September 1997

The Art of Teaching
The Art of Teaching


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Capturing the Art of Teaching

By Rebecca Cossar

How do you capture the art of teaching?" Margaret Dempsey put the job facing the College’s Standards of Practice and Education Committee in a nutshell during their first meeting in May.

Dempsey is principal of Hopewell Avenue Public School in Ottawa and a member of the College’s Governing Council. She answered her own question with a story about a group of children who came across a grass snake hiding in the school playground.

The children were fascinated with their discovery. Where did it come from? Where was it going? What did it eat? How old was it? Did it lay eggs? Could they keep it as a pet?

Their teacher seized the opportunity to explore with the children the life cycles and natural habitats of local species. Stories of baby birds, spiders in beds and bats hanging upside down in closets competed for room in the conversation, which the teacher punctuated with memorable bits of information.

Standards of Practice and Education Committee Chair Clarice West-Hobbs with prize-winning students. She says developing standards for the profession means teachers will ask, "What makes me a teacher, and what’s special about the job of teaching?"

Teaching like this, that is spontaneous, engaging and intuitive is the kind that leads to unforgettable learning experiences for children. But how do you capture this in a written standard without losing those special qualities? And can best practices like these be made standard practice for all teachers?

The Challenge

These are the dilemmas facing the Standards of Practice and Education Committee with its mandate to "establish and enforce professional standards and ethical standards applicable to members of the College". The challenge is to develop a definition for teaching that will anchor the profession to a set of clear expectations and be flexible enough to encourage creative, innovative teaching practices.

Other self-regulating professions have struggled with the same task. The Ontario College of Certified Social Workers described "attempts to measure practice behavior with precision and consistency" as "elusive". The social workers now have their second edition of a Professional Practice and Conduct Handbook to help them carry out their work.

Clarice West-Hobbs, chair of the Standards of Practice and Education Committee, understands the mixed feelings people have about standards. "It’s the fear of the unknown. What will our profession look like when it’s written down?"

West-Hobbs is vice-principal of Prince of Wales School in St. Catharines. She realizes the benefits of having teachers agree upon the essential ingredients of teaching. "When we’re talking about teaching, we’ll be talking the same language. We’ll have something to hold up to students, parents and the public and say, ‘This is what we do; this is what we stand for.’ We’ll take a good look at ourselves and ask, ‘What makes me a teacher, and what’s special about the job of teaching?’ "

So how do we begin to describe what it means to be a teacher? What are the knowledge, skills and attitudes that set teachers apart? What do all teachers have in common, or more to the point, what do we want all teachers to have in common?

Can all the many distinctive and varied characteristics of teachers, in different roles and at different stages, be reduced to a single set of universally accepted principles or qualities?

Take the practice of managing and monitoring the learning of 30 children all at once, each with individual learning needs, styles, and abilities. When one of these children constantly and persistently demands attention while another sits passively, shut tight in a secret world, how do you do what’s best for both? And how do you put that into words?

Developing standards for the profession means examining the intricacies and complexities of an art form that has previously defied description. Teachers in Ontario are tackling this job at a time when teaching and learning have never been so challenging and so complex. Lists of standards in all shapes and sizes are appearing from education ministries, agencies and organizations.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in the United States has this to say about teaching:

"Facilitating student learning is not simply a matter of placing young people in educative environments, for teachers must also motivate them, capturing their minds and hearts and engaging them actively in learning. The teacher’s role in building upon student interests and in sparking new passions is central to building bridges between what students know and can do and what they are capable of learning."

The Alberta Ministry of Education describes the many approaches to teaching and learning in its Descriptors of Knowledge, Skills and Attributes Related to Permanent Certification:

"Teachers appreciate individual differences and believe all students can learn, albeit at different rates and in different ways. They recognize students’ different learning styles and the different ways they learn, and accommodate these differences in individuals and groups of students including students with special learning needs."

The Standards Council of the Teaching Profession in Victoria, Australia describes the range and variety of teachers’ roles:

"Teachers translate learning from a variety of sources into effective practices and participate in school decision making. Primarily they are managers and facilitators of learning, motivating, coaching, and counselling students. They create opportunities for varied learning in diverse settings. They are also organisers, researchers, writers, leaders and team members."

Starting Points

All these organizations and many others are in the process of defining and refining standards for the teaching profession. Recurring themes are emerging: showing care, commitment and consideration for all students, knowing and understanding your subjects and how to teach them, managing and monitoring student learning, communicating and reporting on student learning, participating in ongoing, reflective professional learning, and working collaboratively as part of a learning community.

These provide a good starting point for our work. But Ontario’s context is unique. As one of only three self-regulating teaching colleges in the world and the only one with a Standards of Practice and Education Committee, there’s no mistaking the leadership role teachers have been given in defining and developing the profession.

Teachers have been asked to describe teaching. And members of the profession across Canada and around the world are watching with interest as their Ontario colleagues lead the way.

The development of standards of practice for the profession will be one of the biggest challenges facing the Ontario College of Teachers. Each of the 165,000 teacher members has something to say. We’ll have the best standards only if teachers contribute their ideas, experiences and examples of best practice.

The children at Hopewell Avenue Public School took a new learning experience home with them thanks to the art of the teacher to capture the moment. And if that’s what we want for all students, it will depend on the art of the teacher to write it down.

Rebecca Cossar is a program officer in the Standards of Practice and Education Unit of the College’s Professional Affairs Department. Send her your examples of best practice at: Professional Affairs Department, Ontario College of Teachers, 121 Bloor Street East, 6th Floor, Toronto ON M4W 3M5. You can participate in the ongoing discussion on standards of practice by visiting the Professional Affairs' page on the College web site.