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Monday, 2 July 2012

The Intellectual Lives of Teachers

Over the course of my career, I have worked at 5 different schools. The best one by far was The Winsor School, a highly selective and academically rigorous independent school in Boston. There were many reasons for Winsor's success as a school, but one of them was its genuine belief that a teacher's intellectual life was not just important but absolutely crucial for good teaching and learning to occur in the classroom.

The school supported the intellectual lives of its teachers in a number of different ways. To begin with, the administration created spaces where teachers could congregate and talk informally. We had comfortable couches in our department, we ate lunch together, and we often chatted in the faculty lounge. Secondly, and very importantly, they gave us time to talk, read, and pursue our own intellectual passions. Full-time teachers taught a maximum of three or four courses, and the workload was significantly less than that of  any of the other schools I've worked at. We were rarely bogged down with nonsensical administrative work (unlike the situation that teachers face in most other schools.) Thirdly, they paid for our intellectual pursuits. We actually had a budget that we could use to buy books (for our reading pleasure), tickets to the theatre, and admission to local museums. The budget wasn't huge, but it made a strong statement.  And finally, they let us design our own courses and teach what we were most passionate about. I taught an elective on Indian and Middle Eastern literature. No other school I've taught at would even consider offering such an elective, but at Winsor, my course was greeted with enthusiasm both by my colleagues and by students. In short, this school really cared about the intellectual lives of its teachers. The administration at the school understood the huge connection between a teacher's intellectual life and his/her ability to teach well.

Why does a teacher need to pursue her own intellectual passions in order to truly be effective in the classroom? I know from my own experiences that I am most enthusiastic as a teacher when I'm most intellectually alive. If I'm reading a lot, thinking a lot, engaging in stimulating conversations with my colleagues and students, and generally learning a lot, I find myself designing far more engaging lessons.  Often the studying and reading that I do independently is not directly connected to what I teach, yet invariably, what I read spills into my teaching in some way or another. If nothing else, my own passion for learning serves as a powerful role model to my students (I hope), and this alone could/should inspire them to engage actively with the learning process. Teachers have to think of themselves as scholars and learners, and schools have to support the intellectual lives of teachers in very explicit ways if the school is truly committed to creating a community of learners. This, I think, is one of the distinguishing traits of truly great schools.