Encouraged by an Educator: An Interview with Bob Hill, Part 2

Photo credit Joe Thorn

Photo credit Joe Thorn

Bob Hill, an educator of almost 50 years, and friend for almost a year has great insight into what makes a good educator of children of any age. After giving me his credentials and demonstrating his passion for the education system (see part 1 of this interview), I turned the interview to more specific questions about how to teach kids of different ages and what role parents play.

Pat - What are the most important things that need to be kept in mind when teaching elementary students?

Bob - The general consensus among educators is that elementary teachers teach kids and secondary teachers teach content. We have been more successful in making transitions across time relative to changing expectations with elementary teachers than will high school teachers. A large part of the reason for this relative success is that the transition of focus from teaching to student learning was not as great of jump for elementary teachers (student focus) as it has been for secondary teachers (content focus).

Great teachers at all levels combine both the art and science of guiding learning. They know how to relate to students and how to teach content and skills. They understand the need for relevance and rigor in their classrooms. They know that one size does not fit all, and if we are to succeed with students who bring widely varying learning styles and learning needs into a classroom teachers must find multiple ways to connect to all of those students. Great teachers have always done this to some degree, and those who do it well today are easy to spot.

Nearly all elementary teachers see themselves as literacy teachers first and foremost. They understand that literacy skills are foundational to school success specifically and formal learning in general.  This is the right focus, and the good news is that it is not a hard sell. We typically think that in PK through second grade kids are learning to read. In third grade they start to make the transition to reading to learn. Of course, every child does not advance on that spectrum at the same rate, so elementary teachers have to monitor that learning and support the transition as students become ready for it. Again, typically, learners who make the transition easily tend to do well in school and those who do not seem to struggle.

Pat - Do those things change as the student enters middle school? High school? How so?

Bob - Most certainly, things change in middle and high school. I like to use a definition of literacy that is broader than learning to read and write. For me, literacy is making meaning from a wide variety of symbolic languages  - math, science, etc.

A great deal of work exists on teaching and learning for kids who are middle school age. The growth and maturation processes that are occurring for adolescents and teenagers do impact learning for most young people. Skilled middle school teacher have been prepared to recognize this fact and adapt their approaches accordingly. Middle school students typically are children one moment and adult-like at others; and those moments can change numerous times each day and each week.

As noted above, teachers who are good at both relating to learners and to having strong content knowledge and teaching skills are those who are most successful. If you want to find someone in a bad place, find a middle school teacher who aspires to teach high school content while having a classroom full of 13 year olds. These folks usually are miserable themselves, and they often spread that misery to their students.

High school teachers, as previously noted, usually see themselves as purveyors of knowledge. They are “experts” in their subject matter. Good high school teachers understand that great teaching is not the act of filling a cup but rather it is the act of lighting a fire. It is reasonable to expect high school students to take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning. Achieving the right balance of support and the transfer of that responsibility is the art of great secondary school teachers. A student conducted by Dr. Ron Ferguson a decade ago centered on asking students in inner city schools their advice on what makes a great teacher. The result of research revealed that students rated their best teachers as those who could expect high performance from their students (rigor), who made teaching relevant, and who provided guidance and support when their students needed extra help and guidance.

Pat - How does the parental relationship change the way we teach our own kids?

Bob - Parents are positioned very well to be their children’s first and most influential teachers. Obviously, they are in a position to support their own children with love and understanding. Even if a parent is not formally educated to high levels, parents can be role models regarding the importance of learning and the hard work involved in the process of learning. The role of good parenting is all about teaching and modeling, beginning at conception. Parents who model healthy habits and lifestyles are more likely to have kids grow up with healthy lifestyles and habits. “Do as I say, not as I do” is the most flawed logic about human learning anyone has ever thought up.

Specifically, I encourage parents of young children to read to their kids as often as possible. Don’t be afraid to use big words and to expand vocabulary. Ask questions in a supportive and non-threatening way. Support good thinking by young learners more than arriving at what the parent thinks is the right answer. Introduce young learners to art and music. Buy toys that allow small children to role play and to develop their imaginations. These are inherent traits of all human beings.  We are hard-wired to be curious and to enjoy learning. 

Once children start school, parents are well served to stay in tune with what is going on at school. Find home activities that support school learning. Create as many chances as possible to make learning fun and interesting for kids. Model that learning is fun and interesting to you.

Parents should never let a question or concern about their children’s learning go unanswered for a long time. If one is not sure about what’s going on at school, be sure to ask. Ignoring learning issues seldom leads to their solution. Approach schools as a partner in your child's learning. Parents who constantly criticize teachers and school should expect to see that behavior in their children.  If there are problems, address them rather than complaining about them in front of the kids.

To repeat a previous point, modeling is great teaching. As your children get older, continue to model your own learning to them. Look for out-of-school activities that can involve both the parents and the children. Balance those types of activities so that kids are involved in activities that stretch beyond being entertained.

I want to include a paragraph about parents who find themselves challenged by a child who struggles with school. Often, the school may call your attention to a cause of the learning difficulty. The school may have a name for the learning challenge. I certainly do suggest that parents take the advice of the school seriously, but I also caution that ultimately this child is your child. Weigh decisions carefully, and make decisions that make sense to you. Good schools will work with parents as partners and not impose “take it or leave it” scenarios.

 Pat - How can teachers get better at teaching? How can leaders encourage them?

Bob - Great teachers continuously hone their skill sets just as top professionals do in their chosen field of work. There are numerous opportunities for teachers to continue their professional learning, including professional development provided by the school in which they work, through professional organizations of which they are members, and by continuing their formal educations at colleges and universities. Great teachers see themselves as learners.

Parents can be most supportive of ongoing learning for teachers by encouraging the efforts of the school and/or school district to fund those learning opportunities.  

One of the great advances in the teaching profession in the past 25-30 years is grounded in the realization that teaching is a team effort. In good schools staffed by good teachers, staff work together in professional learning communities. They have time to collaborate. They learn with and from one another. They do not talk about “those kids” or “their kids” but rather they talk about “our kids.”

If you have questions for Bob, feel free to leave a comment. He's not only willing, but would love to interact with you on this topic.

Thanks Bob for your time, your passion, and sharing your insights with all of us.