Let’s Simplify, Not Justify: In Defense of the ART of Teaching

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. “

                                                                                                 John Steinbeck

What is the art of teaching??

In the children’s book of the Three Questions, a retelling of the original story by Leo Tolstoy, a young boy is on a quest to find the answers to these three questions:

  1. When is the best time to do things?


    Photo Credit: kellykorenek.wordpress.com

  2. Who is the most important one?
  3. What is the right thing to do?

As Nikolai goes off to meet with the wise old tortoise to find the answers to his questions he discovers that when he is not searching for the answers, he actually finds them.   He rescues a mother panda bear and her baby from a terrible storm as the tortoise looks on and observes the boys actions.

Nikolai is still disappointed at the end of this ordeal because he is frustrated that he has not been given the answers.  The tortoise wisely tells him that his questions were answered through his actions.  He ends the story reminding the boy.


Photo Credit: bookimagecollective.blogspot.com

 “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now.  The most important one is always the one you are with.  And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.  For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.  This is why we are here.”


This is why we are here and this is why I love to teach in a workshop because this kind of teaching and learning requires us all to be present.   These are the essential questions that matter in my teaching in the moment, an essential part of the “art” of teaching.   Keeping true to this art of teaching requires careful listening, intuition and improvisation on the part of every person in the workshop; most importantly, the teacher.  There is no guidebook to where you can check off what you are going to do because the truth is that you don’t know what you are going to teach until you are in that moment with that child.   Terry Moher, in her work on conferring refers to this as “teaching not knowing.”


Photo Credit: wondergressive.com

 One problem is that there is so much noise and distraction in schools right now .  I would love for every person, administrator, parent, citizen and politician to go and just shadow a teacher for a day.  Yes, one whole day so that they can see first hand just what is being asked of teachers.  So much of what is deemed necessary is done so by others, it has become more about justifying every action, each student, their numbers, their percentages, their scores and less about “who” that student is and what is is they might need.

The distractions away from the simplicity of teaching our students are more numerous than you can even imagine.  There is a hurried frenzy that seems to buzz through so many schools.  Lost is the feeling of nurturing, slowness and taking each moment at a time.  Disappearing from early childhood classrooms are blocks, dress-up centers, imaginative play areas, sand tables and any element of play.  Teachers are more frazzled and students, if they buy in to this system, are as well.  The pressure to perform is on and yet…to what end?


Photo Credit: magazine.byu.edu

When I model lessons in classrooms one of the most common responses is, “that was great, BUT, I don’t have that kind of time to allow kids to think things through.”.  I would argue that we don’t have time NOT to let them think!!  And in this I believe that we all must make choices and for me it is as simple as asking myself and grounding my teaching in these 3 questions, When is the most important time?  Now.  Who is the most important one?  The one I am with.  And what is the right thing to do?   It is to do good for the one at my side.  What if we just made it that simple?  What if that was at the very CORE of what we were doing in all of our schools with all of our kids?

More time to simplify.  Less time to justify.

It just simply makes sense to me.


Photo Credit: http://www.etsy.com

13 thoughts on “Let’s Simplify, Not Justify: In Defense of the ART of Teaching

  1. Loved your perfectly simple post. . . It reminded me of the latest book I read The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in th e Age of Distraction by P.M.Forni

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog so I could find yours – love this post. My daughter and I are always reminding each to breathe. Slow it down, breathe. And pay attention. That’s all.

  3. ” Keeping true to this art of teaching requires careful listening, intuition and improvisation on the part of every person in the workshop; most importantly, the teacher.” – There was a book I read that embodies this thought, Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner. However, I have come to realize that research and pedagogy of education gives teachers an objectivity that is also much needed. How would you recommend a teacher balance formal education required for teaching and the intuition/art of teaching?

    • You make such a great point here! What I do not talk about in this post is the theory behind the teaching. One must be grounded in the how and the why of what we do. When I am in the moment I have many greats at my side such as Dewey, Rogers, Hansen, Graves, Murray, Newkirk, Katie Wood Ray and more. There is a strong foundation behind my thinking and I believe this is what you are referring to. Correct me if I am wrong.
      Great question!! Thanks

  4. The idea of being present in the moment is incredibly important to me because it means less stress and more connections with others. The opportunity for building connections was a major factor in my decision to become a teacher, and the stress that comes along with working in a school is something I am always working against.

    When I leave a classroom in which I just had a fantastic discussion, I feel like I am doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I have just learned a lot about my students, myself, and the text we used to focus the discussion.

    Stressful thoughts about prepping the next period and needing to find coverage for a day later in the week dissipate when I am actively listening to my students and guiding them to their own understandings of a given text. There is something incredibly centering about truly being present during these discussions. It’s the act of being present that makes them fantastic.

    I am reminded of Kelly Gallagher preferring to think of himself as a literacy teacher rather than a literature teacher. When we sit with our students and focus on a particular idea, we are making meaning together. We are helping each other become more literate in life.


  5. So much of what I do each day wasn’t spelled out in my plan book–it was reacting to the needs of the children in front of me, taking time to slow down and retrace our steps when needed, and going off on a tangent to explore student inquiries. I want to embrace their questions (within reason, of course) because the minute I ignore it they will shut down and stop asking questions, and in turn stop thinking for themselves. I hadn’t thought of it in the terms of the 3 Questions, but it is exactly why my day does not usually go as planned!

  6. Tomasen,

    I love this idea of “teaching not knowing.” It goes hand-in-hand with workshop-based classrooms. In fact, the more I heard about these types of classrooms, the more inclined I am to try it in my internship next year. Before interning with Mark Holt-Shannon in Spring 2013, I had never seen a workshop-based classroom – I had only read and talked about it. Being part of it was so rewarding. I could feel the kids thinking, I could feel their creativity brewing. So often I would conference with students about their writing alongside Mark or on my own, and time in and time out, we would be conferencing by using the same principles you talk about in this passage. It individualized learning – rather than having the entire class work on a particular skill we were able to highlight that skill to a certain student so that they can develop it.

    Sometimes, the thought of workshop-based classrooms overwhelm me. How am I supposed to give them personal writing time, personal reading time, and unit-based reading/writing time every day in a 45 minute class?! Granted, yes, I know, you alternate activities each day, but I still worry about the simple (maybe not so simple) concept of time I have with my students every day. Can there be a balance between unit-based time and workshop-based time in a classroom everyday? Hmm… Now I’m thinking aloud but… Would it be possible to alternate between units – for example, read a unit text with time for writing, and then once the unit is done, transition into personal reading/writing. It’s a shame my mini-internship with Mark ended before they began their Shakespeare unit, or else I might have some insight into this. Is there any advice you have?


  7. Teaching is such an art!! How boring school would be if you followed a basal script all day. . . wait, that’s actually happening.

    My favorite thing about teaching is how the children create. I don’t think we give them enough credit! They have such amazing and wonderful things to say, yet the frenzied nature of our schools today prevents that. They’re expected to be on page 5 on Tuesday and 12 on Wednesday, thinking be damned. Teachers are expected to all read the same thing on the same day, because god forbid we think differently. If teachers aren’t allowed to think, of course children won’t be.

    I fight for time in my class. Time for reflection, creation, enjoyment, passion. I fight for it because it’s what’s right for my kids, and I think the public has lost sight of that– they’re what we should be fighting for, not the testing companies.

  8. I loved this. To be in the moment without distractions. To take the time with a student maybe not realizing how impactful that moment may be. A student realizes when a teacher gives them their undivided attention. When a teacher gives a student time you are telling them how important they are.

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