As a future educator, understanding the legitimate application of learning theories in the classroom is of tantamount importance. When asked to deliver a presentation on my observational fieldwork in various elementary school classrooms, it seemed an obvious choice to focus on just that: in what ways, based on my assessment, was the teacher displaying a fundamental understanding of effective teaching strategies, and in what ways was she or he failing to do so? The disparities between one teacher's implementation of educational theories and the next were staggering.
In searching for the classroom that would be my eventual focus, I first observed a handful of teachers, assessing as objectively as possible their adherence to the learning theories of noted researchers, including Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Albert Bandura, among others. While some styles and approaches differed wildly, the effects of teachers' modeled behaviors remained the most notably important constant in every classroom. As such, consistent with research findings, classrooms wherein the teachers took an authoritative stance (rather than permissive or authoritarian) were undeniably more orderly, with children that were more receptive, attentive, and comfortable. One of the first classrooms I visited bore a striking resemblance to one of Hollywood's many depictions of boot camp; the teacher was mercilessly punitive, shaming students when they failed to answer impossibly difficult questions, mocking them, and just generally projecting a hostile and nauseatingly threatening air. The students, understandably, were less than inclined to explore the content, fearing retaliation if they ventured a guess as to what solutions to the teacher's questions might be. My experiences in that classroom were so unsettling that I spoke to school administrators, and chose to seek a different site. By contrast, the teacher of the classroom in which I ended up settling was as far as can be from the oppressive, drill-sergeant-like demeanor of my initial experience. He was kind, patient, and welcoming towards students as they collectively sought out answers to the questions posed. His responses to incorrect assertions and erroneous assumptions ranged from gentle "nice try"s and "I like where you're going"s to the colorful "alright, you did the alley-oop, that was good. Who can help (student) with the slam dunk?"
The fact is, the effect of the teacher's clearly informed application of learning theories was so notably positive that I exceeded the required hours for the field observations simply to glean additional knowledge from his approach. Of particular interest to me was the teachers modeling of prosocial behaviors in every facet of his methodology. His standards of conduct were clear, and expectations were high, yet realistic. Above all else, he placed major emphasis on the core value of mutual respect. Only in extremely rare instances of marked frustration would he resort to even a mildly condescending tone, and in those cases, he made it a point to both apologize and explain his behavior either the following day or later that same day, after taking the time to collect and formulate his thoughts.
The clincher for me, the moment I recognized "I want to teach like this man" occurred one afternoon, following a particularly tense recess; the week up to that point had been filled with petty squabbles and instances of minor bullying, and that recess, it came to a head after a vicious instance of "he said she said" dynamics. So, in a clearly improvised but fantastically creative moment of insight, the teacher did away with his plans for that afternoon's lesson. Instead, he proposed a role-playing exercise. He asked three students to volunteer, and carefully selected from the enthusiastic cries of "me, pick me!" and frantic hand-waving the three students he judged would be best for what he had plane next. The students came to the front of the room, and in a way that was artfully non-threatening, the teacher asked them to virtually recreate the exact scenario that had taken place on the playground. He took special care not to implicate the students actually involved, thereby sparing them any further shame or risk of embarrassment, and walked the three new students through the scene, lightheartedly joking and exchanging verbal jabs with the class while modeling a new and effective means of conflict resolution. Ultimately, the lesson content that had been planned for that period had to be made up the next day, but following that exercise, I noticed a distinct decrease in the conflicts between students throughout the remainder of my observations.
As I continued my time in the classroom, I continued to be taken aback by how committed to nurturing student lives and modeling prosocial conduct the teacher remained. The students were jovial, responsive, and engaged. The lessons stuck with them. And at the end of my time, I'd learned more about what it truly looks like to be a teacher.