Teacher-Centered Teaching

Teacher-Centered Teaching

My first exposure to Buddhist philosophy was in the flashback segments of the ’70s TV show Kung Fu, when the child Kwai Chang Caine was addressed by bald Master Po in the smoky darkness of the temple classroom. Those beyond a certain age certainly remember the master’s bemused pleasure at his student’s growth, and the memorable phrase, “Well done, grasshopper,” as the ultimate compliment a teacher could pay a student.

My peers and I adopted the master’s line and used it as a sarcastic compliment. When a teammate dropped an easy pass during lunchtime football, we’d chorus, “Well done, grasshopper.” You knew you wouldn’t get a pass thrown your way for a long time after that rebuke.

In order to demonstrate the completion of his training in the Shaolin temple, Caine branded himself with flying dragons by using his forearms to lift an iron pot filled with glowing coals. Now that’s what I call performance-based assessment.

At the time I attended what must have been one of the first examples of a “Charter School,” though the term didn’t exist at the time.  A public school in a unified school district, Ohlone was an “open” school, in the tradition of Summerhill and the like. My first grade teacher, Mr. Thompson, led us on what were ostensibly accurate renditions of Navajo initiation rites, my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Papagni, set up a classroom economy that borrowed its language and world view from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and, under the watchful eye of Mr. Wassam, my sixth grade class built a cardboard city that filled the entire classroom. (It had to be destroyed after three days because the Fire Marshall said it was a deathtrap.)

I didn’t think much about it at the time, of course, being more concerned with playing football at recess and hunting for stickers on the weekend, but the educational system I observed on TV and experienced in school were diametrically opposed, at least by most measures of curriculum and pedagogy.

Sitting at home watching Caine Kung Fu the bad guys into submission, I admired his focused calm and the pearls of wisdom Master Po dispensed. I remember thinking, in my ten-year-old mind, that grasshopper Caine was lucky to have such a cool teacher, one who could tease profound wisdom out of a child by posing just the right question.

The world of Ohlone felt radically different. I liked most of my teachers, but the daily life, then and now in memory, was one of creative projects and community experiences that teachers observed or participated in, but didn’t lead. They certainly didn’t sit us down and teach us the myriad forms of Kung Fu and the proper responses to paradoxical koans

Kwai Chang Caine came out of his experience in the Shaolin temple prepared to fight for justice in China and in the American West while maintaining an air of transcendent calm and wisdom.

Though some of my peers, and more of my peers’ parents, worried that Ohlone’s freedom wasn’t preparing us for the academic rigors of traditional junior and senior high schools, most all of us did just fine, somehow having learned how to read, write and do fractions while we strove for honorary feathers or exchanged Wonka’s Golden Tickets for candy at the classroom store.

Now that I’m a teacher myself, I look back on those contradictory models and wonder what I’ve learned from Master Po’s approach to curriculum and pedagogy. Can I as clearly and definitively name my students’ learning outcomes as he could in the performance of 178 Kung Fu forms and the explication of 573 koans? On the other hand, should I let my students decide for the next semester what we’re going to be doing, even if it means that they decide to build a fire trap that might incinerate everyone who doesn’t make it to the door in time?

In a world where “No Child Left Behind” legislation hopes to “scientifically” define good curriculum and pedagogy and extort its implementation through national rewards and sanctions, I look back on my own life as a teacher and learner and think, “These guys don’t know jack compared to Master Po and Mr. Wassam.”

We teachers have blown it in the political process for many and diverse reasons, but the biggest one, I think, is that we haven’t clearly argued that the one characteristic of truly good schools is not that they are “student centered,” but that they are, in fact, teacher-centered. Master Po’s Shaolin temple followed a model developed, led and managed by a group of teachers who shared a common vision of good teaching and learning. Though I can’t confirm this, I’d bet that behind the scenes, Master Po and his colleagues sat over their bowls of rice and shared stories of their frustrations and successes in the classroom, helping one another to evolve as teachers.

Certainly, Ohlone teachers shared a vision for their school, one that they developed over time; thirty years after my sixth grade graduation, the open school vision of Ohlone perseveres.

My colleagues and I have many advantages in our school and district that make teaching rewarding: decent and recently renovated facilities, adequate materials and supplies, a supportive and diverse community. Our salary and benefits make us an attractive place to work, so we are able to hire from a good pool of credentialed and motivated teachers. (These are the real educational basics, after all.)

Given these basics, the strengths of my school are all rooted in an ethic of teacher-centered schooling. This does not mean, of course, that our classrooms are “teacher centered” in the school of education horror story of lectures and multiple choice tests. Our strengths grow from a partially realized and growing sense that the more we share our experiences, ideas, visions and day-to-day lessons, the more purposeful and coherent will be our students’ learning.’

Many people who go on to administrative positions forget this simple fact, or decide that wielding power is more important than the messy process of genuine collaboration. I think our automatic aversion to consultants and state mandates grows out of the sometimes unconscious recognition that real growth and change begins and must be sustained by the people who are a living part of the school, not someone who stops by for a visit.

While I find it annoying to hear a colleague present his vision of schooling in a manner that implies he’s got it all figured out (and I’m guilty of this myself) whatever tone we use isn’t nearly as important as our ongoing conversation toward a common understanding-even if that understanding leads to divergent “answers.” Master Po’s Shaolin temple and Ohlone’s open school were good schools not because they were highly “outcome driven” and structured, or because they were “student centered” and free; they were good schools because they were built upon a teacher-centered foundation.

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