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How many can there be?

How many can there be?

To hear the national conversation (I’m looking at you, Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, and Judge Rolf M. Treu), you would think that there are many thousands of bad teachers and they are the cause of the achievement gap between well-to-do students and poor students. This doesn’t make any sense even on the face of it. How have we managed to cluster bad teachers in poor schools? It’s like saying that oncologists must be incompetent because they lose so many more patients than podiatrists.

But my real point is that I don’t see many bad teachers.   None of us is perfect, but most of my colleagues do a thorough, good job. They exercise their ingenuity to remove the impediments between their kids and comprehension. What issues we do have typically come from misunderstanding the job.

For instance: blaming the kids, a complete dead end. The kids are the kids. You get what you get. Would it be nice if they were all motivated and hard-working and thirsty for enlightenment? Maybe, but then that’s why we need good teachers. We don’t hire anyone to get kids interested in romance—nature has that under admirable control. If nature also produced largely intellectually curious, conscientious kids, we could all retire and close the schools.

We had a teacher in our district who became famous for acid remarks made about her students on her blog. To hear her tell it, they were all lazy, unmotivated, rebellious, naïve know-it-alls. That describes me as a teenager perfectly! And I was a teen a long, long time ago. There were lots of us like that then and our teachers saw their jobs as cluing us in, showing us how much more there was to know and how hard we’d have to work to learn it. In the dust-up that arose after her blog was discovered and deplored by the community, many weighed in to say, “Yeah, kids these days! They’re rotten to the core. She told the truth!” As if that’s a truth that has ever been untrue and it took courage to say it. It was like calling toddlers unsteady on their feet and prone to peeing their drawers. Some truth-teller. Blaming the kids is the coward’s way out, the cheapest trick of all.

Kids need teachers to accept them as they are and show them how to grow. Most teachers, if we can communicate to them what the job means, can do that. And the beauty is that those who truly hate the kids can’t bear the work and tend to leave: a largely self-correcting system.

So no, guys. Firing 1% or 10% or 25% or whatever percent of current teachers will not improve schools, just understaff them. The incidence of bad teachers just isn’t that great.

And if we articulated clearly and persuasively what super teaching really looks like, we could expose whining, laziness, and malice for what it is.

I want to be clear: none of us knows how we’re doing. This is the most frightening thing about teaching. Accurate feedback doesn’t come readily. You can go in every day and do your best and still not know what you’ve taught. Fantastic teachers go home feeling useless and ignored. They work side by side with those who claim to have it all worked out, their lessons are fabulous and the supervisors love them—and we all go home to our houses and wonder if we’re making any difference at all.

Think about your most influential, life-changing teacher. Does she or he know what that class meant to you? Mine don’t. They truly changed my life, but they can’t know that they did—and they certainly couldn’t know at the time, when it might have encouraged them or even kept them from the existential crises to which good teachers are so very prone. True results take decades to show.

You might think test scores would help us know how we’re doing, but they’re more like Tarot cards. It all depends on how fate has shuffled the deck. Well-to-do kids do better, sometimes the kids who learned the most clutch, the learning hasn’t matured in time for the test. . . I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how to raise test scores. I wish I did.

Also, when I look back at what I’ve written about ineffective teachers, it seems so clear that these are frailties to which we’re all prone at different times. Ego, exhaustion, mean-spiritedness, lack of patience, general aimlessness and confusion—who hasn’t hit the ball into one or all of these sand-traps and spent time flailing and whacking, trying to get back onto the green? (I think I got that analogy right. Not a golfer, personally).

The reason to enumerate them, though, is to be able to say what teachers can and should try to do. We can see the sand traps and water hazards for what they are, and we can recognize a hole in one should we make one (we can’t. There is no such thing in teaching). The real problem with my beautiful, important profession is that it’s so challenging and so misunderstood that we don’t have the holes clearly marked, so people land splat into it and have to set their own standards for effectiveness. Where are the poles with little triangular flags snapping smartly in the wind? How can someone spend an entire career at the bottom of a small, man-made pond, yelling at kids and hating them for their essential kid-ness?

So: it seems to me that the first step to teaching teachers how to do their work effectively is to describe what that work is, what it means, what it looks like.

We need to mark the course.  Then teachers can bring their A game.

It’s no fair to leave the holes unmarked.

 

I came across this passage in Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat Zinn:

 

Attention and Awareness Are Trainable Skills

Probably what teachers want most is to have their students’ sustained attention.

But this itself is hard to get unless the teacher is able to make the subject matter of the moment, whatever it is, come alive, to make it compelling and relevant within a classroom atmosphere of safety, inclusion, and belonging, along with a sense of learning as an adventure. It doesn’t help to yell at a class to pay attention when the children are being unruly. But it can help a lot—in fact, it can be a precious gift—to teach students the how of paying attention themselves and turning the process itself into something of an adventure.

Paying attention is a trainable skill, capable of ongoing refinement. As no less a luminary than William James, the father of American psychology, well knew, attention and the awareness that arises from it are the doorway to true education and learning—life-long gifts that keep deepening with use. It may very well be that the capacity to rest in awareness without distraction, in addition to simply balancing the power of thought and bringing a wiser perspective to it, may give rise to an entirely different kind of thinking.

It may be that future research will show that mindfulness training actually enhances creativity, freeing the mind to produce less routinized kinds of thoughts and freer and more imaginative associations.

 

This is an interesting passage on several levels. First, check out that description of what teachers must do to win their students’ attention. Safety, inclusion, belonging, spirit of adventure—just what I’ve been saying. And completely contrary to the “no excuses” testy culture.

But also the bit about teaching the skills of attention. I wonder if there is a place for that in schools. If mindfulness went by a different name and if it were aimed at students’ attentional skills, would that help parents and administrators see it as relevant and useful?

Perhaps the emotional benefits of mindfulness are more threatening and less apparently relevant to schools than its academic and intellectual benefits—as counterintuitive as that feels.

Just as medicine has come to acknowledge and embrace the mind/body connection, I believe that education is going to have to acknowledge and embrace the brain/heart connection. When we do, I predict we’ll see a big improvement in what kids can learn and do.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

 

 

 

Blech. It’s that time again. Kids must be sorted and stamped. Not my favorite thing. Cue the rending of garments.

 

I had an email from a student yesterday (hi, H.M!), lamenting graaaades in college. How is it that in the courses you’re learning the most, you’re getting the worst graaaades? Is that a good idea? It certainly isn’t motivating. Is it fair, helpful, or useful in some way? Is there some non-arbitrary and non-stupid level on which that’s a good thing?

 

I’m not seeing it, although I grant freely that my vision is not unclouded on such matters.

 

Some kids don’t care about their graaaades.  Some of those are just disengaged and lost, disorganized, unmotivated, and all the rest.  Others are defiant and refuse any external motivation out of principle.  (I secretly suspect that those kids, the defiant ones, will come out ahead in this world, but that’s mainly because my heart thrills to them.  I love a proud heart.)

 

Other kids care a lot about their graaaades.  Some care exclusively about them, and haggle and obsess and wrangle with their teachers to grub a few more points.  They are point misers.  They don’t care about learning, just the graaaades.

 

Some kids care in moderation.  For them, the graaaaades are motivators to improve their achievement.  These are the only ones for whom graaaaades do much good– and only then when the graaaaades are fair and well-judged, which isn’t so easy, either.

 

Graaaaades are like the rewards at the end of a potty-training or pick-up-your-toys chart.

Write the paper, get a star.  Take the quiz, get a star.  Enough stars equals an A.

Write the paper, get a star. Take the quiz, get a star. Enough stars equals an A.

Some kids can’t pick up their toys and feel defeated at the outset.

Others refuse to play the game.

Others just want to figure out where mom hides the stars so they can get them without picking up the toys.

Others use the chart as intended and, in time, internalize the behavior and pick up their toys on their own.

 

Now imagine if, as not infrequently happens, you can’t control when you get a star or not.  You pick up all your toys (learn the material), but that’s not the day mom checks (it didn’t happen to be on the test).  Mom only checked under your bed and you hadn’t gotten there yet.  At some point, a smart kid is going to rebel.

 

I don’t know how to fix it.  How to motivate the unmotivated, give feedback on progress, and create a gaming-proof system?  Could someone a lot smarter than I am please solve this problem?

I am mentoring a beloved former student as she takes her place in our school and in our profession. There are many hoops through which she must jump, benchmarks and requirements and looked-for behaviors, some of which are goodish sorts of things to ask of a new teacher, but others are just somebody’s pet thing foisted upon those whom they can (temporarily) boss around. It’s hard to watch. Technology! Teacher website! Essential questions! Objectives posted on the board! Standards!!

 

It’s not the case that all teachers employ these means.  Some of our best teachers post agendas every day. Others don’t. Some have big, rich, helpful websites; others don’t. Some pose essential questions and/or objectives, others not so much. None to my knowledge posts the “standards,” whatever anybody thinks those are.

 

Here are the things I think every good English teacher tries to teach:

  1. The world is a fascinating place of unimaginable complexity. It can be daunting, but keep your courage up.
  2. Learning about it is fun and goes on for your whole life.
  3. Books are immensely complex and interesting and there are many skills good readers employ to get the most out of them.
  4. Writing a beautiful, clear, concise sentence is cruelly hard and well worth the discipline—it’s a moral good.
  5. Open your heart to someone other than yourself.

 

Or, put another way:

1. Curiosity

2. Courage

3.  Reading

4.  Writing.

5.  Empathy.

 

And that’s it. Everything we do points toward one of those Big Five.

 

(but don’t try to tell that to the many, many non-teachers or failed teachers whose job as they perceive it is to tell us how to do our job, which they never have and we do all day every day.  In fact, don’t try to tell them anything, because they aren’t listening).

From the other Renaissance.

From the other Renaissance.

 

Exploration and discovery are two big words for me in my classroom: what I’m driving at. They are at odds with the testing culture, of course, as is most of what I do when my game is on. You can’t encourage kids to branch out, go off the beaten path, find unexpected treasures, and foster the spirit of adventure if what matters to you and to them is a predetermined set of answers to be bubbled on an answer sheet at some future date. If you’ve nailed down where you want them to go, there isn’t much point in their venturing out to all points of the compass.

 

But I contend that this kind of random exploration is precisely what they most need.

 

In my tenth grade class, we are starting The Great Gatsby and I like to preface that with a foray into the Harlem Renaissance, which was of course happening at the same time. I love the Harlem Renaissance anyway, but it also helps to balance some of the casual racism in Gatsby. And so it was: I told them a bit about it and then they took out their textbooks, in which there are about 40 pages of H.R.-related info, poems, stories, bios, images, and whatnot. I told them to noodle around in there, read some stuff, and then after about a half hour, answer these three questions:

  • What did you read?
  • What did you learn?
  • What did you like?

I collected those half sheets of paper. Today, after a weekend’s worth of forgetting, I asked them what they recalled. One girl said wryly that it wasn’t the Renaissance she was picturing. Ah ha! Teachable moment!

 

There ensued a solid half hour of the meaning of the word renaissance, what happened in Europe in the Middle Ages and then the Renaissance, the birth of economic inequality in the shift from brakteaton to money (and how I learned this from Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff), cathedrals, flying buttresses, Chartres and Sainte Chapelle, perspective drawing and realism as opposed to the symbolic yet cartoonish painting of the Middle Ages, Renaissance propaganda including renaming what came before The Dark Ages. . . I don’t even know what. It was great! And completely off topic, which ultimately was Gatsby.

 

A “reformer” would perhaps argue that none of this would be on the test. How true! But look at all I modeled and they (potentially) learned. This plus the fact that I reiterated a number of times how much of this background info there is out there and they should never be intimidated out of asking about it and learning it. Learning is fascinating, but nobody is born knowing a thing—so ask! As my sweet student did, giving me the opportunity to fill them in.

 

And to help them remember to learn it, I put a number of those terms on my website—the one I maintain through the school district. My new project is to give them a quiz every now and then on all this randomness, so they actually do reinforce it enough to make it their own. Note again the reason for the test: not to imply that these are the facts one must master, but to provide incentive to take a second look and consolidate some context into their world view.

 

All of it sparked by one, simple remark about a confusion between two renaissances—that kid brought her whole self, admitting her error, and I brought my whole self, illuminating some stuff I find interesting.

 

Whole teacher, whole child.

 

I love you, Zora.  Did anybody enjoy the H.R. as much as you did?

I love you, Zora. Did anybody enjoy the H.R. as much as you did?

People who have made a lot of money seem frequently to believe that this confers upon them a special skill, that somehow creating $$$ for themselves means that they have acquired wisdom and the ability to see into the very heart of things.

They are wrong.

They often turn their attention to education and advocate for businessy incentives, like pitting schools and teachers against one another or merit pay, as a result of their unshakeable faith in the efficacy of money as motivator.  These incentives don’t work, as has been shown over and over again.

Indeed, people don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money.  We want to be paid a living wage, a wage that allows us to live in modest comfort in the communities in which we teach, but we are not in it to make a killing.  What we want instead is to be part of a winning team, a school that does a really good job, where we can see our students thrive and grow.  That is our motive:  seeing kids flourish.

Others have written eloquently on this topic.  I can’t improve much on this:

 

Laura Chapman on Education, which is not a business

 

Except maybe to add this:

 

Dan Pink sums up the research (old research) on motivation and creativity.

 

This isn't a business either.  Good luck motivating it with $ incentives.

This isn’t a business either. Good luck motivating it with $ incentives.

Public education is undeniably under assault. Time magazine is coming out with a new cover declaring “war on tenure,” and that’s only the latest example. Since I was in college we have been hearing that our schools are failing, we’re falling behind, our kids are irremediably stupid and it’s teachers’ fault, and we need a clean sweep fore and aft—a whole new world of educational choices to address this abomination that our public schools have become.

 

Every single piece of this narrative is rubbish, but one positive thing might come out of it: we might just be able to raise our game. If anybody is open to solutions rather than either the status quo or the scorched earth policy, there’s a chance we could effect some wonderful change.

 

If I were in charge of those changes, here is what I would do:

  1. Redefine schools as community centers, where during the day kids attended class and after 3:00 all sorts of people could go for all sorts of classes. Parenting, photography, cooking, Spanish, art of all sorts, budgets and money. . . the kind of stuff you find at Community College continuing ed. classes. Above all, there would be classes for kids who would otherwise go home to empty houses. They call them “wrap-around” services.
  2. Re-design teacher preparation and support. As far as I can perceive, schools of education associated with colleges and universities consider their proper work to be researching educational techniques and strategies. They don’t have a close connection to people who are still in classrooms, teaching actual students. They don’t know what we do, nor the circumstances under which we do it. Few new teachers feel prepared by their course work for the reality of a teacher’s day—I know I learned everything I needed to know on the job. Why? Why not help people get a sense of what the job entails and how to succeed before they’re tearing out their hair? The model, in my opinion, ought to be more like doctors’ preparation. Let’s have teacher interns and residents in actual schools, that would function as teaching schools. Let prospective teachers spend a year in a school, observing teachers from every discipline, attending faculty and school board meetings, observing guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, administrators, and faculty advisors to clubs.

I would love to find a way to make those changes.

 

In the meantime, we will all keep on doing our job as well as we  can, which in most cases sets a high standard of excellence, despite what ignorant critics say.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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