Teaching, Change and Nobles by Bob Henderson, Head of School
The craft of teaching is still, at its core, very much the same as it was when I was a high school student. And yet, it has also been transformed, requiring skills and adaptations that were only on the fringe of the profession as I jumped into the field.
At the tender age of 22, I began a career as a full-time classroom teacher. I was very fortunate to land a job at a boarding school in California, a great place that was willing to take a risk on a total neophyte. I must say, however, that the school got a good bargain—I lived in a dormitory apartment where I supervised 40 boys, coached two seasons, taught five classes, and performed innumerable duties essential to residential school life. I worked very hard, but loved most of my role and responsibilities. One of the exceptions to that was attendance at faculty meetings—I dreaded those gatherings. At that juncture in the history of that school, the faculty was top-heavy with near-retirees (and I offer that description with great respect as I get older!) who were talented and dedicated but immensely opinionated. In fact, they seemed to me to be singularly focused on obstructing all administrative directives. I would sit in the back of the room and cringe as they ground away at any initiatives that reeked of change.
The following year the school welcomed a very bright and able new headmaster, who sought to impart some great ideas about teaching. I recall vividly his faculty meeting announcement that he was inviting a nationally respected neurologist to visit the campus to talk about learning and the brain—this was three decades ago, and this was brand new thinking. After the headmaster had concluded his remarks, one particularly intransigent and cranky individual barked out, “Well, stupidity is a learning difference—nothing much you can do about that one.”
I have never forgotten that. I could not understand how someone who purportedly cared deeply about young people and had committed a lifetime to an institution could be so suspicious, cynical and resistant to finding means of improvement. I resolved right then that I would never allow myself to turn into that teacher. It seemed to me that real dedication to the profession would require a continual search for how to reach more students more effectively.
To be fair, teaching has been subject to periodic faddism. Ideas come and go, and the “new math” becomes passé math. The truth has always been, and always will be, that the best teachers connect with students emotionally, developing relationships that inspire and motivate. My sense of great teaching was developed right here as a student at Nobles. Although I certainly did not connect with all my teachers, there were a few who literally altered everything for me, and some of that impact became clear only as I went through college and entered professional life. Relationships remain central to the mission of the school.
The pace of change in teaching, however, has accelerated dramatically over the last decade. That talk by a neurologist in 1982 has turned into a steady stream of new information and deeper understanding about how we learn, enhancing our awareness of the nearly infinite variety of learning styles and needs. Increasingly diverse student bodies have led good teachers to a much more sophisticated grasp of how different backgrounds, family situations and cultural influences affect the classroom. New technologies, arriving at a frenetic pace, have become indispensible in the function of teaching; yet the challenge is always to be sure the seduction of “cool tools” never obviates the importance of the human touch. More recently, awareness of the implications of concussions has dramatically altered how we approach recuperation and adapt classroom practices to accommodate individual needs. And the list goes on.
Teaching has changed. Teachers today must strive to remain professionally informed, and they have to engage actively over the course of a career in continual growth and development of their skills. While teachers have always worked hard at Nobles, it is my observation that they now must pedal faster to keep up. And that is why we hold teachers in such high esteem, and why teachers command such great respect in this community. Not only, in a timeless manner, do they reach and transform young people, but they do so in an ever more challenging and dynamic environment. And unlike those teachers I referenced from early in my career, they embrace the search for better ways to help kids. As I have heard history teacher Doug Jankey wisely advise, “good teachers are always looking for means to change and improve 10 percent of what they do every year.”