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Posted: December 25, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Supe's Corner: Powerful teaching includes seven human touches

Thirteen years ago, before 8,000 teachers in Louisiana’s capitol city, I watched in amazement as East Harlem public school teacher Kay Toliver held all in awe with a two-hour demonstration of effective teaching strategies combined with her commitment to the human touch in teaching. Two years ago, in Williamsburg, Va., I observed this same 30-year classroom veteran as she stressed her long-held belief that "powerful teaching includes the human touch."

Featured in a Peabody Award-winning PBS special ("Good Morning Miss Toliver"), the Peabody Award-winning classroom series ("The Eddie Files"), and the staff development series ("The Kay Toliver Files" and "Teacher Talk"), this Presidential awardee for her work in teaching mathematics speaks to thousands of educators about the seven characteristics of powerful teaching. So powerful were these seven that her African-American and Hispanic students at East Harlem Tech, Public School 72, were frequent top math performers for New York City.

So while Toliver practiced "research-based instructional strategies" before highly-acclaimed researcher Robert Marzano made them cool, she mastered what she deemed to be the seven human touches of powerful teaching:

Caring: "Caring is the foundation of good teaching. In my classes, caring can and does take many forms. The first form, perhaps, is in the giving of my time." Said Toliver in Williamsburg, "I came early and stayed late." She noted that this gave her an opportunity to discover where her students were lacking in understanding homework or in the concepts she presented in class. "Extra" help was routinely a morning or afternoon away. "Caring also includes being a willing listener. My students know that they may come to me with problems, questions, or realizations whether school-related or not."

Connection: Toliver insists that teachers must "connect" with their students. By that she means a teacher who can show her students that she understands and celebrates their different backgrounds can "get to them" when it comes to teaching. She shared that she served both traditional Mexican and African-American cuisine in her classrooms in order to connect. And, in typical Kay- style, she dressed the parts. She had character.

Communication: Powerful teaching according to Toliver "builds the spirit." As she notes, "The little people are not soulless. They have a spirit that must be nurtured. In my class, students speak without fear." In powerful classrooms, students read, write, do, and talk. Each must be done in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of each student.

Character: Teachers must "step out of their comfort zones" to "reach and teach" youngsters says Toliver. In teaching a unit in mathematics, she would often dress the part. Whether it was dressed as the "Pizza man" in slicing up one-eighth, one-fourth, or one-half of a pizza, or the wrapped-tight "Mummy," this teacher’s character allowed her to bring characters to the classroom who integrated the real world with the world of mathematics. How better to get students’ attention than to "sing a little Italian" while slinging pizza dough when addressing fractions or bringing forth the mummy-in-the- pyramid when introducing geometry?

Compassion: From kids of broken homes to those who were homeless in Harlem, Toliver shared that teachers and administrators must always "walk in their shoes." This is true, too, she says for even the most "gifted" learner. The old adage is very true: "Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know you care."

Conviction: It’s one thing to say that we believe all kids can learn and still another to "really believe in kids." Powerful teaching and powerful teachers believe in kids, both in their ability to learn and in the teacher’s ability to teach them to high standards. If a student doesn’t know his multiplication tables, then teach him. If he can’t read, then teach him how to read. How many Jaime Escalantes or Kay Tolivers do we need to prove the efficacy of this?

Commitment: Powerful teachers convey to their students that they are happy to be in class and happy that their students are there too. "Kids just know if you’re unhappy to be doing what you’re doing! They also know if you give up on them!" Says Toliver, "Don’t ever give up on them!"

If you’ve ever seen Toliver teach a math lesson, then you know just how good she was at the "technical" side of teaching, at using strategies that required students to collaborate in problem solving, set objectives and provide feedback, create non-linguistic representations of that being learned, determining similarities and differences, etc. She was indeed "research-based" long before the researchers discovered her classrooms.

But, if you’ve ever seen Toliver work with children, impoverished children for whom schooling is hardly successful in too many places, then you know that powerful teaching also includes her seven human touches!

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