Theory vs. Practice in Teaching

by Todd Stanley

The challenge of going into the administration side of teaching is that there becomes this separation between theory and practice. While you are teaching in the classroom, it is all about practice, practice, practice. What worked today, what didn’t, what could I have done better, what will I never try again. You are living the practice. It is constant trial and error as you search for what you think works and once you find something that does, you usually hold onto it for dear life.

When you make a move to administration, you get to pull back a little and have the opportunity to look at the big picture since you no longer have to focus so much on the day-to-day activities. You are no longer in charge of a single classroom; you are responsible for a system. Because of this, you get into the theory side of things. Wouldn’t it be great if teaching looked like this, how would students be affected if we tried this innovative teaching strategy, why don’t teachers ever try this? You read a lot of books, you go to a lot of conferences, and you hear about all of these amazing educational theories that look great on paper. And you think to yourself, “If I were back in the classroom I would do things differently.”  

This mismatch of theory and practice is problematic because so many of the teaching experts and innovators, aren’t actually in the classroom anymore. The gap between theory and practice then becomes larger and larger each year you are out of the classroom. How do these people know their theory can actually be put into practice if they themselves are not practicing?

I have been reading a lot of educational theory books. Each one is better than the previous and my head is just bursting with great ideas as a result. The more I read, the more I think how I could have been running my classroom so much better. How my classroom, like most, was more about compliance than guiding students how to love to learn.

I got an opportunity then. We had a teacher call in sick at the last minute and we had no substitute coverage. I volunteered to take the class for the first half of the day until a sub could be procured. There were a few things working against me:

1.) It has been four years since I have been in the classroom as a teacher. Sure, I run before-, during-, and after-school clubs for gifted students from 1st grade to seniors, but these are areas students are genuinely interested in, otherwise they wouldn’t signed up. I am like the grandparent, allowing the children to do whatever they want and letting the parents, or in this case their teacher of record, pick up the pieces.

2.) Although I am the coordinator of this particular gifted program I am subbing in, I only know about a quarter of the names of the 180 student-team. And even though all of the kids know who I am, I don’t think my title will really pull any weight with them. I will be treated as any other sub they have never had before.

3.) It is a math class, a subject, how do I put it kindly, that I suck at. To indicate how poor I am at math, by the time my own children reached middle school, I was no longer able to help them with their homework because of my lack of math skills.

I go to the classroom in the morning to look over the plans that have been left for me. Dammit, fractions. My old nemesis from junior high. And this is the multiplication of fractions, raising the degree of difficulty.

I also was alarmed at how much of the lesson plan was about maintaining compliance. Statements such as…

• Students should get unpacked, use the restroom, and have their assignment book open.

• You will need to check their homework. If they do not have a homework assignment, they get a check on their Pride behavior chart.

• Walk the students down to the lunch room.

• During silent reading time, students should be reading (not talking).

• You will be walking the group down to specials and picking them up.

I understand the importance of order, especially when it comes to having a substitute, but where was the trust of students. I decided this was an opportunity for me to put some of the theory I had been reading about into practice.

When the class came in, they were supposed to be silent reading while I checked their homework. If they did not have their homework, they would have to come in from recess and work on it. Some of the theories I had been reading about homework is that it should not be graded as it is intended to be practice. I took real issue in being the one to determine whether a student needed to work more on their homework. What if I let them make that decision for themselves? After all, if they don’t get the practice, the only person they are hurting is themselves. I said to the class, “I’m not going to come around and check for your homework. If you feel you need some more time to work on it, then come up, and I’ll provide you with a pass during recess.” At first, I thought this had majorly backfired on me. Not a single kid even budged. Then one came up and asked for a pass. Then another, then another. Pretty soon I had a line at my desk and handed out passes to half of the students. I had given them some responsibility and they had taken it.

The instructions said to have students read until 9:30 and then start math class. Another educational theory I have been reading a lot about is the use of reflection in the learning process. If students just do an activity but have no outlet to talk about what they learned, it was an educational missed opportunity. With this in mind, I stopped their reading around 9:20.

I then posed this question, “what is something interesting you’re reading about and why would you suggest it to someone else.” The kids seemed taken aback at first. This was not how things worked. They did not talk about their silent reading. And yet, nearly every kid in the classroom raised his or her hand, anxious to share what was being read. I was ready with follow up questions when students brought up something intriguing or were not convincing enough in their reflection. 9:40 rolled around and there were still students wanting to share. Unfortunately, I had to get to math.

Once math class started the first thing I said to them was, “I don’t know anything about math, so if you have a math-related question, most likely I will not be able to answer it. The good news is, we have a classroom full of experts. If you have a question, ask around for someone who understood the problem and can explain it to you.” This happened several times. A student would come up to me saying she did not understand the problem. I would announce to the class, “does anyone feel confident enough about their answer to number 7 to be able to explain it to someone else?” A student would raise his hand and I would partner the two up. I would check in on the confused student later to find that she now understood it.

Finally, when I had to walk students down to the cafeteria, I simply informed them we were going to the same place they had been going for nearly 100 days and surely they knew the way and how to behave while going there. We started walking down the hallway, passing other classes that were being micromanaged in their hallway etiquette. “Johnny, go to the corner and stop there. No talking in the hallway. Make sure were are demonstrating PRIDE while walking.” I just walked with the students, not saying a word to them and you know what, these 5th graders didn’t get lost, didn’t burn down the school, and managed to find their way to the cafeteria.

When I dropped the students off at the cafeteria, done with my shift, one of the students said to me while walking past, “Mr. Stanley. I think you would make a good teacher.” I thought to myself, “Kid, someday I hope you’re right.”

Here is the challenge I put out to administrators; cover a class for a day, or even half a day. Try out some of these theories you have been reading about. Run the classroom like you would if you were able to go back and instill the new strategies that you learned about. You have a unique opportunity to go in and try some things. No matter how bad it goes you cannot possibly wreck the class in a single day.

P.S. I ended up covering the class the next day and the kids were genuinely happy to see me back. I hadn’t ruined them after all.

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