Where have all the thinkers gone?

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.  

                           – Ralph Waldo Emerson

So I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately. I tend to spend the first several weeks of summer reflecting on the past year, looking towards the upcoming year and asking myself what worked and what didn’t. I go for long runs and bike rides and think about my teaching. I surround myself with other thinkers in my life – people who are constantly asking themselves “why?”, questioning, wondering and reflecting on their own best practices.  Twitter and blogs provide another place to think and read about what other educators are thinking, and allow me to question, wonder and grow as a learner. I can’t imagine teaching any other way.

But I’m worried. I hear a lot of the conversations in the teaching world revolving around a “tell me what to do” mentality.  I’ve talked with teachers who define their literacy or math block as, “whatever the teaching manual says to do that day”.  But where are the students in this plan? We expect a teacher’s guide, a pacing guide, a list of test items and a copy of the standards and we think we’re good to go.  This is what much of education has been reduced to.  It’s the only way that many teachers know. While all of these things are important tools to have, I think educators have to be thinkers. We can’t let other people do our thinking for us. We are the ones who know our students and who must be responsive to what our students do each and every day. A pacing guide or teacher’s manual can’t possibly do this.

I was at an inservice once for a basal reading series and I was asking several questions about how this “one size fits all” program could possibly reach the needs of my students. I was doing some serious thinking and questioning about the program our county was adopting. The presenter told me, “look, it’s all right here in the teacher’s manual – even your teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” I told him that when I stopped thinking, I would stop teaching.

In this era of standardized testing and accountability it’s even more important for us to be thinkers and to teach our students to be thinkers. While a bubble test does have a correct answer, much of life does not have a correct answer. It requires problem solving, reflecting, questioning, wondering  and lots of thinking. I want my students to be curious and thoughtful, to wonder and ask “why” as much as they can.  I want to model this by challenging (professionally, of course) questionable practices or curriculum mandates that I don’t feel are in the best interests of our students. I need to be current on best practices and solid research to support my questions and be ready to propose an alternative plan. I need to be constantly thinking and learning. Not only for me, but for all the students I teach every day.

So how do you describe yourself ? Are you a thinker or someone who reflects on his or her teaching? Do you question what is asked of you if you feel that it may not be what’s best for students?

I hope teachers are resting up this summer, reflecting on their teaching and getting ready to make next year a fabulous teaching and THINKING year! What have you been thinking about this summer? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

photo from Wikimedia Commons


  1. I absolutely agree that there is NO “one size fits all” for reading (and for that matter – writing, math …). And I most certainly agree that educators must be deep thinkers. However … curriculum maps/pacing guides do not necessarily take the “thinking” out of teaching. You need a “big picture” of where you are going. You need monthly unit plans to guide your lessons and daily ideas to strengthen those plans.
    Tailoring your instruction is the “craft”.
    I think we need to focus our professional development/PLCs on teaching teachers how to do just that … how to dig for resources, how to plan explicit instruction, how to “diagnose” difficulties, what assessments to use …, all while asking ourselves – why/how?

    I believe that administrators and central office staff truly want what is best for student learning – sometimes questionable mandates come from fear, lack of understanding, or even misconceptions. Being “armed” with current best practices and research is the key to supporting your plans.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking!

  2. Hi Libby,
    Thank you for responding with such great thinking, and allowing me to clarify a bit. I do think we are in agreement here. I agree that the “big picture” is so important and I think pacing guides and curriculum maps can certainly guide us and help keep us on track. And YES – teaching is a craft, for sure! It’s definitely an art, as well as a science. For those of us lucky enough to work in true PLCs and schools where collaboration and lots of “kid talk” happens, these tools do indeed guide our instruction, while we keep our students’ strengths, weaknesses and needs first and foremost. Professional development does need to focus on teaching teachers how to refine the art of teaching and to be thoughtful, reflective practitioners. My concern comes when the pacing guides/curriculum map/teacher guide/standards or whatever tool we are using becomes the “one size fits all” curriculum, or “it’s January so that’s why we are teaching this” thinking – and we stop being responsive to our kids and what they need. We can’t let the program teach the kids – teachers teach kids. I also worry that only relying on standards limits our teaching and doesn’t allow us to go deeper into meaningful learning experiences.
    And I do agree that admin, etc. want what’s best for kids. I highly respect those administrators who are lifelong learners and are open to hearing best practices and research and who are willing to question practices that are being debated.
    Thank YOU for keeping us thinking, too!


  3. My daughter-in-law and I were having this exact conversation this morning!
    That we need to refer to every child by name.That our PLC meetings are the purest opportunity to talk about children – not standards and programs. I too would like to think administrations have the best intentions but………… . My experience over the past 30 years as a K, 1st grade, and Reading Recovery teacher has taught me that administrators who have some teaching experience in their backgrounds and do continue to learn and expand their understanding of how children learn, best practices, and current research are more open to teacher input. Unfortunately we are now in the midst of their scheduling visits to our classrooms to check on our alignment to the adopted program and the pacing guide.
    My summer- Taking care of my 2 grandchildren ( 3 and 6) for a week while their teaching parents went sailing with the other grandparent.
    What a joy! And I am being reminded and taught what my first graders need Protect learning, hands on, choice, literature, science, social studies. Do what I know best. We were directed to not teach science or Social Studies. They don’t know that teaching content is teaching reading. Prior Knowledge- oral language- vocabulary.
    I’ll stop. But I will do what is right. If my grandson was in my class- that is what I’d want for him.
    Thank you Lani

  4. it is scary how many teachers have grown dependent on the TE! And worse, the interns I am seeing who come out of teaching programs that have told them to use the TE and follow scripts, etc. How do we get that changed?! Thank goodness you can still find a few (at least one!) teacher in every school who hasn’t forgotten about actually teaching kids in the individual way that they need it!

  5. Hi Susan,
    I agree that teacher preparation programs at universities need to put more emphasis on teaching teachers to be responsive to student needs and to think about what they are teaching and how their students are learning. Placements for student interns need to be carefully chosen so new teachers are not leaving student teaching having only followed a script or a TE. I realize this is a challenge since many districts throughout the country do have a very structured, often scripted, program that they require teachers to follow. I think this is where the heart of the problem is. Thanks so much for your comment!

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more. While the pacing guides and maps are helpful, sometimes because of decisions from above we are forced to follow a day by day plan that was constructed from those guides/maps instead of being reflective enough to say, “I know my kids need __________ so I’m going to spend a couple of days on that.” I respect the admin point of view that we are responsible for all of the curriculum however I am also responsible for making sure my students are educated and if they need something extra or more it is my job to instruct them based on their needs. I also feel like if I spend the time now instructing them on their needs they may better grasp what’s down the road in our plans.

    You are incredible thinker, Katie. I wish there were more people like you.

    • Hi Heather,
      Thank you for your comment and kind words. I agree that we do need to be responsible for the curriculum and that at the same time we need to continue to be responsive to the needs we see and to look at the big picture – beyond what the curriculum and/or standards say we need to teach.

  7. I appreciate this discussion and wish I taught across the hall from each of you! The one word that keeps coming to mind as I read the posts is “reflection”. We are all busy with testing, meeting standards, PLCs, and real life, that we sometimes forget to stop and reflect, thinking about that individual child or small group and what they need to make progress. What element(s) are they missing in their background knowledge? What reading strategies are they using and which ones do I need to teach or reinforce? How can I make this lesson more hands-on? These are only a few of the questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis.

    Like you, Katie, I read a lot in the summer. I’d like to share some of my favorite educational resources with those who are looking for a “just right” book to enhance their skills. First, Knee to Knee, Eye to Eye by Ardith Cole is fabulous for teaching young children how to talk about books. The chapter on “wondering” is the best! Next, Strategies That Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis is excellent for grades 3 and up. It gives lots of comprehension strategies (not worksheets!) for students to use independently, in small groups, and for writing about books. Finally, Dixie Lee Spiegel has a superb book about classroom discussion. She uses examples from across the curriculum and it’s useful for any elementary or middle school teacher.

    Thanks for all your thoughts!

    • Thank you so much for commenting and for sharing some of your favorites. Yes, the reflection piece is the first to go in a busy day – yet, I think, the most important. I think we all need to figure out a way to make this essential component a “non-negotiable” of our days. Thanks again for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

  8. I enjoyed reading through these comments and want to thank all those who took the time to comment on our “Catching Readers” blog. Katie, you sure got lots of teachers inspired with this one. I couldn’t agree more with so many of the things they said.
    I worry a lot about teacher training. When I think back on my undergraduate and even graduate school, I know that I received very little information on how to really teach reading. And I went to school a long time ago! You would think that we’d have improved it by now. Yet, I hear teachers coming right out of college looking for the basal manual or the scripted teacher editions so they know just what to say and do. I’m sure there are some universities who teach teachers how to think and respond to students’ needs, but they are few and far between. There is still a lot to be done in that area.

    But each of us can do something in our schools. As one responder Susan noted “there are a least a few (or one) teacher in every school…” That’s where we start. If you are a teacher who is a learner, a thinker, a supportive colleague, a reflector, and a reader of professional books you can begin the conversation with others. We have to start somewhere. Connect with those few and start bringing them together for a teachers-as-readers group or as a group who wants to discuss more about one particular topic, or as a group who wants to share on-going assessment ideas for deciding next steps of instruction for specific kids. Those few teachers in every school or district are out there. We need to find them and begin some conversations!
    Thanks again to everyone for sharing their thoughts.

    Pat Johnson

  9. Oh, boy-I just said this to someone the other day. We (as in all of the teachers at my school) always say that the kids can’t think anymore-but, we can’t either! It is so sad! When I taught Kindergarten (for 6 years) I once asked my principal if I could delay the start of the “scripted” program for about 6 weeks because I wanted to do a thorough introduction of the alphabet through their own names and through nursery rhymes. He said I could if the other teacher would be on the same page. I went to her and she said no. Shhh-don’t tell anyone, I did it anyway but did the scripted program at the same time. Boy, that was overwhelming 🙂 The next year I went to my teaching partner and told her I wasn’t going to begin the scripted program until week 2 of school. She said she was starting it on day 1 because she didn’t know what to do with the kids for a whole week! Anyway, long story short-not only are we depriving our students of becoming critical thinkers, we are doing the same thing to teachers! And what is even scarier is that MOST teachers want it that way! I am constantly thinking and reflecting on my teaching practice and hopefully will always do that. I now teach 6th grade (this will be my 2nd year) and REALLY see the effects of these scripted programs. I am on a mission to see how I can create critical thinkers and readers of my students so that they can be lifelong learners. Wish me luck! 🙂

  10. Hello,
    I would like to chime in and state that I am a Special Education Teacher and I have always felt that THINKING has been the most common ingredient lacking in almost all SE curriculum. Special Education has been inundated with prescriptive programs that tell you NEVER stray from the manual and this has created classrooms where disengaged kids begin to flatline educationally. We see this type of educational death in every district and yet we still buy into this prescribed way of interacting with kids. I have also seen SE programs that are built on investigation, problem solving, true learning and flatlined kids have begun to flourish again. When I THINK I often wonder how this unethical phenomena can continue without any real type of inquiry, THINKING or evaluation, especially when it is so costly to all districts. How can educators continue this type of buy in? How can we look parents in the eye and tell them that SE will SUPPORT their child’s educational needs when the data shows the opposite occurs over and over again; especially if the student is from what we deem a minority group?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s