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Teaching = Thinking + Relationship

Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

Before I became a teacher I worked as a caretaker for a wide variety of animals. Transitioning from one profession to the other was quite instructive. When I trained dogs, for example, it was straightforward: When the dog sat on command I would give him praise and a treat. After enough training, anyone else could give the command and the dog would perform just as well and as predictably. When I worked with students, on the other hand, it was far more complex – we worked together in a relationship, with give and take as they learned and grew.  Regrettably, when I look at how we train teachers today, it reminds me more of my first profession than my second.

Teaching is far more than a mechanized set of actions. Our most masterful teachers aren’t just following scripts or using pre-packaged curricula. They are tailoring lessons, making professional judgments, and forging deep bonds with students – all of which is far more difficult to see or understand.  Teaching is a cognitive skill that has human relationships at its center. Unfortunately, we typically don't view teaching this way in the United States. As a result, we usually don't prepare teachers like (or for) this, we don’t evaluate them like this, and we don’t even study them like this. In our public discussion of education, we typically frame teaching as a collection of behaviors, and teachers as though they are simply technicians.  This doesn’t just create a demoralized workforce; it also leaves students in the care of well-meaning and hard-working teachers who are, nonetheless, largely unable to meet their students' individual needs – due either to lack of preparation for, or mandates that prevent, meeting them.

Many of the current reforms reinforce this behaviorist view of teaching by fast-tracking the training for teachers, standardizing their actions, using checklists for evaluation, and moving the cognitive work out of the classroom and into central offices or state houses. Similarly, much of the educational research that takes place is also based in this faulty view of teaching and is geared towards identifying the very “best way” to teach something, or the specific combination of teacher characteristics and behaviors that “caused” a desired outcome in students. These studies leave teacher (and student) thinking concealed in a giant black box, and, consequently, the teacher-student relationship becomes an irrelevant byproduct.

As a member of The Teaching Brain Project, I research the cognitive skills of teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but I am, first and foremost, a professional teacher. I taught for 12 years in a variety of educational settings, working primarily with “at-risk” adolescents who had been asked to leave their previous schools because of behavioral issues. Because of my success in working with my students, I was commonly asked to mentor other teachers. While I was good at helping the students, I found that I was not all that good at helping other teachers become better at what they did.

When I worked with my colleagues, we did many of the things mentors and mentees typically do. I went into their classrooms and watched what they did, and they came into my classroom to watch what I did. We’d have conversations, before and after the observations, about what happened in our respective classrooms. The teacher would typically walk away pledging to do less of what they had been doing and more of what I did – they might rearrange their room, use less sarcasm, do more projects, or mimic a tactic of mine, such as joking with a student to diffuse tension. But I would walk away feeling like we had missed the mark.  In the end, rarely would things get much better for my colleagues' students, and it wasn’t until after I left the classroom that I began truly to understand why.

We were always looking at and talking about our observable behaviors as teachers – it’s really the only language that was available for us to use – but that wasn’t illuminating the real differences between my teaching and theirs. I wasn’t really any better at the actions that we each took, and I wasn’t doing anything that they didn’t also do themselves. The real difference between us was how we each decided when and how to do what we did, and how we each incorporated (or didn't) our relationships with students into that process.

When less skilled teachers make decisions – and I was no different in my beginning years – they are taking into account a few variables at a time. This includes, for example, what the student did or said and what they were “supposed to” do or say.  And then, with these few pieces of information, they choose between a small handful of responses. Perhaps they decide to act in accordance with the school rule, or do what their own teachers had done, or what their mentor advised them to do. Or maybe there’s a “best practice” they remember from something they read. In any case, thinking about their relationship with the student is typically seen as an inappropriate distraction.

In contrast, when a highly skilled teacher is in a similar situation, he/she is considering countless variables about the student, about him/herself, their relationship, and the context.  All this happens in an instant, at which point the skilled teacher uses all of those variables to decide which response will best address the needs of that specific moment. Experienced teachers have a repertoire of choices, many of which would be indistinguishable from those available to their less experienced peers (or to observers). But experienced teachers know that timing is key and that minute differences are important for students and teaching relationships. This very complex process and interaction-based skills have been wonderfully described in The Teaching Brain, a fantastic new book by my colleague Vanessa Rodriguez.

Embracing this more sophisticated and relational view of teaching is an important and necessary paradigm shift, which ultimately calls for an abandonment of many of the policies and practices that we currently take for granted, and which are championed by the most influential politicians and academics. While it will be a dramatic change, it is neither radical in its design nor unproven in its effect.  My courses in special education explicitly trained me to view students’ answers and behaviors in this complex manner – to look beyond what they said or did and dig for insights into what was really going on in their minds. There is no reason why our teacher educators and evaluators can’t learn to do the same thing.

Finally, this view of teacher thinking and relationship is also well aligned with how high-performing countries such as Finland see their teachers. In Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons, he emphasizes how Finland’s teacher preparation includes rigorous development of teachers’ thinking, including a research focus.

True education reform can only come once we stop thinking of our students and teachers as objects to be trained and, instead, begin to see teaching and learning as highly complex cognitive processes that have vital relationships at their core.

Issues Areas


Good post. You might want to check out Match Teacher Residency down the street from you at Harvard. Heavy focus on relationship-building....with kids but especially with parents as well.

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