Celebrate the Difference in Teaching

The story of teaching is much bigger than any one of us can tell. We can testify to our opinions, document our observations and relate our findings about teaching. We can enter the storyline with something to say and exit with the hope that we have made a difference. And all of us who try, do, make a difference.

One Room Schooling

Long ago, in the one-room schoolhouse of rural America, there existed one teacher and many different types of kids. Older and younger, motivated and not, these students challenged teachers to present any material that would help them learn anything. Under the mythical belfry, drawing upon perhaps one or two texts like a bible and an almanac, teachers struggled to help them learn.

Inside this bare classroom isolated away from the farm lives they all knew, teachers had the unbridled power to create their own teaching and learning moments. This power, well invested in good teachers and difficult to amend in egotistical teachers, has been one of the mainstays in attracting and keeping teachers in their profession.


This one-room schoolhouse environment assumed that teachers would do it their way as long as they adhered to the community norms for behavior. As schools grew out of their one-room isolation, morphed into urban collections of classrooms, teaching practice remained variable in practice, grounded in community and slow to improve. Even teachers who benefitted from graduate degrees faced compromise wherever they chose to teach.

In Educational Researcher, Anthony Bryk talks about variation in teaching as just one of the impediments to “accelerate how we learn to improve” (Bryk, 2015). In that article he quotes Stephen Jay Gould’s observation that, “the only constant variable in nature is variation: Variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence. Variation is the hard reality, not a set of imperfect measures for a central tendency” (Bryk, 2015, p. 471). This variation explains the result we get when we give standardized tests: The Bell Curve.

Essential Question

But, if the story of teaching and learning is bigger than any one narrator can tell, and every story is variable, and every teacher and learner cannot be standardized, how can we make a difference? How can we turn difference and diversity into strength in standards and equity in access and equality in achievement?

Making a Difference

The answer is in the question—making a difference—is all we have to do. The variation that we add is what is important, not the central tendency to tell the same story. And to improve our teaching, show us more examples of how different teachers handle multiple modalities for learning! Show us examples of teachers who use technology in all the different ways—kids with ipads, flipped classrooms, and networked project work. Show us all the new types of platforms to document and display student work. Show us all the exciting approaches to dealing with struggling learners and gifted students. Show us teachers who can start a class with a problem on the board and morph that into a raucous debate about the role of quadratic equations, language tempo in Shakespeare and arts integration. Show us so we can see for ourselves how we want to improve! Show us the difference, celebrate the difference, and learn from the difference.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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