Tag Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Breaking Down the Natural Isolation and Insulation of High School Teachers

A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School  (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that  bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues just before the school year ended.

 

One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious.  We all learn about each other in  a gentle, supportive environment.  Students seem to love this, and so do I.

I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department,  I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this.  Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.

Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate  Thursday lunches to this small initiative.  I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room  (or some other place ….) for this experiment.  We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself.  If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule.  Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week.  No obligation, no memberships, come when you can.  Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to.  Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.

If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these  questions.

1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?

5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?

So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up  in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.

Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.

Jerry Brodkey

Brodkey’s invitation to get to know colleagues, I believe, comes from at least two impulses. First, it is what he said it is–an effort to get to know his co-workers, many of whom he exchanges pleasantries with as they pass one another on their way to and from class or in monthly faculty meetings. Second, it is the beginning of an effort to build a community among those with whom he works daily. High schools are hard places to develop any sense of community teaching five or more classes a day, meeting with students individually, grading homework and tests, and dealing with unpredictable crises that arise. Brodkey and others have, at best, one non-teaching period a day to prepare for the next class and rush through homework that has to be returned to students that day. Sure, there are and have been “professional learning communities” of teachers teaching the same subject or across disciplines, but the fact is that such PLCs are the exception rather than the rule. Why is it so hard to build community in a high school?

The setting itself provides one explanation. Housed in an age-graded school (grades 9-12), organized by departments, with a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers to plan, congregate, or get to know one another beyond the chance meeting in the same corridor–that is the modern U.S. high school. I do not mention faculty meetings since they are often set up and run in ways that discourage camaraderie.

If you wanted to isolate teachers from one another, no better way is to organize the school by grades, have departments, and a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers before, during, and after classes to work together in a community focused on better teaching and student learning. These structures left unattended insulate and isolate teachers from one another. The dilemma is plain: How to create a community of teachers working toward common goals within a structure and culture dedicated to keeping teachers apart from one another?

Here is a veteran teacher in the sunset of his career  with “school smarts” and wisdom gained from decades of experience in a high school who knows that building community begins with knowing who sits next to you. He wants to do the same thing among MA’s teachers. I wish him and his colleagues well.

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Is It Worth Being a Teacher? (Dave Reid)

Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching.   He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011.  Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries.  He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University.  He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.

Five years ago, I decided not to continue with my career in high-tech.  After twenty-five years rising, and falling, and rising again, through the ranks in my field, I decided to follow a growing calling to teach.

Little did I realize, or appreciate in others, that teaching entails great sacrifice.  This from a man whose wife started teaching nearly a decade before him.

While the sacrifices I detail below are true, and challenging, I still feel that the call to teach outweighs their weight.  The true test will be do I feel the same next week, month, or year, as this job is the most demanding I have ever held, even though I have worked for some demanding high-tech companies, such as Motorola and Qualcomm, and a start-up where I slept on my office floor many nights and weekends.

A Sacrifice in Income

As the following graphic illustrates, my compensation dropped precipitously when I elected to follow my calling to teach, and remains much lower than I earned in high-tech; I knew this going in, so it was not a surprise.  Nonetheless, without adjusting for inflation, my present salary equates to what I made in the early 1990 as an engineer.  Adjusting for inflation, I make about what someone with a high school diploma would make thirty plus years after high school; assuming they rose in their field to managerial positions that did not need a college degree.  While I might be a newer teacher, hence, not as expert as those who have taught for longer periods, the life experience and deep content knowledge I bring to the classroom is not adequately reflected in the salary schedule used in most districts, where years of service and continuing education credits determine your income.  This situation alone inhibits many in industry from entering the teaching profession.

my-career-path-wages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sacrifice of “Free” Time

In terms of hours worked, many believe, as I did before I made my career change, that teachers work many less hours than non-teachers.  They even have their summers off!   The latter may be true for some, perhaps many.  For others, the desire to deliver the most effective lessons, activities, resources, and etcetera to our students leads us to work many hours per day over the summer gratis, especially for newer teachers like myself.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) imposes great hardship on teachers given the dearth of curricular resources, textbooks, etc.  While the following cartoon is in jest, it does hold a pinch of truth, as does much of the work of excellent political satirists, such as this cartoon by Tom Meyers.

what-i-did-on-my-summer-vacation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The challenges faced by many students during the summer is not meant to be diminished, however.

Also, administrators may change the master schedule for teaching assignments from year to year trying to improve student outcomes, which necessitates developing an entirely new curriculum before the new school year begins; not an easy task.  Additionally, there are professional development conferences to attend, or summer school to teach.  While the latter is paid time, it does not move the total compensation meter that much.

A Sacrifice of Family Time

Prior to becoming a teacher, I thought I would have more time in the afternoons to spend with my school age boys.  Boy, was I wrong.  While working in high-tech, I could easily juggle my schedule to attend a sporting event, teacher’s conference, daytime school play, or other activity, such as coaching little league.  As a teacher, while my duty to deliver instruction might end at 3:00 PM, a host of other responsibilities to include creating lecture presentations, activities, or assessments; grading past assignments and/or assessments; discussing errant student misbehavior with students serving detention; meeting with administrators; collaborating with other teachers, often heavily influenced by administration; meeting with, calling, or responding to emails from parents; and reflecting upon past performance for improvement occupy my time well into the late evening, and sometimes beyond.

Sadly, even with this extra effort, since the typical secondary teacher has 150+ students under their purview, an extra two and a half hours per day correcting assessments translates into a mere 1 minute per student.  You cannot offer much written feedback on a student’s work in a sub-minute period, all the while checking their work for accuracy, thought, etcetera.

A Sacrifice of Staying in Physical Shape

Six months before my transition into teaching commenced, I earned a first degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do.  It took nearly four years to earn the degree.  Over that time, I flew to San Diego 50-75 times per year as well as nationally and internationally two to three times per month, while working for Qualcomm in their SnapTrack subsidiary, as well as their QIS division on QPoint, BREW, and QChat and their QCT division on gpsOne.  Most weeks my return flight from San Diego landed at 6:30 PM whereupon I hustled home then to the martial arts studio for a 7:30 PM class.  Some weeks, this happened twice or three times, as it was nearly the same price to stay in San Diego or fly back and forth each day.  Even with this very hectic schedule, I maintained my physical shape while working towards my black belt.  I could easily set aside my work tasks while I dedicated time to myself.

Since transitioning to teaching, I have allowed myself to spend nearly every hour outside of my classroom planning, developing, assessing, and reflecting upon the subjects I teach (algebra intervention, algebra 1, AP Calculus AB).  No matter how much time I spend, there is more to do, and at a higher level of quality.  It is very much like a black hole that pulls you into its inescapable center.

As such, I’ve regained all the weight I lost earning my black belt, and then some.  I feel drained every afternoon, and more and more often when I wake up in the morning before the school day begins.  I am unable to continue at this pace, yet, I have not made the adjustments necessary to do so.  There is always the next day’s activity to develop, or yesterday’s assessment to grade.  All of this saps me of my energy, as well as the desire to work out.  This must change.

A Sacrifice of Personal Time

Near the same time I earned my black belt, I joined a men’s team in the area committed to helping men improve themselves in whatever areas they deemed necessary, such as being in relationship with other men, improving one’s relationship with a spouse or significant other, or finding the power within.

For five years, I’ve been a member of a men’s organization, initially attending all of our monthly organization-wide meetings, weekly team meetings, and our fall events.  Over time, my attendance at each of these started to wane, so much so, that I am now a ghost of my former self in the organization.

Why? Since becoming a teacher, through a combination of conflicts due to grading and planning as well as the cumulative effect of my energy levels diminishing over time, my ability to attend these meetings has lessened significantly.  The emotional energy required to keep a classroom of adolescents focused, especially freshman who range from thirteen to fifteen, is enormous; it is even difficult to engage juniors and seniors in open discussions about mathematical concepts, for they are often overly committed to a series of AP courses, extracurricular activities, and work, leaving them exhausted and often dozing off in class.

On the freshman side, for those of you who have ever held a birthday party for your six to twelve-year-old child, where more than ten children are present, you have a small taste of the dynamic in many classrooms, especially one at a Title I school.  Simply keeping everyone in their seats and quiet presents a challenge, much less enticing them to engage in the learning objective(s) du jour.  Each day, with multiple, similar periods requiring your concerted effort to manage classroom behavior, while helping students engage sufficiently with the content to have any chance of developing skill with it, much less any understanding, requires a tremendous supply of physical, intellectual, and emotional energy.  You leave work drained nearly every day.

I challenge anyone who has not recently taught in a Title I school to do so for just one day to see how they view teaching; I especially invite those who spout about how poorly teachers do their job educating our nation’s children.  I would love to see footage of them demonstrating the supposedly obvious methods by which miracles occur.

Still Worth It, For Now

To answer this post’s title, yes, it is worth being a teacher, if your passion to teach has not been extinguished by the demands of teaching, which are extensive.  On many days, my emotional account is overdrawn.  Students flow through our public school systems like a river through a gorge, generating intense forces that move most objects in its path.  Rerouting the river, as we are asked to do with exhortations to close the opportunity gap or the achievement gap is easier said than done.  Most efforts over the decades where this has been the focus have failed to yield any significant results.  Why?  I do not believe it is for the lack of effort on the part of teachers or administrators.  I believe it is because it might be a bridge too far given the initial conditions as well as the constraints of the existing system.

In fact, the longer I teach, the more convinced I become that a teacher’s ability to change student outcomes in any uniform, meaningful, and consistent manner irrespective of students’ socioeconomic status (SES), environmental conditions, and self-agency is minimal at best.  Nonetheless, teachers are a powerful force in students’ lives with the ability to inspire greatness in our children.  The irony is the overemphasis on an equality of outcomes for all may weaken the net outcome for our nation as a whole, for teachers are increasingly demotivated by the incessant demands to do something, anything, to improve outcomes for low SES populations of students so that they attain similar outcomes as high SES populations.  Without addressing the SES aspect in the differences in the populations, the leverage a teacher wields will likely remain woefully inadequate, much like a hastily built earthen levee intended to hold back an overflowing river.

 

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Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 2)

I saved Victor for last.

Neatly dressed, carrying a large notebook and a couple of bulky textbooks, Victor would smile at my “good morning,” walk to the rear of the room and sit down. He would put aside a ruler, open a book, take out paper and begin writing. He often wrote steadily  and intensely for 10 or 15 minutes. If we were in the midst of a discussion or group work, I would quietly ease over to him and ask what he was writing. He would smile, close the book and put away the paper. Victor, you see, could not read above the fourth grade level.

He could copy page after page of a textbook–and repeatedly did so– but did not understand what he was writing. Victor was a junior and nearly 20 years of age. His tested IQ was 63 and he had been in a special class in elementary school but had been mainstreamed since then.

High school was very different for Victor. He had learned to survive by keeping his mouth shut, acting studious, and turning in work that was incomprehensible. He would get As in citizenship and Ds and Fs in academic achievement. What he could decipher in textbooks in his various classes, he seldom comprehended.

While he was in my class, Victor spoke out three times. In each instance what he said made sense except that it had little to do with what the rest of the class was discussing. Most of the time he would write or stare at the blackboard. His face was a mask.

Whenever the class worked independently, he would laboriously copy word-for-word paragraphs from the U.S. History text. I would talk to him. These exchanges would make him very antsy and I would break them off. Occasionally, he would want to talk and he would tell me of his church activities and how much he enjoyed sketching pictures. A few times he would let me look through his sketchbook.

Other students in the class ignored Victor. I do not recall anyone ever initiating a conversation with him. When he would speak, snickers would flit around the room. Not once did I see him talking with another student when we would pass in the halls.

Being in five classes where he was unable to read, speak, or connect to other students must have taken its toll. How much he endured, I had no way of knowing. He never permitted me to enter his private world.

Because I wrote letters and called parents of students–both those doing well and not so well–I called Victor’s mother. I pointed out to her what I had observed about his behavior and inability to understand the text, assignments, and classwork. I also told her that I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. She became angry with me and went into a heated description of Victor’s early years as one of several foster children in the family. She urged me to get him tutoring, to give him extra assignments–anything to get him to pass. She was determined to have Victor complete high school.

In an attempt to help Victor, I and two other of his teachers requested a conference with his foster mother. It was a disaster.

Along with the assistant principal, a counselor, teachers and mother, Victor’s social worker was present. The social worker had recommended to the mother on an earlier occasion that Victor be transferred to a vocational school or to a rehabilitation center where he could learn useful skills, where he would not have to sit for six hours a day writing out paragraphs from different texts. Victor’s mother had dismissed the suggestion and did so again. Victor, she said, could do the work if he tried harder and if his teachers tried harder.

Victor stayed in school. He received an F in my class.

Here again, I failed. I was unequipped to teach Victor how to read sufficiently to understand the text. Nor could I crack the defenses Victor had built to protect himself from people like me.

Did he learn anything from me as a person as well as from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I do not know.

Let me be clear about my teaching as perceived by others. In every school I have taught principals have judged me effective in “ability to communicate with students,” in “knowledge and skillful use of materials and techniques,” in blah, blah, blah.

Other districts and universities have invited me to teach demonstration lessons and speak to their faculties.

I have written  instructional materials, articles in professional journals and books. And they have been well received. Thus, I ask myself: if I am so effective, why are there Harolds, Williams, and Victors that I have failed to reach and teach?

I raise this question simply because I know both in my gut and in my head that there are many teachers like myself who try hard, are evaluated as highly effective, and believe deeply, very deeply, that they can make a difference in children’s and youth’s lives. But not every child, not every teenager. There are situations that simply are beyond their control and failing with certain students is one of those situations.

“Beyond their control?”

Yes. When teachers succeed with most of their students, it is clear that what the student brings to the classroom, what the teacher possesses in knowledge and skills, and the structures of schooling in which both live are aligned sufficiently for success to occur. Teaching and learning is a complex process and, at the minimum, these three factors (and there are many more) have to be in sync for any degree of success to happen. When success with children and youth does happen, and it does, the complexity is often hidden from sight.

However, when students fail, blame is distributed among students, teachers, and the school and, in prior years, the family. Blame, however, hides the many moving parts and interactions that happen in classrooms and schools, the sheer complexity of teaching and learning in age-graded schools.

So in the case of Harold, William, and Victor, I brought limited knowledge and expertise to the table in dealing with these three students. They, in turn, brought to the very same table, strengths and limitations that made it difficult to find success in a complex organization designed for mass production of teaching and learning.

What does that last sentence mean?

Teachers did not design the age-graded high school structure for 1500-plus students that puts teachers into self-contained classrooms, mandates 45-60 minute periods of instruction and report cards every nine weeks. These structures trap students into routines that seem to work for most but not all students. These structures also trap teachers into routines as well that work for most but not all teachers.

Time, for example, is crucial since all students do not learn at the same pace. Daily school schedules seldom reflect that fact. Time is also crucial for teachers to work together for lessons and students that they share.

These and many other interacting factors led, I believe, to the conflicted relationships I had with these three students, making their learning U.S. history both superficial and doubtful.

For many observers, schooling appears easy enough when stories of teachers and students turn out to be successes (however defined). It is those instances, however, when students like Harold, William, and Victor fail that these and many other interacting factors, come together to reveal, for those who can see, the sheer complexity of schooling. It is that complexity that foils, time and again, reformers’ claims that changing curriculum, improving tests to measure curricular changes, raising the stakes in teacher evaluation, converting systems into markets where parents can choose schools, and holding both teachers and students  accountable will solve thorny problems. These “solutions” somehow will magically improve how teachers teach and students learn.

Hasn’t happened yet.

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Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 1)

I want to tell you about three high school students I have taught.

First, Harold. Lanky, always stylishly dressed and so clever, he drove me up one of my four walls. Harold was 19 and in the 11th grade. He had failed all of his subjects the year before he entered my U.S. history class. Yet he scored above national norms on college board exams.

Harold was never, and I mean, never on time to class, that is, when he chose to come to class. About five minutes after the bell, he would bang through the rear door of the room, clip-clop over to his seat. Passing a friend, he would lean over, hand cupped to his mouth and whisper something. Anyone in earshot would laugh uproariously. Harold had arrived. Another lesson interrupted.

Whenever the class got into meaty discussions with students interacting over ideas raised in the lesson, Harold was superb in his insights and arguing skills. He used evidence to back up his words without any encouragement from me. He revealed a sharp, inquiring mind.

But this did not happen often. What happened most of the time was that Harold would wisecrack, twist what people say, or simply beat a point to death. When that occurred, class discussion swirled around him. He loved that. He was frequently funny and delivered marvelous gag lines impromptu. In short, within the first few weeks of this class, he had settled into a comfortable role of wise buffoon. He knew precisely how to psyche teachers and how far he could go with each one.

I’m unsure how the class perceived him. When students worked in groups, no one chose to work with Harold. When I selected group members, the one he was in quickly fragmented and he would ask to work independently. On a number of occasions during class discussions, other students would tell him to shut up. I suspect that his fellow students liked him as a clown as much as he needed to act as one.

I grew to dislike Harold’s behavior intensely while trying hard not to dislike him. It was tough. I tried to deal with his wise buffoon role through after-class conferences and calls to his home with short conversations with his parent.  If he would come to class after these conferences and phone calls, his intelligence would shine as he contributed to class discussions. Time after time, however, he would back-slide. He would keep up with assignments for a week or two then do nothing for a month. He would cut class and when we would see one another in the hallway the same day, we would wave and say hello to one another.

The necessary time and energy for Harold considering one hundred-plus other students, I just didn’t have. In the last three weeks of the semester, when his class-busting behavior crossed my last threshold, I told him that every time he was late, he would spend the period in the library working independently. It was a solution that satisfied him since he would make a dramatic tardy entrance, I would give him the thumb, he would turn, salute me, and exit. It quickly became a ritual that I had locked myself into. And that is how the semester ended.

Due to his sporadic attendance, missed tests and assignments–and I searched my conscience to separate pique from fairness–I gave Harold a failing grade.

But I failed also. I could not reach Harold. He continued to stereotype me as the Teacher and I slipped into perceiving him as a stereotyped pain-in-the-ass Student. Did he learn anything from me as a person or from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I simply don’t know.

William was quiet in class. Kept back twice in elementary school, the school psychologist diagnosed him as “below-average” in tested intelligence but did not find any intellectual or emotional disabilities. Now, 18 years of age, he was in the 11th grade and earning As and Bs in his courses, including mine, and looking forward to graduating high school.

After school one day–he would also come in to my room to talk while I was eating lunch–we engaged in a long conversation about his future. I asked about college and he shook his head, saying “No.” He had once wanted to be a engineer but now he had given up that idea. His father had encouraged him to go to college also as I had but now, according to William, it was out of the question.

Why? I asked.

Turns out that William was a member of a religious group that believed Armageddon would occur sooner rather than later and that God would only save those who accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior. He was a recent convert to the group and a true believer in the imminent end-of-the world.

Before school, during lunch, and after school, we would discuss both his and my religious beliefs. He brought in pamphlets from his group. We would discuss them often returning to the question of his continuing his schooling. When our conversation would go that way, William would smile and, as if he were dealing with a very slow teacher, politely explain to me that he believed life as we know it will end in a holocaust of earthquakes, fires, and hailstorms. The Bible foretold it and it could occur as soon as the end of the decade. Since there would be few survivors, he had to prepare himself for what would occur. To attend college would be foolish. Given his beliefs, he was right.

I admired William for his staunch beliefs even when, without a blink of his eye, he said I and my family would die in the fire to come because we were unbelievers. I took him as seriously as he took himself.

In a high school of 1500, he identified one person as a friend. More than once, he told me, his beliefs had become the butt of jokes in classes and among other students. Much of his time outside of school was spent in studying, attending meetings at his church, and, on weekends, doing street ministry work.

In class, William would participate often in discussions, do his assignments and perform well on tests. Whenever the class worked independently on short research papers or contracts, he did especially well. He received a B+.

I guess by conventional criteria, I was effective with William (e.g., did assignments, got high scores on tests, participated in class discussions). He seemed to have learned content and skills from me as a history teacher. The question I have, however, is what did William learn from me as a person in the many hours of talking during the semester?

I can say that in one sense, I failed William. Why I failed, I am unsure. If a teacher is to get students to examine their values, clarify them while they are being examined, then I was unsuccessful. My job, as I saw it, was not to dismantle his beliefs but to get him to reflect on them. He surely got me to do so by throwing my questions back at me. But I had gone through that process–and still do. He hurled my questions back at me to defend himself. I sensed this and chose not to continue that line of questioning. So I believe that I failed William.

Part 2 takes up Victor’s story and the reasons I have written about my failures with particular students.

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Inadvertently Shortchanging Students: Espy’s Story (Dave Reid)

Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching.   He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011.  Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries.  He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University.  He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.

Holding students to high expectations is not just for teachers.
As I counted off students in my fourth period Advanced Placement Calculus class recently, I came up one person short.  My immediate thought, before I even knew who was absent, was that I hope the student does not fall too far behind, as we switched to a modified block schedule for this academic year; missing one day puts a student nearly two instructional days behind.

In a demanding course such as AP Calculus, many students reel from learning that they are not as naturally gifted in mathematics as they may have come to believe given their nearly stellar performance in earlier mathematics coursework.  AP Calculus shakes the foundations of even the most mathematically gifted of students, while those that are not as gifted can be downright fearful….

By the end of the second week of class, [senior] students who are highly unlikely to be able to handle the demands of the course have either dropped or decided not to take any mathematics course their [last] year….  Fortunately, with frequent encouragement and supplemental support from their teacher, remaining students are typically able to overcome the initial shock of the course and rise to its challenge.   In fact, my two AP Calculus sections [are] now preparing to hunker down for the demanding nine months ahead of them….

So, it was with great apprehension earlier this morning that I … [scrolled] down the attendance roster to the end where students who have dropped are recorded, I confirmed, with great sadness, and a rising anger, that another student was permitted to drop my course.  How could an administrator approve a student’s request this far into the course without contacting me for my perspective?  Making matters worse, the prior Saturday morning I had notified the assistant principal of instruction, and the principal not to drop any more students from the course, as fifteen-percent of my original roster had already dropped.  For whatever reason, my request went unheeded.

The Class Must Go On

For a few seconds I simmered with anger.  However, allowing my emotions to overtake me would not accomplish anything, especially as I had dozens of students waiting for me to start the class….  After helping students connect, graphically and algebraically, what they learned about slope in algebra 1 as well as what they learned about secant and tangent lines in geometry and functions with the newly learned calculus concept of limits, the class worked on homework problems as I worked one-on-one with students who needed help.  Fortunately, the focus required in the moment helped students learn a new concept well, while keeping my mind off of the frustration I felt earlier in the period.  As the bell rang, I dismissed students reminding them of their upcoming test the day after the long weekend.

Speaking My Truth

After class was over, … my mind revisited the emotions I felt earlier in the morning when I learned that Espy [had] dropped my course.  Anger turned to sadness as I reviewed [her] transcript and GPA.  [She] has a 4.0 GPA with A+ grades for all of her prior mathematics coursework; additionally, she worked diligently to develop proficiency in English as her high California English Language Development Test scores revealed.  All indications are that she is on the path to become a first-generation college graduate.  I know what that journey is like, as I am one myself.  However, English is my native language, not Espy’s.  My wife knows all aspects of that path, as she is a first generation Mexican American, first generation college graduate, and English was not her first language….

As I required my incoming students to write about themselves and mathematics, I noted that Espy wrote that mathematics is her favorite subject in high school, yet she also knew she needed to keep up her strong study skills to do well in the course given its emphasis on conceptual understanding in addition to procedural fluency….

Yet, those words no longer carried significance for Espy, at least for my AP Calculus course.  Feeling wholly dissatisfied with what happened, I took the time to compose and send the following email to the entire administrative staff of my school:  four assistant principals and the principal.  I … strongly believed  that in their attempt to honor a student’s request, the administration inadvertently took away the student’s opportunity to experience a rigorous college level course.

My words to the administrative staff follow….

I am very disappointed that Espy was dropped from my 4th period AP Calculus AB course without anyone consulting with me. While there are absolutely students who should drop the class, for a variety of reasons, Espy is not one of them….

Espy is the exact type of student this nation wants to succeed in an AP Calculus course. She may not know it herself, but she would have done extremely well in the course. She scored nearly ten percentage points above the mean score for all … students on my AP Calculus readiness test; she has the prerequisite skills to succeed in the course. She even has the potential to receive an A and pass the AP Exam, perhaps with a 4 or a 5.

If she had spoken with me, or an administrator had spoken with me, before dropping the course, I am confident I could have convinced her to stick it out, even if she felt overwhelmed at the time.  I was able to do just that with another student, Ramon; he will do well in the course as well, as long as he holds up his end of the bargain, which is to spend time outside of the class period ensuring he learns the course material….

I am still a very new teacher who does not know all the traditional norms and conventions about how a school operates. And, in general, I am not a letter of the law person but a spirit of the law person, which is why I am so disappointed in this situation.

I also know that whomever approved her request did so because they wish to support her, and help her.  Yet, in my opinion, what happened is exactly the opposite of support when it comes to developing perseverance, building confidence, demonstrating the ability to challenge oneself, and maintaining proficiency with mathematics in their senior year.

Let me tell you how I handle similar situations in my algebra 1 classes.  When I call on a student who may not know an answer, or may not even know that they can reason their way to the answer, an adjacent student often whispers the answer to them.  When that happens, I immediately chastise the well-intentioned, but misguided student since they deprived the student I called upon from a critical learning experience. I explain to the “helpful” student that they, in fact, were not helpful.  I make sure to tell them that I know that what they did was well-meant, however,  paradoxically, it has the exact opposite effect.  

This is a teachable moment for everyone.  The lesson being that when we are immediately rescued from a challenging situation, we miss out on becoming stronger, developing confidence, and being able to recognize that we can, in fact, overcome adversity, even when we believe deep down inside that we cannot.

The reason I gave up my career in high tech where I made more than our superintendent, is not because I sought an easier job, afternoons or summers off, or to teach mathematics, or any particular subject for that matter.  It is simply because I felt a calling to help students overcome challenges in their lives, and teaching mathematics is a conduit for that task….

Unfortunately, over the past several decades, we have succeeded in convincing hundreds of millions of people that they are “not good at math,” when in fact, what is called math in most secondary schools is not even close to mathematics in all its splendid glory.  

On the flip side, we have convinced tens of millions that they are good at math, when in fact, they are exceptional at memorizing, and succeeding in an … oversimplified, and direct-[instruction class].  However, when they face something slightly more complex … they fall apart as they have not developed the internal fortitude to persist with a problem that on the surface befuddles them.  Our culture emphasizes finding a solution quickly, otherwise one might be perceived as weak or incompetent.  This social norm compounds the perceived complexity of the problem  for American students, leading most to give up prematurely, often commenting they have not yet been taught how to do this type of problem…. Research supports this latter point as students in Asia persist with a problem for minutes, or even tens of minutes before giving up, while students in the United States persist for tens of seconds, then give up.  As a new AP Calculus teacher, I can readily attest to this phenomenon.

Hence, even our best and brightest are inadequately prepared for success in college, or beyond, as their problem solving … is more aptly described as working mathematical exercises than solving mathematical problems.  This type of engagement with mathematics does not exist in our world outside of our classrooms….  No one is paid well to work mathematics exercises, yet that is how we prepare our most capable students, along with those who struggle mightily….

I remain deeply saddened by Espy dropping my AP Calculus …  course.  I intend to speak with her to learn more about her request to drop the course.  I hope it was not simply because she feared she would not be able to succeed in the course, or worse, that she might not get an A.  She very well could receive an A in the course, and the only way she would fail would be to give up.  I try not to let students give up on themselves.  I cannot convince all of them, and there are some who I know may not have the best preparation to succeed in the course, so I accept their desire to drop. Espy is not in the latter segment of students.

I do not blame anyone here.  I am upset, but I completely understand that what was done was believed to be in Espy’s best interest.  I just do not believe that it truly is in her best interest, unless there are extenuating circumstances, of which I am ignorant. Even if that is the case, I could easily implement accommodations to support Espy in those circumstances….  This is how I believe we best help our students develop into their full potential.

Respectfully,

Dave

PS I know that many students complained that this course will be too difficult for them, that they do not want to work this hard in their senior year, or that I am not the type of teacher they wish to have in high school.  I understand these perceptions.  For some, I accept them, even though I believe the student is missing out on a grand opportunity to experience a rigorous learning experience that will benefit them immeasurably in college and in life.  I purposefully portray the course as challenging, daunting even, as it truly is for many students given their preparation for this advanced course.

At the same time, I inform each and every student, repeatedly, that if they invest time outside of the class, using any or all of the many resources I provide to them, demonstrating their commitment to succeeding in the course, that they will succeed…. [I]f we allow students to give up on themselves too quickly, or fail to notify someone such as their teachers who truly know the student’s abilities as well as what they will face content wise so they can participate in the decision, we are falling far short of what I believe is our primary raison d’être as educators.

Reaching Out to Espy

A few minutes after sending my email message to my administrative team, I composed and sent a separate email message to Espy in hopes that she might reconsider her decision….

Hi Espy.

I was saddened to see that you dropped AP Calculus.

I believe you have what it takes to pass this course, possibly with an A, and to pass the AP Exam with a 4 or possibly a 5. Your readiness test score was well above the average for the course. In fact, I was impressed with your scores on all of the topic areas. You are more than prepared for the rigor of this course in terms of prerequisite knowledge.

I understand you may feel overwhelmed with the challenge this course presents. It is daunting. However, you could, and still can, overcome the challenge, if you believe in yourself. I believe in you.

If there is anything I can do to make it possible for you to be reinstated in this course, to include special accommodations for you, please let me know.  I am a very reasonable person, in spite of the “persona” I portray in the course.  It is a “tough love” persona, akin to that of Jamie Escalante, from “Stand and Deliver.”  I admire him greatly for what he was able to do for so many students who did not believe in themselves, or their academic abilities.

Espy, I want you to take this course. I believe it will be good for you.  I know it will help you develop into a stronger, more confident, and likely more capable person.  I hope you reconsider your request.

If I could find you easily, I would deliver this message face to face.  However, I am unable to do so as expediently as sending this email.

Regardless of what you decide, it was great having you in my class.  I enjoyed seeing you smile, even at my poor attempts at humor.

I wish you the best in all that you pursue.

Mr. Reid

A Personal Delivery

Even though I sent emails off to both the administrative staff, and Espy, I felt compelled to do more to ensure Espy received my request, and carefully considered the possibility of rejoining the class….

Towards that end, I dashed off to print out my email and hand-delivered it to her sixth period teacher.  I briefed Espy’s teacher on the situation, asked her to read the letter, and to deliver it to Espy, hoping she might encourage Espy to reconsider.  She willingly agreed.  She actually did more than I anticipated.

Epilogue

Espy’s sixth period teacher not only delivered my message to Espy, she allowed another educator, who co-taught with her on occasion, to read it, as she was working to involve more female students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) programs and fields.  With this fortunate coincidence, Espy had not one, but two additional advocates to discuss why she dropped, to encourage her to reconsider, and to follow up about her situation with on campus counselors.

The two teachers spoke with her at differing times sixth period letting me know afterwards that tears had welled-up in Espy’s eyes as they asked her what she planned to do.  Tears nearly welled in mine when I learned of hers.

I have yet to hear from Espy.  I hope that she rejoins the class.  Only time will tell.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave Reid contacted me a few days later and said the following:

“I sent another email to Espy relaying the fact that my wife is a 1st generation college grad and 1st gen[eration] Mexican American who took AP Calc in high school, passed and had a 4.0 GPA.

Espy sent a terse one sentence reply with no subject line thanking me for my concern but stating that she made a decision and was sticking to it….
So, no fairy tale ending here.  But I gave it my best, and that’s all I can ask of myself or anyone.”

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A Veteran’s View of Choices Facing Teachers in Implementing Common Core Standards (David B. Cohen)

David Cohen has been teaching since 1993. He completed a B.A. in English at U.C. Berkeley (’91) with Phi Beta Kappa honors, and earned a Master’s degree in Education through the Stanford Teacher Education Program (’95).  After achieving National Board Certification in 2004, David served for two years as a support provider for National Board candidates.  As one of the founding members of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), he helped author the group’s first two policy reports.This post appeared in the ACT group blog on January 24, 2013.

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards is underway, and the imminent transition that will affect most American public schools is sparking a wide variety of reactions among educators I know and interact with, or whose writing I read online.  At the extremes are the enthusiastic adopters and the active resistors, and in between, a wide swath of teachers who are still sorting out their reactions as they learn more about the content of the standards and the implications of their adoption.

In my blog, I haven’t focused on the Common Core at length, but the posts I have written remain some of the most viewed here at InterACT.  Looking back at “Common Core Confusion” – written nearly two years ago – I see many of the fundamental issues are still driving the conversation.  The argument for the necessity of the standards has never been convincing to me.  The inclusion of a “recommended” reading list in the ELA standards still irritates me.  Additional problems include the likelihood of excessive testing and the money gushing out of schools and into publishing and testing enterprises.  In that post, I quoted or linked to many of the same key players in the debate right now, including vociferous critics such as P.L. Thomas, Yong Zhao, Susan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen.

Shortly thereafter I revisited my concerns in a post written in response to a conference I attended: “Common Core Confusion – ASCD Edition.”  In that post, I found myself increasingly skeptical, and linked to other blog posts that I still think are worth revisiting, by Mary Ann Riley and Alfie Kohn.

So, for anyone familiar with those authors and their perspectives, it may come as a surprise that although I agree with their assessments of the key problems in the Common Core, I actually disagree with some of their more recent writing regarding what teachers should do, or not do, as the transition unfolds.  The divide I’m seeing is revealed in the comments and links that have arisen in Larry Ferlazzo’s recent blog post at EdWeek, “Response: Best Ways to Prepare Our Students for CCSS in Language Arts.”  In that post, Ferlazzo offers viewpoints from a number of teachers who are doing exactly what the title suggests, and offering advice to their colleagues.

Like me, and the above named critics, Ferlazzo maintains doubts about the Common Core.  His post begins:

I have been no fan of the Common Core standards (see The Best Articles Sharing Concerns About Common Core Standards). However, one of the key lessons I learned in my nineteen year community organizing career was that, though we should always recognize the tension inherent in “the world as we’d like it to be” and “the world as it is,” living in the former seldom leads to success in the latter. The Common Core is the reality for most of us, and I’ve begun collecting the most useful resources for implementing them.

 And like Ferlazzo, I have reached the conclusion that teacher leaders need to seize this initiative, engage in the transition efforts of our schools and districts, and do the best we can to make the implementation work for our students.  We should also continue to express concerns and criticisms of the standards, and remain hyper-vigilant regarding the problems to follow in developing curriculum and assessing learning.

That pragmatic compromise smacks of collaboration and submission for the most outspoken critics of the standards….Krashen and Thomas responded in the comments on Ferlazzo’s post; Krashen did concede to a small extent, “Yes, if the common core is instituted, help teachers and students deal with it. But that does not mean accept it. The train has left the station but it has not arrived.”

That sounds like a statement I could agree with, but he goes in more forceful terms: “The arguments against the common core are very strong and clearly indicate that the common core will be the greatest disaster ever to hit education. Please see Yong Zhao’s articles and books, Anthony Cody’s blogs on edweek, susanohanian.org, and of course the first few articles at http://www.sdkrashen.com/index.php?cat=4.  Accepting the common core as inevitable has the effect of making it inevitable.”

Thomas rejects any compromise: “I cannot endorse any efforts or arguments regarding how to implement CCSS; that is the wrong question.  CCSS is a cash-cow for textbook and testing corps, as well as paid consultants and their professional organizations.”  The “cash-cow” argument concerns me as well, but I think our best antidote is to keep excellent teachers engaged in understanding the standards and … expanding our own capacity to work with them creatively, and more independently, reducing the demand for huge and costly purchases of curriculum-in-a-box, some of which is the same shoddy material we had before with “Common Core Aligned!” slapped on the packaging.

Ferlazzo responds to the comments:

I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….

Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.

In his own blog post responding to Ferlazzo, Thomas writes, “If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as ‘the bureaucratizing of the mind’ (p. 102).”

And I might agree with Thomas (and Freire) in the abstract, but here’s the problem: such a transformation of public education could not happen in a vacuum, could not happen solely by the willpower of teachers even if we all agreed with each other, and could not happen quickly – maybe not even in one generation.

Meanwhile, Ferlazzo and I both teach in high schools with over 2,000 students apiece.  I work on a staff of over 100 teachers, and interact with many others around the district.  I help to direct a teacher leadership network with over 300 California teacher members.  The conversations I’m hearing in my school and among peers do include CCSS concerns and criticism, but in my observations there is simply no groundswell of teacher resistance to the Common Core, and I have seen a number of teachers who have favorable opinions of it despite some reservations.  (Thomas points out there is resistance to standardized testing that’s building around the country, embodied most recently in the Seattle teachers who are refusing to administer tests.  I support their efforts, and I would caution administrators around the country to look at the conscientious objections raised not only by Seattle teachers, but also teachers in Chicago, and the broader resistance in New York, led by thousands of school principals.  If the Common Core implementation continues down that path, I doubt the grassroots resistance will take as long to develop as it did with the NCLB testing regimen).

And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher.  That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.

True, I could resist; I could dedicate hours and days to finding and sharing articles, holding meetings, building alliances.  In the meantime, someone will be making decisions about the educational program and policies for my school and district, operating with the state mandate to implement the CCSS.  I’d prefer to be part of those decisions.  If teachers don’t engage deeply in that process, I have no doubt that we will be ill-served by whatever is imposed from above without our participation.  I see more to gain for teachers in approaching this process in a “Yes, and” attitude, rather than a flat rejection.  Yes, we will help implement the Common Core Standards, and we will use the occasion of that engagement as an opportunity to educate our peers, leaders and stakeholders, and become more effective advocates for better teaching, better learning, and a stronger teaching profession.

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Persistent Dilemmas That Cling to Teaching

Nearly three years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought.

Since then, I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here, here, and here). Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I offer this older post again to new readers.

I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I offer a thorny dilemma with which readers can wrestle.

By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us face is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices.

With that brief definition of a dilemma, consider the following situation that faced this first-year teacher.

In a culturally diverse high school of 1300 students in northern California, Dorothy Ramirez teaches 10th grade biology. In one of her 5 classes she has 32 students of whom one-third are Latino, one-third are African-American, and one-third are white, Alberto, a 17-year old Latino who has turned in his assignments on time and hovers between a C and D, has begun disrupting the class.

Recently, Alberto began to talk with those around him while the teacher is lecturing or leading a whole-group discussion. Even after Ramirez quietly asked Alberto to stop, he continues these side conversations. On two occasions, she kept Alberto after class for a few minutes to ask if there was something going on to account for his behavior. He said nothing. The next day, he repeated the same behavior during a student presentation and was rude to Ramirez when she asked him to stop. Two other students began smirking and talking to one another while the teacher listened to students give their opinions during a whole-group discussion. Ramirez asked Alberto to leave class for 10 minutes to cool off outside the door and he did. The same thing happened the following day.

Ramirez decided to call home because she feared that she was losing control of Alberto. If this occurred, then it might spread like an infection to the rest of the class. She called his parents and discovered that they speak only Spanish. Since she speaks only English, Ramirez enlisted the help of a Spanish-speaking counselor at school who called home and spoke with the mother. The mother told the counselor that she, too, is having trouble with Alberto, the oldest of her three children and she promised to speak to him.

The next day in biology class, Alberto had another run-in with Ramirez over the same conduct. The teacher called the counselor and mother and they met the following day where it came out that the mother couldn’t control Alberto at home. Ramirez suggested speaking with the father. The mother got very upset because the father works two jobs to support the family and if he finds out about Alberto’s behavior at school and home, the father will beat him as he has done before. The meeting adjourned with no action taken but deep concern over what to do if Alberto causes more trouble in class.

1. Which prized values are in conflict for Ramirez?

2. What are Ramirez’s options in managing this dilemma?

3. Which one should she choose? Why?

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Anxious Dreams about Teaching Again and Again

I begin teaching a quarter-long seminar in two weeks. I have been teaching youth and adults for nearly forty years. I am turning 78 next month. And I have had dreams of walking into class unprepared and discussions falling flat; of students walking out of my class. How can that be?

First, I am not the first nor last teacher to have anxiety-ridden dream. Artist and long-time teacher Eric Baylin wrote a song about teacher anxiety cresting at the end of the summer when students return to school. Here are two stanzas of that song:

I dream I can’t control my class. Oh, me! Oh, my!
They laugh; they jeer; and I’m about to cry, to cry.
I wake up with this awful fear
I might have chosen the wrong career.
Teachers have anxiety in the fall.

They’re coming to my classroom to evaluate;
They’ll see through me and realize that I’m not so great.
I hear them whispering in the hall.
I see the writing on the wall.
Teachers have anxiety in the fall.

Or listen to teacher Peggy Woods:

It’s the first day of classes. I go to my class. The students are all there sitting quietly looking at me. I put my bag on top of the teacher’s desk and begin taking my stuff out. I take out my pen, my grade book, the class roster, and my lesson planning book. I look in my bag, but I don’t see the syllabus. I look again. I know I made copies of the syllabus. I’m supposed to give it out and go over it with the students.  I look in my bag again. The copies I made aren’t there. I begin to panic. Did I leave the syllabus on my desk? Did I drop the copies in the hallway on my way to class? Did I leave the copies home? I look in my bag again. The syllabus still isn’t there. I look out at the students. They are all staring at me. What am I going to do??  
 
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t have the syllabus.”
 
The students stand up.
 
“What are you doing?”  I say. The students don’t say anything. They just stand there.
 
“Sit down,” I say beginning to panic. They don’t. “Please,” I plead. “Please sit down.”
 
“We don’t have to listen to you,” a student yells at me.
 
“We don’t have to do what you tell us to do,” another student shouts.
 
“Sit down,” I shout back. The students start moving towards the door. “Where are you going?” I shout. “What are you doing?” I shout louder. “Come back here….”
 

And then I wake up.

So common among teachers, these dreams keep many teachers sleepless especially in the days before school begins.

Second, teachers are not the only ones whose worries surface in dreams.

Doctors do also.

For me, however, it is puzzling. I am a grizzled veteran of the classroom not a new teacher struggling to manage a class and deliver lessons that engage my students. Nor am I working in a poverty-impacted school; I am fortunate to work in well-endowed surroundings with strong graduate students who elect to take my seminar. Finally, I do not work under district, state, and federal accountability pressures to have my students score well on high-stakes standardized tests.

So why does a seasoned professional, a veteran of decades in practicing the art and craft of teaching still gets nervous and dream of doing poorly in an upcoming seminar?

Part of an answer comes being in an helping profession. Teachers, psychotherapists, doctors, social workers, and nurses use their expertise to transform minds, develop skills, deepen insights, cope with feelings and mend bodily ills. In doing so, these helping professions share similar predicaments.

*Expertise is never enough.  An experienced primary care physician facing a chain-smoking patient knows that this high risk behavior often leads to lung cancer—even the patient knows that—yet the doctor’s knowledge and skills are insufficient to get the private equity fund CEO to quit.

Some high school teachers of science with advanced degrees in biology, chemistry, and physics believe that lessons should be inquiry driven and filled with hands-on experiences while other colleagues, also with advanced degrees, differ. They argue that naïve and uninformed students must absorb the basic principles of biology, chemistry, and physics through rigorous study before they do any “real world” work in class.

In one case, there is insufficient know-how to stop a patient from smoking and, in the other instance, knowledgeable science teachers split over how students can best learn science. As important as expertise is to helping professionals, it falls short for not only the reasons stated above but also because these professionals depend upon their clients, patients, and students to learn and become knowledgeable, healthier people.

*Helping professionals are dependent upon their clients’ cooperation. While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications the physician is stuck.

Teachers at all levels of schooling depend upon students to respond to lessons and learn. Some students, however, are unwilling to participate in lessons. Some  defy the teacher’s authority or are uncommitted to learning what the teacher teaches. Teachers, then, have to figure out what to do in the face of students’ passivity or active resistance.

These predicaments facing even veteran teachers like me mean that all of my knowledge, all of my experience may be insufficient to strike gold in a lesson because I am dependent upon my students. I cannot predict what students will do when I teach. Every time I teach, I have to perform with the fore-knowledge that I may stumble and fall. And that may be why my worries show up in dreams even now.


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The Miracle and the Moment (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a second-career teacher with a master’s in education from Stanford University, with credentials in math, history, and English. She will start her fourth year of teaching in the fall.

My best moment as a teacher–so far–came right after a miracle.

It was the end of the school year. I was teaching a unit on Elizabethan theater in my freshman humanities class, and on this day the students delved briefly into the sonnet. With reading abilities ranging from fifth grade to college-level, they wouldn’t all be capable of close analysis, but that was beyond the scope of my lesson anyway. I just wanted to give the students an hour of listening to and thinking about sonnets, with the hope that they would later be able to tell me later that sonnets had 14 lines.

I’d chosen five poems; three because they are high on the list of Sonnets: All-Time Greatest Hits, making them useful content knowledge (and they are, still, beautiful). The other two are personal favorites that never fail to astound me with their power (and they are, still, well-known).

I played the poems in chronological order. First up were Shakepeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” and Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud.” The students listened politely and, when the reading finished, wrote their initial response. Most of the kids wrote for five minutes as required; some of them scribbled a few desultory thoughts and then waited out the clock. The kids then shared their responses in a class discussion. I threw in some literary terms as needed. Things were going well.

Third in line was the Milton sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” a poem drenched in grief, loss, and longing, a poem I’ve loved since adolescence, a poem that I thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t entirely understand.

And so the miracle.

Ian Richardson recited the poem. I had no projector that day; they only heard his voice. You should click the Youtube link above, to hear it.

When his voice faded away, I opened my mouth to instruct them to write their response….and then closed it again. The kids were just sitting there, stunned.

A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”

“Sad,” Sadie finished.

“Devastating,” Melissa added.

“Tragic,” said Kylie.

“Beautiful,” from Narciso.

“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….

“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.

I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”

And then I told them that Milton was blind.

“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”

“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.

The comments came fairly quickly; I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.

I always think of those minutes as the miracle. Was it their response to the poem? My recognition of their response, my decision to keep my mouth mercifully shut (a rare event of itself)? I honestly don’t know. But no sensible teacher would ever plan such perfection as twenty-some-odd adolescents with no particular interest in literature being touched to the core by a Milton sonnet.

Of course, nothing about that miracle improved my students’ academic skills. Some of them spelled “feel” with an a, “wife” with no e’s, and “grief” with two. Had I wanted to push on and ask them to analyze Milton’s use of metaphor in an organized essay, no more than five of the students would have even known where to start, even though they’d written several analytical essays that year.

Moreover, had I been observed by an administrator that day, I would have been dinged in several important areas. I wasn’t helping the students make progress on ELA standards. The students had no vocabulary list to define by reading the words in context. They had no pre-reading guide explaining key concepts. They hadn’t been given specific learning objectives, and had no clear writing template to follow for their responses. The literature was focused entirely on Western lit (four dead white guys, one dead white chick).

I knew that at the time, and know it even better now. I didn’t care.

Don’t get me wrong; I support standards. I believe that state tests measure important information. I want my students to demonstrate improvement, and find it entirely reasonable that schools should be held accountable for student academic progress.

But I’d spent the ELA portion of that year focused on standards-approved objectives. I’d pushed through Twelfth Night, an obscure Indian novel, and Filipino magical realism literature, texts that a number of my students couldn’t understand even if they’d wanted to—and many of them didn’t. I’d assigned them essays that they wrote by rote by design, using the irritating Shaffer chunk method, a routine that the strongest writers found limiting and dull (the rest listlessly followed the rules to write sentences they didn’t mean and hadn’t thought about). Meanwhile, I couldn’t spend too much time helping students remember the importance of spelling “wife” and “grief” properly, or of constructing a simple sentence that expressed thoughts that they did care about, although I did create my own customized SSR/SSW program that gave them time to gain content knowledge and informal writing skills.

All I wanted was a day dedicated to listening to, and thinking about, sonnets that connected the poetry to the history of Elizabethan theater, the larger unit.

We moved on. They found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” pretty shallow, after the intensities of the three previous poems. (“She loves him yeah, yeah, yeah” wrote one student, a la the Beatles tune.) But Robert Frost’s “Design” went over very well. Although they weren’t able to visualize the poem’s tableau the first time through, they wanted to know more because on that day, at least, they were beginning to realize that confusing poetry can make sense with more context and information. When they learned the “white heal-all” was usually blue, they asked to listen again.

After the second recitation, I told them to underline the last two lines: What but design of darkness to appall? If design govern in a thing so small. Then I reminded them of the Calvin and Hobbes raccoon story, and the panel that shows Calvin hiding under the bed: “It’s either mean or it’s arbitrary, and either way I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.” They got the connection immediately.

“So was Calvin and Hobbes copying Frost?” one student asked.

“No. They’re both illustrating the same theme. The world can be an unforgiving, cruel place. Is it part of some great plan? Do things happen for a reason–Design, as Frost says–or is it arbitrary and random, as Calvin worries? And which is scarier to contemplate?”

“Does that happen a lot?” asked Alexandra. “Do people write about the same thing in different ways?”

“Funny you should ask. Listen to this song and tell me what sonnet explores the same theme.”

The specific logistics of this lesson were fuzzy until 30 minutes before class, when I belatedly realized that professional recitations were obviously superior to my original vague thought of the students reading the poems to themselves. But the sonnet and this song had been in the lesson since I’d originally conceived of it, several weeks earlier. In fact, the song may have been the unconscious premise of the entire lesson. Still, I hadn’t really expected them all to be familiar with John Mayer, adult contemporary pop crooner.

I was therefore caught entirely off-guard when the opening strums of “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” came over the speakers and the class exploded with energy and excitement. Everyone in the room instantly knew the song and recognized the connection. Some students literally jumped up and down as they realized that over three hundred years earlier, poets had gotten there first, that all those years ago grief and sadness, loss and longing were still best told in verse, not prose, and they began feverishly writing, underlining and circling words to make it clear that John Mayer and John Milton were writing about the same thing.

Looking out over a class nearly incoherent with excitement at their new awareness and understanding, I bit my lip hard to stop from crying and told myself ferociously to just enjoy the gift of a perfect moment.

Like all teachers without tenure, I spend a lot of time job-hunting. Along with the obsessive, hopefully illogical, worry that I won’t find a new position comes a litany of memories, favorite moments I won’t find in any other life, moments when I know I made a difference, when I helped students feel more competent, have more confidence, feel a greater awareness of the world or how it works. And of those moments, this is the one I remember first.

Yet not a second of that moment had anything to do with test scores, with measurable academic outcomes, with improved reading ability, or the correct spelling of “wife” or “grief.”

Do truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks need to write compare and contrast essays on sonnets? Probably not. But surely, at some point in the past, our educational system gave truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks a sense of the beauty of the world, our heritage, the history of our country–and, ideally, the ability to spell “wife” and “grief.”

Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.

Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.

Naturally, anyone on the “college for all” bandwagon, reformers and progressives both, would vehemently deny such beliefs. But the logic of their demands is inescapable. Students have no way to step off the college train. They can’t say “Hey, I don’t want to take trigonometry. I just want an interesting math class.” or “No more lab science; can I just take a writing class that focuses on modern ethical issues in medicine?” or “Can’t I just read and write without having to think like an English lit major?” Denying them that choice leaves failure as the only other option. That lack of options betrays the value system at the heart of those who deny education the right to sort by abilities and interest.

Obsessed with ending the achievement gap, our current educational policy pushes everyone down the same college path and then blames the teachers when they don’t get the desired results. Lost in these demands are the millions of students who are doomed to years of boredom and, worse, a sense of inadequacy-lost, that is, until the teachers are blamed, again, for failing to help them achieve more.

And so, many people will read of my miracle and that perfect moment and point out that my students hadn’t improved their skills. Yet I defy them to say I didn’t teach my kids something important that day.

I don’t know if my students even remember the day. I’m certain they never think of the lesson as an important moment, much less a miracle. But I am also certain that in that moment, all of them understood—some for the first time—that they could understand and empathize with great poetry. They realized intuitively that art could explore themes and ideas using metaphors so powerful that artists return to them time and again over centuries. They learned, too, that this knowledge had value and meaning to them—not because it made them better readers or writers, or got them better grades, but simply because that knowledge led them to a better understanding of beauty….and so, of life.

And it is of moments like this one that teachers think of when they say that education is more than a test score.

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

How A Taxi Ride Changed My Life (Ed Bridges)

Ed Bridges is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. His focus on educational administration, leadership, principal preparation, and problem-based learning has earned him the respect of colleagues and students for decades. We have been colleagues and friends for over 30 years. He gave this commencement address June 17, 2012 at the Stanford University School of Education.

It is an honor and a privilege to be your commencement speaker. After accepting the invitation to be your speaker, I consulted my oldest and one of my dearest friends. Since he had served as the president of four Canadian universities and the Chairman of the Board for the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, I knew that he had listened to many commencement speeches and delivered a few as well. Over a Guinness, I said, “George, what advice could you give me?” He paused, leaned over, and spoke softly and slowly. Here is what he said, “A commencement speaker is like a body at an Irish wake; the organizers need you for the party and don’t expect you to say much.”

I intend to follow my friend’s advice and talk briefly about how my life was changed following a taxi cab ride I took more than 40 years ago. However, before recounting this story, let me preface my remarks with a few things that don’t appear in my bio or curriculum vitae. They provide a context for the important lesson I learned during my taxi cab ride.

Elliott Eisner speaks of career planning as an oxymoron. John Krumboltz refers to professional careers as a happenstance. Both of my colleagues are right as far as I am concerned. To their cogent observations, I would add the words spoken nearly 41 years ago by one of my three sons, then six. At the dinner table one evening, my son said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a baseball player. What do you want to be when you grow down?” How prophetic that question was. Since retiring, my height has shrunk two inches, and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next.

My professional career certainly had a life of its own. As a 16 year old, I walked across the stage at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, MO to receive my high school diploma. Having received first place in the state for a news story I had written for the school newspaper which I edited, I planned to enter the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and become a reporter. To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a Gandy Dancer, an occupation immortalized in a song titled, “The Gandy Dancers Ball.” Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in box cars on a railroad siding. The closest I came to journalism school was to marry one of its graduates, Marjorie Anne Pollock, who became the reporter in the family. Next month we celebrate our 58th wedding anniversary and a wonderful life together.

Now let me turn briefly to that fateful taxi cab ride and the lesson I learned that had a profound effect on my life. The lesson I learned concerns choices.

Every choice involves a sacrifice, for oneself and for others. That statement is hardly profound; however, its consequences are. Oftentimes, we are so blinded by our wants and desires that we ignore the sacrifices inherent in the choices we make. My work in the shoe factory and later as a Gandy Dancer led me to appreciate that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen. Many years ago I flagged a cab in Chicago and began a conversation with the cabby. Here is what he said that influenced my life:

“I wanted a nice home for my family in the city, a summer home on Lake Michigan, and a car for my wife and each of my two children. To afford these, I needed to work two full time jobs. We had the nice home, the summer home on Lake Michigan and cars for everyone in the family. My wife divorced me, and my children would have nothing to do with me. By working two jobs, I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had. What I had was more important to me than what I wanted.”

This cabby, fine man that he was, was so blinded by his desires that he failed to consider the sacrifices for his family and himself. Sadly, this is an all too common mistake.

Equally sad, if I had been riding with the same cabby today, I probably would not have learned this valuable lesson. Instead of listening to him, I would have been talking on my cell phone, surfing the internet with my smart phone, texting, or tweeting.

In light of this cabby’s story, let me ask each of you in the audience and on stage two questions, each one a variant of the same question.

  1. What are the three or four most important things in your life?
  2. What sacrifices are you unwilling to make no matter what the choice or opportunity is?

These are tougher questions to answer than you might think and even more difficult to act upon.

Not too long after the cabby told me his story, I created a mental list of the things in life that meant the most to me. This list exerted a major influence over my choices for the rest of my professional career:

1. my family

2. my students including teaching and advising

3. my research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have added a fourth—my own personal health.

For some reason faculty meetings did not make my list.

Thanks to that cabby, I can enter the check-out line when my time comes with few regrets. I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. I have several really close friends, the kinds who feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other. Strangely, the more I paid attention to the sacrifices and set aside my desire for professional recognition, the more recognition I received.

At every Irish wake, it is customary to offer a toast to the body. Instead, let me offer a toast to this year’s graduates. May you experience success, enjoy your journey, and end your life with few regrets because you did not let your desires blind you to the sacrifices inherent in your choices.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching