Monday, August 1, 2011

A Minor Musing: A League Of Ordinary Teachers Edition

This Ellie Herman LA Times editorial illustrates other flaws in the search for a superhero teacher.  Herman concludes,
And that's my biggest problem with the myth of the extraordinary teacher. The myth says it doesn't matter whether the crazy kid in the back makes me laugh so hard I forget what we were talking about, or two brilliant kids refuse to accept my rubrics, scrawling their long-winded objections as a two-part argument that circles over every square inch of the backs of their essays — the makeup of the class, the nature of each student and the number of students are immaterial as long as I'm at the top of my game.

But nobody talks that way about the children of the wealthy, who can pay for individual attention in tutoring or private schools with small classes. I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can't demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.

Our children — even our children growing up in poverty, especially our children growing up in poverty — deserve to have not only an extraordinary teacher but a teacher who has time to read their work, to listen, to understand why they're crying or sleeping or not doing homework.

To teach each child in my classroom, I have to know each child in my classroom. We teachers need to bring not only our extraordinariness but our flawed and real and ordinary humanity to this job, which involves a complex and ever-changing web of relationships with children who often need more than we can give them.

I'm willing to work as hard as I can to be an excellent teacher, but as a country we have to admit that I'll never be excellent if we continue to slash education budgets and cut teachers, which is what's actually happening in California despite all our talk of excellence, particularly in schools that serve poor children. Until we stop that, we'll never have equal education in this country.
Ariel Sacks does a bit more mythbusting:
I'm realizing once again, but in a new light, that it's not enough for teachers to simply strive to be great teachers inside our classrooms.  In fact, I doubt it's even possible anymore in many teaching contexts. There is deep and widespread misunderstanding of what our work is about and what it entails.  This misunderstanding, confounded by other, separate, factors and interests--such as privatization, a failing economy, a widening gap between wealthy and poor--is leading to policies that do not support great teaching and healthy youth.
 Sacks uses this David Labaree article, which is unfortunately hidden behind a pay wall, to conclude,
There are so many different ways to teach that meet basic professional standards, and there are many different outcomes we care about--short term, long terms, fact-based, idea-based, intellectual, interpersonal, creative, physical, etc.  Also uncertain is who is the client for teachers--students, parents, society, or the school board who signs the teacher's contract?  He adds,
"As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce. If we can't agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not? Effective at what? One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens. Another is to create productive workers. A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity. These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can't accomplish them all with the same methods."
Mack's saying more concisely the point that I try to make at the end of this post.

During her excellent editorial, Herman points out,
On a good day, about a fourth of my students don't do the reading or the homework; if I set up a conference after school, they might show up and they might not. Why? Because one kid thinks he has an STD, and another girl's brother just got out of juvie, and another guy wandered to the ice cream truck and forgot. Because they're teenagers. Because they're human.
Their humanity, as Sacks explains, means that
. . . students make choices in the classroom--the choice to learn or not to learn.  No one can force a child to do anything.  The teacher's job includes figuring out what motivates large numbers of individuals with their own interests, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and senses every day.
A classroom contains a bunch of imperfect humans.  As this Evolving English Teacher says about another context,
Critics of teaching Shakespeare as having no relevance to teens, especially minorities whom the critics claim can't see themselves in the Bard's characters, need look no further than Shylock's reminder that we all share in one commonality: We are human beings, and each person deserves the same humanity we expect from others. [emphasis mine]
 Emphasizing their humanity is one quality that escapes most superheroes.

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