Role of a Subject Specialist
At Birchwood, this journey toward the ideal begins with an institutional structure that frames the role of our teachers and defines their own development as a mentor-teacher.
This structure organizes the school around academic subjects and academic specialists – not grade level classrooms. The academic specialist is our version of the master teacher. In this model, teachers teach only one subject, not four or five as is typical in many elementary schools. In their subject they are specialists, relative experts in the field. The subject specialist is not encumbered by teaching subjects in which he or she is either uninterested or has scant background knowledge. At Birchwood, this arrangement begins in the first grade.
Subject Passion is Important
There are several reasons for this arrangement. Foremost, it places passionate and knowledgeable adults in front of eager, young learners. Subject passion is important because the passion of a teacher for her subject inspires love and interest among her students. For mentor-teachers, education is not merely about handing down bodies of information to children. Rather it is about ushering children into exciting intellectual worlds, realms of learning that frame lifelong growth. The mentor-teacher introduces children to humankind’s enduring, historical conversations – in literature, mathematics, science, and social studies. In so doing, she is equipping her students to be lifelong learners.
In addition, because mentor-teachers are subject specialists who have an extensive knowledge of their subject, they can instruct children at multiple levels of ability and interest. Knowing a subject well, the mentor-teacher can better discern and meet the intellectual needs of different children.
For example, consider the mentor-teacher in the subject of reading. She loves good literature and is an avid reader herself. She is familiar with children’s literature, literature for young adults, and great literature in general. Her subject knowledge equips her to match children with books. She is not merely a teacher of reading, she is a window or doorway for children to enter the intellectual world of good literature.
At the same time, she understands that a good reader accumulates good reading skills. These range from how to decode words in kindergarten or first grade, to how to read classic literature as an adult. Simultaneously she can teach her students phonics and comprehension skills, while immersing them in the joys of beautiful prose and poetry.
The math specialist in the elementary school functions similarly. She does not merely follow the content of a commercial textbook, limiting learners to scope of skills at one grade level and defining math instruction as the accumulation of one algorithm after another. Instead the math specialist understands that the joy and intrigue of mathematics is in solving interesting, important, or elegant problems. She does not ignore the necessity of memorizing facts, becoming fluent in computation skills, or being facile with the application of theorems and formulas. But, like a mathematician, she sees these skills as tools which a child can use to enter the wondrous world of mathematical problem solving.
Accommodating a Wide Range of Abilities
Simultaneously, due to her content knowledge, she can accommodate a wide range of abilities within one classroom. Some children may study mathematics at grade level or even below, while others are given the opportunity to study one, two, or sometimes three grade levels ahead. Because she is a mentor-teacher she knows mathematics well enough to accommodate a wide range of abilities.
One can easily project this mentor-teacher model to education in social studies, science, or language arts. The mentor-teacher inspires love and enthusiasm for learning while accommodating a wide range of student abilities.