I still have to do a lesson on how to move commas around!