Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ranting...about Teachers and Teaching

Let's get a couple of things straight before I go further.

Teaching is an art form.  Teachers, like everyone else practicing an art, range from mastering this art form to not understanding how it works and doing it anyway.

Teaching is a very important job.

I love teachers and I honor them for taking on this job.  I wouldn't do it no matter how much you paid me because I would suck at it.

I'm a teaching artist.  I can be in a classroom for about a week, and then I'm done.  I don't ever have to go back, and I typically don't want to.  Teachers go into those rooms everyday and fight all the crap that comes their way in hopes of morphing the little people into more knowledgable little people before they send them on to the next year.

I have two gifted children, and I can say unequivocally that their abilities flourish with great teachers, and they languish when teachers are not good.  Because they are gifted in multiple areas, they have enviable GPAs and they do well, but there is a distinct difference in their experiences when the teachers are masters of teaching.

In North Carolina, and perhaps other places, there is some idea that non teachers who never were taught to be teachers and therefore are not certified, make much better teachers than people who have gone through educational training.  They have lots of these folks in classrooms.

I am sure that some of them are actually good teachers because they understand the art of teaching and they have transitioned into the classroom after doing things in the private sector or army that built skills that make them good teachers.  This, however, is by no means true of all of them.  Some go into the classroom with this bizarre arrogance that they are better than 'teachers'.

My daughter has one of these...transplants this year.  He announced on the first day that he didn't want to be thought of as a 'teacher'.  He said the word with a rather condescending tone.  Somehow, he is above teaching.  My daughter, who is high school, found this alarming.  If he isn't going to teach, she wondered, what on earth is he doing in a school?  Well, within a couple of days she discovered that he was doing teachers a service by not calling himself a teacher.

This man is a horrible teacher.  His ideas about what education could be are great.  His ability to translate this information into actual instruction is abysmal.  My daughter feels like the kids in the honors class are learning the material despite his best efforts.  The rest of the kids in his other classes are not doing as well.

He over explains easy concepts, but as soon as something is theoretical or complicated, he knows how to do the equations...he knows his stuff, he's a brilliant man...but he has no idea how to tell the students why it works or even how to break it down and think about it.  He has no idea how to teach the underpinnings of the theoretical math he is teaching.  He often requires them to do things he has not explained, introduced or alluded to.  When they don't do it right he seems to gloat at their lack of knowledge.

My daughter feels like he enjoys rubbing their noses in the fact that he knows things they don't know, and they have to pry the information out of him rather than him presenting it and helping them understand how it works.

He doesn't typically answer questions when a kid is confused.  He just says, 'Think about it.'

On the rare occasion he does attempt to answer a question, he often creates more confusion than clarification.

My daughter recently asked him about an explanation for why a certain function is plotted on a particular axis in a graph about the conservation of energy.  He went to the board and began talking and writing extensive equations with symbols and language that none of the students had ever encountered before.  He went on in this fashion for five minutes.  Only after he'd gone through this exercise with his back turned towards the kids the entire time did he turn around to discover the students staring at him in confusion.  He looked back at the board and then at my daughter and said, "I don't think I answered your question."  My daughter's response was, "I don't think you did either."

One of the other kids in the class attempted to condense his long rambling, bewildering speech into something that resembled sense.  The teacher looked at him and said, "That's not right."
He then moved on to something else without ever answering the question.

My daughter has a high A in this class, but that's because she spends time outside of class teaching herself physics using the breadcrumbs this fellow stingily drops, the internet and her father's recollections of the subject.

On the other hand, I was in a school in the Chicagoland area a couple of weeks ago where the principal proudly announced that she has two Golden Apple teachers.  She had me peek into their classrooms.  The gym teacher was playing this wild game called 'Midnight Coyote.' (Don't google this unless you want to see a lot of websites of people hunting coyotes with bb guns at night, which I understand is illegal, but there you have it.)  Anyway, the entire gym is set up in some kind of maze/obstacle course, the kids move about sitting on these rolling boards and some are coyotes and some are hunters.  They move through this maze in the dark with glow sticks and dim lights.  It is a kind of tagging game.  The kids had a blast.  Apparently, the version that I saw is hailed as the best set up in the area.  People come to this school to observe him work with the kids.

The other teacher was a second grade teacher.  The principal told me that she has to spend lots of time intervening with the higher ups about this teacher.  Her room was filled to brimming with books, charts and interesting games.  The kids were sprawled all over the classroom doing one on one and individual work with their books.  The teacher told me they were reinforcing basic reading skills that deal with contextual reading.  They were using a variety of books, no cookie cutter, 'everyone has to be doing the same thing at the same time' in her classroom.  There were word games and story games going on in this room.  Kids were writing, reading and interacting.  it was cool.  Her class scores off the charts consistently on the end of grade tests, but she doesn't teach to the tests, imagine.  Of course, her principal goes to bat for her and stands up to anyone who tries to make her conform.

Teaching is extremely important.  I have no quick answers to how we make education better, but I know it starts with treating teachers with more respect, understanding how important they are and paying them what they are worth.  Let's acknowledge that we need them and that they are performing a service we need.

Can we create great teachers?  Maybe.
Can we create good teachers?  Definitely.
Can we give teachers the resources they need to teach?  That's the easy one.

If we started Kindergarten teachers on a salary of 90, 000 dollars a year, we'd get a wider variety of people trying to get those jobs.  We'd also put more value in them.

Businesses have different models.  Some succeed and some fail.  We need to learn to let teachers teach us how to educate children, not impose know nothing standards on them.

Nobody tells a basketball player that there is only one way to make a jump shot.
Nobody tells a painter there is only one way to create art.
Nobody tells storytellers there is only one right way to tell a folktale.

For heaven's sakes!  Let teachers teach!  Train teachers in the art of teaching!  Get out of the way and let them lead us!

Oh, and one more thing...teachers should out earn their administrative staff.  Not because these people aren't important, but because the support staff is support staff.  The superintendent should not out earn the teachers by three or four times.  You shouldn't be allowed to be a superintendent or a principal unless you've put in lots and lots of time in the classroom.  We break education when we break teaching.

End this madness and let us rebuild our system with teachers as our model for how to proceed!

Okay, I'm done.


  1. I am emailing this to my daughter who is getting her MAT in Education at UIC.....this is so well written...

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and reading my blog. I have a passion for teaching, and a strong respect for people who come to this profession. Thank you for raising someone who will be following in this grand tradition!