Teaching on a Curve

I am a teacher. My job has many different roles depending on the situation: mentor, instructor, guide, counselor, even a parent. But I am not a facilitator. It is not my job to make learning easy for my students. Learning is not always easy. Sometimes, certain students naturally excel in a subject they find appealing. But it is never easy to permanently change the way a person perceives and interacts with the world.

The teacher as facilitator is all the rage in modern pedagogy. In practice, this means that I limit the amount of time I spend teaching the class as a whole. I model the application of a state standard, assign students groups or partners, and then put them to work practicing this standard according to their own learning styles. Then I am to circulate about the room providing one-on-one instruction with each student in order to facilitate as they learn the skills on their own. It is meant to provide differentiated instruction so that every student receives the best instruction according to their personal needs. Sounds great, doesn’t it? 

I am evaluated as a professional based on my ability to follow a facilitation formula rather than my ability to teach. The major selling point of facilitated learning is that it enables teachers to spend more time catering to the individual needs of students. The problem is that most public school classrooms have at least twenty-five students in them, usually more. At one point last year I had a class with thirty-one kids in it. Now let’s do some math. A standard block is ninety minutes long. At an absolute minimum, I’ll spend the first twenty minutes of class taking role, leading the warm-up, and modeling the application of the state standard.

It takes at least another ten minutes to give them directions for their student-centered, differentiated learning assignment. That leaves me with sixty minutes to work individually with twenty-five to thirty kids. If I oversaw a relatively smaller class, say twenty students, that would still only leave me with three minutes of individualized instruction per student. And even if I were some perfectly efficient model of the student-centered, teacher-facilitator who had the class of twenty working on their assignments the moment the bell rang, I would still only be able to work with each student individually for no more than a paltry four minutes and thirty seconds. 

Last year, a graduating senior told me during our final session that it seemed like most of the teachers he had were more concerned with “the appearance of professionalism rather than actually teaching.” He was far from alone in this sentiment – many of his peers wrote me letters along the same line. This is not meant to be a criticism of my colleagues. I know exactly what they’re doing in their classrooms – facilitating learning just as they were instructed to do.

However, I stubbornly spend the majority of my class time engaged in direct instruction, which is education-speak for lecturing. I am dynamic, I am passionate, I tell jokes, and I am serious. Most of all, I know what I am talking about, and I work hard to engage the whole class with the content of the lesson. Has every single lecture I’ve ever given been the equivalent of Jimmy Valvano’s ESPY speech? Of course not. But I don’t facilitate my students. I teach them, and together we learn. 

Educators cannot be facilitators of learning, because meaningful learning is inherently difficult. I could spend the majority of class period working with individual students for 3-4 minutes each, or I could spend 45-60 minutes teaching all my students as a whole. Then they could spend the remaining time putting the new material into practice, rather than trying to learn it all on their own as I lubricate facilitate. Education is a communal enterprise between a teacher and the students as a class. But this philosophy in which the teacher is relegated to the status of learning-facilitator, and the student is burdened with the responsibility of teaching his or her own self, disregards the fundamentally social nature of learning.

One final note: Maybe you are a teacher reading this, and maybe you are a champion of the facilitated/student-centered learning approach. Different teachers have different styles, and you’ve made it work for you. Good. Don’t take my issue with this method personally. The problem I have is that every teacher is being made to teach this way because it is supposedly the best practice for reaching all of the many different types of students we encounter. It seems inherently contradictory to me that there be only one way to teach all types of students. If the different learning styles of students should be respected, then so should the different teaching styles of educators.