How we teach IS what we teach

Larry Cuban once wrote, “How you teach becomes what you teach” and this is something that I have lived by for a number of years.  I have it written above my desk and I often use this when discussing pedagogy with parents and teachers.  Although teachers teach the formal curricula, it is the way that it is taught that truly teaches our children how to lead their lives.

Have you ever pretended to not hear a comment so that you would not have to deal with the conversation that would result from the inappropriate nature of the comment?  By doing this, you have just taught your kids that the comment has your approval.  For example, if a child is walking down the hall and states, “That is so gay…” and the child realizes that you heard him but you pretend not to hear and keep on walking, you have just told that child that it is acceptable to use that term.  Children are very aware of what teachers and adults hear and how they respond (some boys seem to have those “spidey” senses).  The small amount of time it takes to stop and have learning conversations with students can have large impacts on the way they develop character in school.

I was in one of the elementary school classrooms the other day and I was listening to students discuss why it was so important to be caring and compassionate toward each other.  I was encouraged to become part of the discussion so I asked the students how they had learned to be this way; they responded by pointing to the teacher.  I took this further to ask how it was taught to them and one student summed it up best when she said, “it’s not something she tells us it is just what she does”.  How you teach becomes what you teach.

I also had a conversation with a different teacher around promoting active, healthy lifestyles with our kids.  He discussed how this year has been so different because he has been able to model the healthy lifestyle. He spoke about how he has become so much healthier and physically fit this year and how he uses this to motivate his students.  “If we want to promote this lifestyle, we have to do this with the kids and we have to BE this lifestyle”, he commented.  How we teach becomes what we teach.

These 2 examples occurred in the school this week led me to these further reflections:

  • If we want to teach the qualities of care and respect, we must demonstrate this to our children on a regular basis.
  • If we want learning to be the key part of school, we cannot focus on grades and achievement.  By focusing on the latter, we teach students that the result is greater than the process.
  • We cannot teach democracy by running our class like a dictator.  Encourage student voice.
  • We cannot teach the importance of environmental awareness without DOING this in our class (recycle centre, natural light, conservation)
  • We cannot teach kids to do the right thing by rewarding them for doing the right thing; the focus then becomes the reward, not the feeling that one gets while doing the right thing
  • We do not teach a student that their strength or talent is important if we take this away from them as a punishment

As parents and teachers, we need to model the qualities that we want to see in our children.  We teach our children more than just the curriculum.  We have the opportunity to teach our students to become caring, compassionate, and collaborative people; the best way to do this is not through the formal curriculum but to have the lessons come from our actions.  How we teach IS what we teach.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. This was a fun read. I find modelling to be so important. Our actions must Bethesda product of hyper mindfulness because how we say things, how we do things infinitely trump what we say and what we do.

    Thx for sharing


  2. I agree. Modelling is one of the most effective teaching tools, whether it’s modelling a learning task or skill or, as you describe above, modelling of behavior, attitudes and values. Your examples are excellent and I’d like to add that if we want our students to be inquirers who enjoy learning, teachers need to show that they are life long learners themselves!

  3. Thanks Joe. I always enjoy reading about how you show your students the joys of learning rather than achievement. You don’t just say it, you do it.

  4. Thanks Edna, totally agree. Teachers who are always trying new things and engaging in learning themselves teach that is good to take risks and to continue learning. Great point!

  5. Your comments echo what Malcolm Gladwell says, in part, in BLINK. The one determining factor whether a doctor will be sued for malpractice is whether or not s/he listens with respect to the patient. If the patient feel respected, it does not matter if the doctor makes a mistake. The same is true for teachers. If they show respect to their students, parents in the school, colleagues, and the environment, they are modeling that behaviour for their students. I was astounded to be asked by a fellow teacher, after learning that I had attended 4 weekend seminars: “Aren’t you going to be retiring soon? Do you get any more money for having this course?”

  6. Very good point, Linda. I have read and enjoyed Gladwell’s “Blink” and was intrigued by the point about the malpractice. We need to stop searching for power and control and instead meet students where they are.

  7. As a parent, I would agree that modelling is extremely important. I take every opportunity with my daughter and her friends to provide teaching moments on a social/societal level. I do have to exercise caution however, as my daughter has pointed out to me that I have a tendency to lecture (apparently I’m not cut out for a teaching career). I would definitely caution therefore, against modelling traits that are less than attractive within ourselves or that may be construed as condescending or placating.

  8. Another good point, Pam. We have traits that we tend to model without realizing this. This is the other side of the coin. Not only do we need to model the qualities we try to teach but we also need to be careful we do not model the qualities that we have that may not be best for our kids. Thanks for commenting!

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