A teacher’s attention

art photography by julie narimanAs our nation discusses the idea of arming teachers, I’ve been thinking about a teacher’s ability to see and hear the many things happening in a classroom.

Years ago, I was working in a school where a teacher left in November due to illness.  A few days later, a new teacher was hired to fill the position.  The students in the class were struggling, and even though they were compassionate about the situation, they were upset.  And hungry for structure.

I met the new teacher the morning she was starting her new job.  She had a lesson plan. She’d be entering the classroom in an hour.  There were so many things she needed to do on that first day to establish structure.  Where to start? 

We scripted out a plan: “Stand at the front of your door as they walk in.  Smile and introduce yourself, shake their hand, and ask them their names.  Tell each student, ‘Nice to meet you.  Please take your seat, take out your notebook, look at the board, and answer the questions on the board in your notebook.’  Wait—let’s go to the class in a minute and put name tags on their seats.  Have extra paper if they don’t have a notebook.  Handle notebooks later.  When you enter the class, first stand behind them as they’re writing so they feel you watching them write, then go around, circulate, make little “check-plus” marks on their papers so they know you notice their work. . .”

Day one went smoothly and in a short period of time, the new teacher became an effective teacher.

But our first-day planning reminded me of the amount of detail and attention that goes into every element of teaching, from how a teacher greets students to how they look at a piece of student work.

Teachers need to see, hear, and address so many things in any given moment:  the facial expressions and body language of each student walking into the classroom, the 25-30 sets of eyes and where the eyes are directed (the floor? the whiteboard? the teacher? the classwork?  the girl or boy in the next seat?), the students’ work and what the work says about learning in that moment, the half-inch of progress shown by a struggling student that needs to be acknowledged.

One teacher told me, “Two things get me into the moment: yoga, and teaching.”

A teacher’s attention is a precious thing.  As a principal, I learn about many great ideas for the classroom, but I’m thoughtful about which new ideas I introduce to teachers, and when I introduce them.  Before I ask teachers to adopt anything new to their practice, I consider whether it will help or hinder their ability to see what’s happening in their own classroom.  I’m conscious of how many things a teacher can focus on in a given moment, and I consider this before adding even one more piece of paper to a classroom.  Maybe that piece of paper will enhance learning.  Or maybe that paper will be clutter taking attention away from learning.

If an extra piece of paper could be distracting to teaching and learning, then having a firearm could completely shift a teacher’s attention and professional purpose away from student learning.  There are many potential dangers to having a firearm in a classroom, but one less-obvious danger is the potential distraction from teaching and learning.

Looking at student grades the other day, I noticed one of our 9th graders is failing two classes when she had been doing well a few weeks ago.  I asked her about it.

“Well, I can’t to the homework,” she said.  I expected her to say the homework was too hard, but instead, she said, “My friends used to help me with homework but when I became friends with another person, they stopped being my friends.  So now they don’t help me with homework.”

I was struck by the complexity of her answer.  I mentioned this her teachers, assuming I had new, insider information.  But before I could finish, the teachers were able to tell me everything the student had said, what else was upsetting her, why they enjoyed having her as a student, and how they were intervening.  They had noticed, and they were on it.

And that’s where I want my teachers’ attention: their students.

Drawing is a detail of student work from the High School of Language and Innovation.  


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