Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

The following is the prologue for a work in progress about—you guessed it—teaching. It may become a real book some day, I hope, or, at the very least, a series of related blog entries.

Prologue

Imagine, it’s August, and I am in the last few days, minutes, and moments of what we call in the field of education, the summer break. I have four week days and a weekend, plus what remains of this day, a Monday, in which to do all of the things I have not yet been able to do, more of the things I have been doing and would like to do more of, and some things I’m sure I do not want to do, like anything related to going back to work, like planning, or work in general, like painting the house. And yet, here I am at my laptop, about to begin writing about WORK, or about teaching, probably in order to avoid planning or painting. I have wanted to write about my life as a teacher for many years now. I have written about it in a number of ways, in fits and starts, off and on since I began in this career twenty some years ago. I’ve got a lot to say about that twenty years but what I have been searching for over the last five or six years in which I have been actively thinking about a book, is a form, a way of speaking, a kind of writing, an appropriate vehicle for what I have experienced and learned and for some god awful reason feel compelled to share with others. I’ve written some fiction about teaching. I’ve written a number of poems about it. I’ve written op-ed pieces for the edification of my colleagues. I’ve written memos. As I write this, though, I still don’t know what my book will look like. I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to write a book for teachers about how to be better teachers. I don’t know the first thing about that. I don’t want to write a book for students about how to be better students. I know a little bit about that but I think it would be didactic and boring. I want to write about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve come to believe about all things educational with a general reader in mind, involved in education or not, one who cares about what teaching and learning is like in an American Suburban High School, one who has concerns about the way education is or is not shaping up in this milieu, one who thinks it’s important to think and talk about these things, a reader who has a head on her shoulders (though she does not have to be a woman), one who simply wants to go on a little exploratory ramble through the heart and mind of one who is, as they say, in the trenches. I guess this is a kind of memoir, or a manifesto, or right now, a blog series. You’re welcome to join me.

Twenty years is a long time. But who’s counting? Ten years ago, I thought no way in Hell would I be doing this same work for another twenty years until I retired. Ten years fly by and I’m two-thirds of the way there, and I’m thinking, wow, that was fast, and twenty years doesn’t seem like such a long time anymore. I could blink right now and when I opened my eyes I’d be 55. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not counting. And I’m not ready to be 55. And I enjoy this work. It’s rewarding. It feels, for the most part, like a good use of my skills and my time on the planet. I’ve flirted with the idea of teaching college students because I thought that that might be a better fit for me, and I’ve flirted with the idea of other careers, both fantasies that are mainstays from my youth, those of being a professional writer and a professional musician. I say fantasies, not because I think those things may never happen for me, but because they are dreams, quasi-practical vocations, extremely compelling hobbies, ones I plan never to give up on and ones at which I still believe I stand a chance of attaining some success. But if I do, like I say I do, enjoy the work of a high school teacher, why all this flirting, then, with college kids and writing and music? I’ll tell you why. Public high school teaching is difficult work. And herein lies the general thesis for the book, or the blog series, on which I am embarking, and of which you are probably reading this minute, god bless you.

While I read them and am inspired by them to a certain degree, I am tired of books written by people who know all the answers, who have a “thing going on,” who pretend to have a great number of issues figured out. Maybe I’m just jealous: I don’t know any of the answers, I don’t have a “thing going on,” I have a number of issues figured out that I could count with two-fifths of the fingers on one of my hands. My feeling has been, no matter how solid their research and how impressive their credentials or how brilliant their ideas, they’re always writing about and recommending something that is just outside the realm of possibility. Why is that? Again, because the work is difficult and the answers to our problems and our prayers, if we pray, that come to us in these manifestos written by Education Professors are not entirely practical in the everyday real life of teachers. We can only flirt with these things, experiment enough to make us dangerous, implement enough to make minute differences in the lives of our students or in the tenor of our classrooms, but not enough to make substantive changes in our field. I understand that reform in education moves at the pace of evolution, almost, you know, like it has taken us almost 4.5 billion years to question the standardized test.

So, here’s what I plan to do. I plan to talk about the difficulty of this work. I plan to describe the fundamental facts of the life of a high school teacher, the facts that make substantive reform and change nearly impossible. But the last thing I want is a piss-fest. I love my work and I hate it. I want, through the course of writing this book or these blogs, to figure out how to love teaching more, how to love it better, how the work might look if we could make substantive changes, what those changes might be; I want to figure these things out, even if, ultimately, this means only that in the end I simply find ways of failing better.

Let’s begin, shall we?

5 Comments

Filed under Introductory, Teaching

5 responses to “Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

  1. Laura Pelofske

    Here’s what I was hinting at in my comment two posts back. Your teaching style is unique. I’ve had a lot of teachers before and after your classes, and you stand out among about 5 altogether, and I’d say you even stand out among those 5. It is definitely not a “thing going on,” “issues figured out” kind of style. It’s more of a start-from-scratch, you kids are people who actually enjoy learning, and might even have some goals you want to reach this year. You didn’t pose as knowledge-containing vessel that would be pouring into our waiting empty brains. You knew there was plenty going on in our brains and you were there to support our learning journeys with your experience and extended educational background. Well… and to help us pass some standardized tests. You were the exact opposite of a math teacher who was dumbfounded when I asked for clarification of a concept when she’d “already read out loud what the book said.”

  2. Thank you, Laura. You don’t know how much this means to us, to hear this kind of thing. It’s why we do it, I think.

  3. Jessica

    Michael, I’m excited to carve out time to read your thoughts on teaching. Often mine are so similar to what you lay out in this entry. A book I’d like to read, and is presented at the enclosed link, has had me thinking this week. I’ve read his book A Whole New Mind with a group of thoughtful community members and fellow educators. Especially with the potential promise of this professional position, I’ve been thinking about motivation, motivations in general– those of my own and my fellow learners. Warm thoughts, Jessica

  4. Jessica, thank you! This clip is phenomenal. Alfie Kohn was right. But you knew that. Who is this guy speaking? Who is the author of A Whole New Mind? Same guy?

    Cheers!

    Michael

    • Jessica

      Michael,
      I’m so glad you liked it.

      I think it is Daniel Pink speaking, as best I can discern; that seems to be RSA.ORG’s approach to their adaptations.
      Daniel Pink is the author of both A Whole New Mind and Drive, the latter is the text captured in the above video. I’ve included below another link of him speaking at TED, with very similar content–perhaps less compellingly shared, but longer and therefore with a few additional nuances, which may help you decide if it is indeed his voice in the RSA clip:

      Sir Ken Robinson also intrigues me. It was lovely to hear him speak live in Ann Arbor, when I still lived there. Perhaps his is work that may inspire your lovely prose, or just keep you thinking along the same lines:
      adapted by RSA

      from TED

      So glad to be in touch intellectually & virtually,
      Jessica

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