Tag Archives | Education

Lessons Learned From the Classroom

Though it’s taken some time and too many complications to count, I can finally say with confidence that I’ve arrived at what I consider a teacher’s professional nirvana. To say this another way is to say I get it. Not part of it. Not even most of it. I get all of it and I have come to appreciate my life through the fortunate lens of the educator.

While many admire and respect what I contribute to society through teaching (considered “noble” by many), others believe there’s more to my life than a classroom. Perhaps the inspiration for these questions is my demeanor, the way I question life and reality, or find ways to put on a smile and bring people together. All of that is only quantifiable if we could create a way to measure attitude and perspective, but make no mistake- I love what I do because it’s all about the life of a teacher. It’s where the magic begins. And ends!

Justifying my role as a teacher to others who assume I should have aspirations beyond a classroom is sometimes taxing. Since when has enough been enough? I feel isolated by this question because it implies that even though what I am doing is seen as good and giving, there must be some ambition within me to become something more. Whether for financial gain or to become more “professional”, what is the motivation for anyone to ask this question? It’s somewhat demeaning and not acceptable. I don’t ask my postal carrier if she aspires to become the PostMaster General. Nor do I see fit to ask the line cook at my favorite restaurant if he wants to work at a Michelin starred restaurant. As if this “noble” profession of teaching needs justification! Let us do what we do in peace and allow our energies to be spent on classroom instruction or placing post in a box or dropping frozen fries into the fryer and not on developing a plan to instruct the inquisitive around us why world economics and democratic consumerism don’t necessarily relate to a profession that is a calling to too many.

I once heard that a teacher will begin to feel like they know what they are doing after three years. While I have repeated this idea, I don’t believe in its truth and wonder if other professions have similar time assumptions. There is joy in finally understanding teaching so fully that to retool and redesign lessons happens instantaneously. More profound is the need for collaboration to bridge ideas and branch expectations beyond what is common to our own lives.

Each year I have come to expect the world from my classroom and its’ learners, but it’s the classes themselves- the living and breathing network of thinking souls- that drive where they end up. I can’t imagine being a teacher bound by curriculum so strict that to stray from a lesson would lead to alienation to others in the department or district. At the same time I wonder how often those teachers do stray from their designed standards to teach what’s common, what’s human, those ideas that connect the mind with learning. It’s why each 4th quarter I begin to look ahead to the next school year and starting fresh with another group of world changers.

This profession of teaching is not an anomaly nor is it beyond the realm of the common. We are all learners which means that our interactions with this world become the fodder for everyone’s ability to educate and teach. My teaching experience gives me the insight for opportunities that I would have either overlooked when I started or was too uncomfortable to discuss. Earlier this school year riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. As protests spread across the country I became enamored by the passion I saw in the faces of those seeking justice and equality. This is not a new concept, but each time we are faced with the painful reality that we aren’t as removed from the past as we thought then we each need to pay more attention to what we contribute to a solution. All of this learning isn’t about an us versus them (and when I hear anyone term others as “them” I cringe), it’s about us. Sometimes education needs to be simple.

Would I have the same impact on students and thinking as an administrator or district representative? It’s unclear. Very few of the dozens of administrators I’ve worked with possess the magic of connection. Meanwhile I sit in my classroom every day and interact with thinkers, observers, students who have a future filled with endless possibilities. My concern is not based on a state test or multiple choice exam. My concern is with seeing this world and all we interact with through a critical eye. It’s a human right to question. To think. To consider how our choices impact where things come from or where they are going. To find a space where we fit and connect. Because we do.

And there’s the beauty. Love where you’re at and make the impact you have on others positive and refreshing. I know the joy that comes with biting on crispy too-hot-to-eat-yet fries and from letters received from friends and family. These jobs and the humans that bring them to life are the heartbeat of our society. So next time smile when you walk to the mailbox for the surprise that might be awaiting you. Next time you’re out to dinner peer into the kitchen and give some thumbs-ups to the line cooks and dishwashers who are putting the pieces of a meal together exactly how you want it. Their impact on us reflects our impact on each other as we deliver respect as crisply and as quickly as we can.

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In Praise of Biased Educators

When discussing education today, everyone seems to agree that it needs to be reformed, although there is often a disagreement on how that should be accomplished. No matter what a person’s opinion may be, one thing is in common: everyone uses standardized testing data as the jumping off point for these discussions. Pundits worry about America’s international standing, districts worry about scores that may or may not signal a government intervention, and administrators worry about whether or not they will be called on the carpet by the district office for test scores.

Although teachers and districts have begun refusing to give these tests (here and here), those efforts, in the context of the hundreds of thousands of standardized tests that are administered every year, are relatively few and far between. Those teachers, and many more of them, should continue to resist standardized testing as a waste of instructional time when teachers should be teaching. Yet, that begs the question: instead of using time for testing, what should we be teaching?

The new catchphrase on everyone’s lips is “college and career ready,” a popularity that is in large part due to the new Common Core standards. The idea is that whether a student is destined for college or a career, that student will be ready for the intellectual and academic demands (i.e., problem-solving and critical thinking, analytical reading, and articulate writing) of his or her chosen path. However, in reality, many high schools focus only on the college part, to the detriment of everything else. Electives, the category that includes shop and technical classes, fall by the wayside during budget cuts and are rarely replaced in times of plenty. As shown here, state and local districts are so focused on college preparedness that career education is becoming extinct. So, schools really, for the most part, focus on preparing kids for college.

But, let’s assume that schools really are preparing our students for college classes and for careers. We condemn students to sixteen years of school (K-12 and 4 yr. BA/BS), constantly telling them that it is in their best interest. Educators rarely listen to students who say that college isn’t for them, telling them that they need to be prepared and go anyways. Why is that? Because we, as educators, know the statistics that students do not know or care enough to consider: that people with more education generally make more money than those with less. So we try to convince them that the monotonous and often irrelevant almost two decades of schooling is for their own good. Often, the AP and Honors students buy into this idea hook-line-and-sinker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a student in an English III Honors class that went something like this:

Student: Sir, I need an A.
Me: You already have a B+. That’s a really good grade, too. Why do you need an A?
Student: So I can have a good GPA (grade point average).
Me: Why?
Student: So I can go to a good college.
Me: Why?
Student: So I can get a good paying job.
Me: Why?
Student: So I can support my family, and have a comfortable place to live.
Me: But, will any of that make you happy?

(student pauses for thirty seconds to a minute, clearly perplexed)

Student: I don’t know. No one has asked me that before.

The typical student in his or her junior year in America is sixteen or seventeen years old, and about a year from graduating into the adult world of college and/or careers. In all those years and all those teachers, no one asked this student about what the student wanted. Instead, the educational system kept telling that student, along with the hundreds of thousands of others in the nation, that money should be the primary goal. Get money; then, and only then, think about your happiness.

Giving educators the benefit of the doubt, they are trying to do what they think is best for their students. It is becoming increasingly clear that America is being governed by two separate set of laws: one set for the rich and another for the poor (see Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap). Additionally, the “rags to riches” ethos has been part of American culture for a long time, as we see by Horatio Alger stories and the success stories of people like Bill Gates. So, education has been reduced to telling students, “Set your dreams aside. Get good grades. Go to college. Make money.” Many of the educational reforms of the past decades deal with giving students the skills needed in a college or career, to aid in the effort of making money; they deal with the what of teaching, not the why. Yet, is that enough?

Resoundingly, I say no.

In the essay, “Objections to Objectivity,” historian and social activist, Howard Zinn, discusses a similar concern with education. Educators are expected to be objective disseminators of received facts and information, uncolored by personal belief or bias, so that students will be “educated” and “smart.” However, Zinn argues that being objective is a disservice to students. He writes:

Surely, how “smart” a person is on history tests like the one devised by the Times, how “educated” someone is, tells you nothing about whether that person is decent or indecent, violent or peaceful, whether that person will resist evil or become a consultant to warmakers, will become a Pastor Niemoller (a German who resisted the Nazis) or an Albert Speer (who worked for them), a Lieutenant Calley (who killed children at My Lai) or a Flight Officer Thompson (who tried to save them). (41)

Whether or not a student gets good grades or gets a well paying job says nothing about the kind of person that he or she is or will be in the future. It was those with the highest paying jobs at the biggest of national and international banks that created the subprime mortgage crisis that adversely affected the lives of millions and the economies of dozens of countries. The pursuit of money and grades is no indicator of whether or not these students will be a boon or a burden to their neighbors, families, communities, and nations-even the world. Telling students to make money and a job their goal is to encourage them to get onto the “winning” side of our society, instead of doing something about the injustices that pervade it.

Instead, writes Zinn, “Everyone needs to learn history, the kind that does not put its main emphasis on knowing presidents and statutes and Supreme Court decisions, but inspires a new generation to resist the madness of governments trying to carve the world and our minds into their spheres of influence” (41-42). To his statement, I would add corporations right next to governments as entities that must be resisted. Zinn was a historian, so naturally his remarks pertain to the teaching of history, especially at the college level since he was a professor. In high school AP History classes, rote memorization of facts is often emphasized. But, in my own field, English Literature, I couldn’t care less if students remember what a synecdoche or chiasmus or a metaphor or a plot mountain is in ten years’ time. Any novel I teach, I choose with this idea in mind: “How can it help these students question accepted values and ideas? How can it help teach students compassion for others? How can I open them up to the problems and suffering of the downtrodden that they would rather ignore?” I will not tell them what to think or how to solve a problem, but I refuse to accept the status quo in the name of objectivity. It isn’t good enough.

Do I want them to read and write well? Of course I do. But I want them to be able to read and write well so that they can make sense of their surroundings and not be manipulated by governments and corporations that would gladly grind them into dust in order to make a quick buck and maintain power. I want them to read and write well so that they can each fight the injustices of our society. The teaching of literature, of anything, should be to open them up to the problems of the world and encourage them to solve them-to fight them-to resist; education cannot be about money. Insofar as education is about money, it becomes a tool in a system that regularly kills creativity and oppresses the poor.

To be objective is to accept the political and societal goals of a curriculum that is part of the system. That is why I am, and always will be, a biased educator.

– Zinn, Howard. “Objections to Objectivity.” Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013. 29-42. Print.

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