If public schools are to improve, some of the necessary work will be done quietly by teachers. These will be educators who spend considerable time not just teaching, but also thinking about how to become better at the work they know to be so important. Yet, teacher improvement often centers on embracing someone else’s ideas—a new curriculum handed down from school officials, a new method of motivation from a popular theorist, a new technology, or a new textbook with the latest insights.

But when experts are used as stand-ins for the thinking, it cuts out the teacher’s important work of thinking about teaching—considering that work through the day, every day, with the goal of improving their practice.

Quiet Work

The quiet work focuses on the complexity of teaching. It does so in a slow, thoughtful, and persistent way that begins in the classroom: When a lesson succeeds, considering the reasons; when an assignment fails, uncovering causes; and when a program falters, envisioning improvements. Quiet work means taking in events of the classroom, thinking about them, and learning. Quiet work joins thoughtful teachers with receptive school leaders.

But quiet work goes deeper. It digs into the nooks and crannies of school life, drawing strength from the intellectual context teachers build for themselves and for one another. The layering of a school’s intellect builds from questions teachers raise as they talk in hallways. It grows from practices observed and wisely adopted as one’s own. It feeds off stories teachers tell one another about teaching and thrives on helpful advice and shared confidences. When leaders encourage teachers to learn from one another, quiet work is advanced.

Even places like the teachers’ workroom or after-school social gatherings contribute to this quiet work. Here, communication flows richly and diversely: casual conversation, personal stories, relaxed humor, and often really good discussion. From time to time, a teaching problem may get introduced, even resolved, or a school policy may get reformulated, but it’s the talk that happens in these informal contexts that is so important—talk of family, travel, books, hobbies, the economy, and life. Informal communication replenishes inner resources so necessary for teaching, resources like intellectual openness, personal connectedness, and motivation. When teachers momentarily set aside the classroom, when they allow themselves to think and talk on a wider plane of experience, they advance as models of learning and connect to the classroom in a larger way. Leaders who create a warm and welcoming place for teachers to be themselves demonstrate an evolved understanding of what the quiet work is about.

Quiet work yields its most generous returns when teachers pull from the herd to define themselves individually as teachers. They listen to influencers—leaders who direct, advise, and persuade. Nearer to home, they listen to colleagues. But they also pay close attention to themselves: to what they have success with, to what they enjoy, and to what makes them feel good about being a teacher.

From all the paying attention, the trying-on and taking-off of many different ways, these teachers find their center, the personal space that is their very own. They prevail as examples of what the quiet work is really about—looking and listening to others, yes, but most of all a lot of thinking about the choices that are right for them. Teachers who go to the trouble of finding their individuality in teaching live forever in students’ memories. Think back to your own schooling and recall the educators who stand out the most.

Finding yourself as a teacher is complex and contradicts popular wisdom about how the process occurs—it’s not always years of experience, advanced degrees, legislative mandates, or administrative coercion. Answers come when teachers are personally committed to the quiet work that leads to a place of their own in teaching—a place that honors what they believe in, what they enjoy, and what they are good at doing—that motivates them to become better.

Leaders and the Quiet Work

Leaders within the school can help teachers find that best fit for themselves with teaching through spontaneous, unstructured acts. Simply asking questions can inspire teachers to think about what personally motivates them as teachers:

  • What were you doing when you last experienced a rush of excitement in the classroom?
  • When were you last inspired to say to yourself, “I am a good teacher”?
  • What makes time move quickly in your classroom?
  • How much weight do you give to your own ideas verses those of outside planners?
  • Recall the last time you and your students laughed together in the classroom.
  • Do you trust yourself enough to take a few risks in teaching?
  • Why did you choose to teach?
  • When did you last surprise your students by doing something unexpected in the classroom?
  • What do you take so much pride in as a teacher that you will stay with it despite inconveniences and difficulties?
  • When you think about your own “best” teachers, who come to mind, and why?

Setting aside occasional time during faculty meetings for teachers to talk about the quiet work helps build a concrete foundation for this essential, yet less-defined component of good teaching. Leaders can also help teachers by noting the impact of quiet work during observational visits to teachers’ classrooms and by encouraging teachers to work at a pace that permits them time for thinking, tinkering, and being inspired. Support teachers as they explore the intellectual context they have helped to create within their school for themselves and one another.

The search for a place of their own in teaching requires teachers to pay attention to themselves—to what they believe in, enjoy, and have success with—in the classroom. It is persistent work, but not hard work. Let it be what it is: a relaxed, continuing effort by teachers to integrate who they are with what they do in the classroom. This is the quiet work of teaching—the informal listening, observing, and reflecting—that honors teachers as it serves students.

Carolyn Bunting is a former teacher, school administrator, and university professor who now writes about education. She is also the author of Getting Personal About Teaching.