Tag Archives: difficult work

Of Fatherhood: The Most Difficult Job Ever Invented

Outside of motherhood, that is.  The way I see it, the three most difficult jobs ever invented, in this order, are motherhood, fatherhood, and teaching in an underfunded public school.  I’ve taken on two out of three.  I find fatherhood exceedingly difficult and this perturbs me.  Whose big idea was it in the first place, inventing fathers?  They’re inefficient.  They’re inconsistent. They don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. They’re trapped in patterns of behavior or responses to behavior that betray their better selves and butt up against what they believe.  They allow 7 year olds to the get the better of them. Some fathers have three college degrees and still–the 7 year olds get the better of them. They can be even-keeled, relatively mellow individuals, and be put often in a state of utter frustration, moral or emotional devastation, and sometimes blind fury–by a 7 year old.

Why is this?  Why can’t it be easier? And here’s the creepy part of it.  Growing up in the world, having been a 7 year old once themselves, perhaps, having become teens, young adults, and  men, accumulating years and years and years of being fathered and watching fathers, either they don’t remember or they never see the kind of difficulty I’m speaking about.  And no one ever discusses it.  Not once did I ever hear my father or my older brothers say about fatherhood, “Man, this is hard, maybe the hardest thing ever.”  I think, if someone would have said that to me, I would have listened, and maybe I would have done some studying over the subject. It’s like a kind of conspiracy–one that was perhaps crucial to the evolution and survival of the species, because, if fathers talked openly to other potential fathers about how difficult the job is, no one would ever take it up. That would be the end of us.  I guess I’m glad my grandfather never had the opportunity to tell my dad how difficult fatherhood had been for him before he keeled over mowing the lawn and died. I might not be here today to have such difficulty being a father.

I recently blogged about a project I’m participating in with my students to follow Benjamin Franklin’s lead to become, by conscious, deliberate effort, morally perfect.  It’s not going well for me.  And TRANQUILITY, number 11 on Franklin’s list, is the virtue that I find most severely lacking this week, especially in relation to–actually only in relation to–fatherhood.  I want to go one day without losing my cool with the resident 7 year old.  One day would be good.  It’d be a start. Listen, I am not a hot head.  Rarely do I get hot headed.  Only in the realm of fatherhood and in the presence of the resident 7 year old do I get hot headed.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t regret becoming a father.  Regret is a fool’s game. And despite the fact that my son is, for the most part, the only one I get physically and verbally angry at, I love him more than any other human being I have ever loved.  When it is good, I can find myself weepy with happiness at his beauty, his wit, his curiosity about the world, his budding bilingualism, his artistic streak, his lovely singing, his rare but heart melting tenderness. When it is  good, it’s really good (and first, I must confess, that it is good 80% of the time, and I’m sure that compared to many fathers on the planet I’ve got nothing to complain about); but when it is not good, it is bad, bad enough to bring a grown and relatively happy man to despair.  That despair is temporary; it passes–but it is about the most awful feeling I know and I wish there was a cure.  To my credit, perhaps, the reason I despair sometimes is simply because I give a shit.  I don’t want to be so lackadaisical about fathering as to become permissive, or to relegate my parenting to television and video games, or to simply walk away from the oppositional and sometimes nasty resident 7 year old, or to be oblivious, uncaring or dismissive about my own anger .  At bottom, and most terrifying, is the fear that the lesson won’t take, that he’ll become resentful, that the opposition will grow, that his teenage years will be just as difficult if not more so. This is a trap, too, I know, and I try diligently not to fall into it.

I have worked with teenagers every day of my real working life now for about 25 years.  It happens that sometimes they get under my skin, make me lose sleep, disturb my tranquility, make me angry, but it is rare, especially in comparison to the challenges presented by the resident 7 year old.  So, I take that as a sign that every year fatherhood will get easier and easier.  But I don’t have to live with the teenagers under my charge–so maybe it would be totally different and equally difficult if we were under the same roof on a permanent basis.  That’s not a happy thought.  It’s all relative, right? And most of it is dependent upon the kid and the family and the happiness quotient of both.  In the end, I imagine that all of this is the stuff that every parent and every father deals with to lesser or greater degrees, but most don’t talk about it, they keep it mum, they don’t let on, they put on the peachy-keen mask.  Parenting is hard, fatherhood is hard.  As is everything that is worthwhile doing, I suppose. I know I can’t be the perfect parent.  I just want to be better.  But I want it to get easier, too, which is, in a way, lame.  I’d prefer it to get easier than to have to develop new skills for the difficult stuff. Somebody, tell me it gets easier, or, tell me I will get better at this most challenging work.

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Filed under Parenting, Self Reflection, Teaching

Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.

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An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

It’s Friday and I’m not at work. It’s a furlough day, one of the 14 days cut from the school year in our district’s belt tightening regimen. I’ve got grading to do, but I’m not going to do it. Hell no. Instead, I’ll write about doing it. I want to conclude this part of my blog series about the difficulties of teaching English in a suburban public high school by talking about the king of all difficulties, the crowning glory of obfuscation and muddle, the most mysterious of mysteries regarding classroom practice, that is the problem of assessment. I know I’m doing it wrong. With the best of intentions, I think I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years. Let me see if I clear this up. First of all, there is, has been all along, as far as I can tell, fundamental differences between what I DO and what I BELIEVE. Cognitive dissonance abounds on a massive scale with regards to measuring student achievement.

I give grades to students. I am expected to give grades to students; giving grades is, as far as I can tell, part of my job description. I hate grades and if I could abolish them, I would.

I believe students should be motivated because a thing is worth doing or knowing, not because some teacher is giving them ten points or a hundred points for an assignment. I give students an assignment and, while I try to communicate to them as clearly as I can why the assignment is worth doing for its own sake, I give them ten points or a hundred points for doing it.

I despise standardized tests, and yet, I routinely sacrifice a couple of weeks of instruction every year to administer these bad boys.

To wit: I know the only way students get better at reading and writing is by reading and writing. So I ask them to read and write. I think I should know what they’re reading and something about what they’re learning and thinking, so I ask them to write about their reading. Let’s say I get two pages a week from each kid about his or her reading—that’s about 360 pages of student work every week that I have to do something with. Then they’ve got to learn how to write by writing so I ask them to do some formal written work, say, a paper or two, between 3 and 10 pages—that’s potentially 1800 pages of student writing for each paper I assign. Let’s just pretend that in a good year I ask all of my students to do three or four formal pieces of writing in a year. Okay, I’m an English teacher—you do the math. It’s a hell of a lot of reading. I’m embarrassed to say it, but there’s a little bit of giddiness that bubbles up from deep inside me when they don’t all turn in their work. There’s something wrong with the picture when a teacher is made happy by the non-performance of a group of students.

My belief is, again, though, that if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing, not because it’s worth ten points or a hundred points or because the kid will get a “good job” note or a gold star from the teacher, but for its own sake. I don’t even have to look at this stuff and there would still be value in the endeavor for a student, provided that the work is meaningful. But teachers, parents, administrators (and students too) are conditioned to believe or at least practice in such a way to suggest that no kid in his or her right mind would ever do an intellectual job because it was worth doing, without any kind of extrinsic reward for the doing of it at the end. I know it’s not true, but we all buy into this error and I sit several times a year at my desk buried in 1800 pages of the worst writing in the known universe. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, only a statement of fact. My students are, most of them, in varying degrees, beginners all. There are moments of sheer joy at reading competent or highly creative or immensely improved pieces of writing, but the tonnage of work I get from students reveals a dearth of these characteristics. Perhaps I would find more reasons to celebrate if I were not so heavily weighted down. Then, maybe I could look for the best stuff in even the worst work and that would likely be well worth it for all parties involved.

So how do I assess this mountain of stuff? By necessity and for survival and sanity, I do it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that in many cases, the end result, in terms of its value to a student as feedback, is so minimal as to make my intensive labor completely superfluous and ineffectual. Ouch. I can see my education professors wincing and squirming. I don’t blame them. I’m wincing and squirming myself. Why would you DO something you know to be ineffective? Well, here’s my quick response. The following is true: effective assessment, just like effective planning, takes time and careful consideration. And the realities of the public education work place are not conducive to these things. Zahir Wahab, a professor from Lewis and Clark College, planted this image into my head more than two decades ago and it stuck and seems absolutely appropriate here, and frightening, that public educators are sometimes no more than intellectual worker bees. I’m betting the bees are more efficient and effective. But teachers are busy. Like the bees, we’re very busy.

I believe students should be met where they are and a teacher should take them as far forward as he can while they’re in his classroom—forward in skills, knowledge, thinking, awareness of self and others, general humanity. Achievable goals should be agreed upon. Improvements and epiphanies should be measured and recorded. A conversation should take place about barriers broken and territory explored. Evidence of the learning should be gathered and shared. There should be much rejoicing. And I think these kinds of things could be, and sometimes are, achieved without stacks of paper. And the results would be so much more powerful and meaningful than the scores received on a standardized test, which my district has kids taking again and again and again, every year, often more than once, so that maybe, one day, on one test, they may reach the benchmark of one point above passing. These results would be more meaningful than where a kid falls on some rubric, which, more often than not, measures at once too broadly and too narrowly and never personally or individually. And these kinds of results would also blow points and grades out of the water. Here’s a portfolio of evidence. This is what has been accomplished and learned. Who needs ten points, a hundred points, or a grade? You do the math.

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An English Teacher Does The Math

Teaching is like this:  I can never get it right.  I will never feel like I’ve mastered the craft;  I am always learning it.  If I think for a moment I’ve mastered it, I’m a fool.  There will always be days when I feel unstoppable and totally effective followed by days when I am sure I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  There are more days like the latter than the former.  What I learn if I am paying any attention at all is that there are smart things to do in a classroom and dumb things to do in a classroom.  I try to avoid doing the dumb ones but for some reason I do a certain number of them over and over again.  I believe the following statement:  teaching is one of the most complex social interactions ever undertaken by a human being.  Think about the sheer mathematics of it, and thus, come to understand the profound opportunities that exist for making mistakes.

At home, you have a relationship with your roommate or your spouse and your units of children.  In your job you have a relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your clientele, which, for the most part, you deal with one at a time.  These are all complex social interactions, don’t get me wrong about that, and I know, these are gross simplifications.  But consider this:  I have interactive relationships with my teaching colleagues, a close relationship with my two teaching partners who share students or curriculum with me, and with the department of English which number about 10 more individuals, say.  For ten of the twenty-two years of my tenure in my high school, I was a member of a committee called a Site Council, an elected but voluntary position which put me on a panel of about 18 individuals made up of an equal number of teachers and parents, an administrator or two, a few classified staff (secretaries, assistants and the like), and a couple of students, whose charge it was to meet a couple of times a month, a few hours at a stretch, and to facilitate staff development and school improvement for a facility serving about 1400 students and staffing about 50-some teachers.  Working closely with this group over a three year commitment, our job was to make the school a better place and to make everyone in the building happy.  In short, considering only my peers and colleagues, already the job is chock full of extremely complex social interaction.

Okay, then there is the issue of these 200 students of mine, which, truth be told, has always really hovered for me between 150 and 170 (the day has passed when contractually English teachers were limited to 125 students—that language that was dropped from the contract altogether).

All of these kids have parents or guardians, sometimes multiple sets of them.  This potentially creates another 300 to 400 relationships to negotiate over the course of my work year.

But when I walk into a classroom, 6 times over the course of my teaching schedule over two days, I am faced with about 30 warm bodies and the expectation on both my part and theirs, not to mention the administrators who hire me or the taxpayer who pays me, that I will make something happen.  Now this is where the real complexity begins.

I have a body of knowledge with which I am supposedly conversant.  Let’s see, we’ll call it the literary survey of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, from, say, about 800 a.d. forward, all major periods and movements, current trends in contemporary literature, the new research in that field to include oppressed and suppressed literature (from women and people of color) throughout history, and a general knowledge of the ever mutating multicultural cannon from around the world.  I should also be conversant in the current trends in educational theory and practice and be able to incorporate those into my classroom work.  Oh, and then there’s this simple matter of teaching young people to write well, or, at least, competently, which, after 22 years in the profession, I’m still not convinced is even possible.   So the first part of my relationship with these 30 kids (x6) is to communicate to them somehow something of what I know and what I believe they need to know in a way that is engaging and meaningful.  If that were it, teaching would be a piece of cake.  But every kid in that classroom has his own agenda.  Much of that agenda is usually counter to mine.  Additionally, every kid in that classroom has a unique perception of who I am and what I’m about, as I have of her, as she has of the kid sitting next to her, and that kid has of her and of me, as all kids have of each other and the group as a whole and of me, and as I have of the group as a whole, with all of its various and sometimes contradictory needs and desires and levels of skill and academic readiness.  It boggles the mind.

Ultimately, as I believe I am teaching the whole student and not just that part of him that writes or decodes symbols on a page, something of a relationship is an important part of the mix.  But what happens in a room of 30 (x6) students is that I end up getting to know only a few of them well and sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I get to know the names of the trouble-makers and clowns first by necessity. And then I continue to devote far more than a fair share of my time and energy to their shenanigans.  There are two or three of these in any given class in a good year, but it’s important to note that just ONE of them can cause monumental disruption in a classroom.

I get to know the ones that are socially really needy, who want to talk to me or have my attention as much as they possibly can and tell me things I don’t want hear about their mothers and their aunts and the boil on their grand daddy’s ass.  I get maybe two of these in every class.

I get to know the ones that are precocious and sharp and outgoing, the ones I can always count on to speak when no one else will speak or who are just highly motivated and play the game of school very well and turn in all of their work.  There might be four or five of these in a group of 30.

I’ve counted 10 students there in a class, generously, that I will potentially get to know much better than the other 20 in the room.  Of course, there are skills that we pick up or intuit to prevent these 10 kids from totally derailing our attention and hi-jacking or dominating our classrooms, tools for drawing out or getting to know the silent majority.  But they are subtle skills that require a masterful handle on the management of large numbers of adolescents in a single room that I wager not very many human beings and not a large number of teaching professionals ever get a handle on.  So it is a constant battle to avoid ignoring the vast majority of the students in my room, let alone get to know them all in any significant and meaningful way, let alone allowing them to know me in any significant and meaningful way.

It’s not very sophisticated math, I’ll admit, but the most difficult things about teaching in a public school setting have to do with sheer numbers—numbers of relationships, numbers and various kinds of interactions, the complexity and unreliability of human behavior times 200, numbers of preparations, numbers of names to learn, numbers of minds and lives to access.  And next, in another blog entry, I think, because it has its own set of mathematical and pedagogical and philosophical problems, I’ll try to deal with the most difficult number of all: the number of papers to grade.

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Difficult Work: It’s A Good Thing They Like Me

Teachers who say that it doesn’t matter whether or not students like them have something wrong with their brains. It seems to me that one of a teacher’s greatest tools, an ace in the hole, so to speak, or, conversely, his greatest deficit, is whether or not his students like, love, or hate him. Here’s the bottom line—Can I relate to young people? Because if I could not, I know that they would have eaten me alive years ago and I would have gone down as one of those statistics: most new teachers drop out of the profession in three years’ time. It didn’t use to be this way. In the 70’s and early 80’s, when I was a lad, there were teachers that students hated that remained in the profession until they retired. Today, students still hate some of their teachers, don’t get me wrong, but unless the professional in question has incredible skill at commanding some kind of respect or attention not simply based on her authority, this person is probably history.

Authority just does not mean the same thing it used to mean. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing so I will say that it’s both. We used to respect authority because it was authority and because if you did not you were in all kinds of shit. Today, at least in schools, we respect authority because that authority demonstrates a respect for us. That’s a good thing. But here’s the flip side of the coin. Students today will repeatedly and openly bring iPods and cell phones and game boys into the classroom, they will openly defy a teacher, or call him a name to his face, or tug on his pony tail, or slap him on the back in the hallway for fun. They are comfortable doing these things. They’re not always trying to be mean; they just do not see these behaviors as inappropriate in any way. Teachers are their equals. More broad generalizations, I know, but I think it is true from my own anecdotal experience that students do things today in classrooms and in schools that my peers or I would never have dreamed of doing in our teenage school days. Let’s flip the coin over again, however, and we find that today teaching is more about building relationships and less about exercising power over our minions. Now, I have to earn the power over my minions. And I have these four tools at my disposal: my intellect, my passion about the craft of teaching and the process of learning, my general good will toward my students, and for the most part, because of the music or the hair or the shoes or just because they think I’m a pretty good guy, they like me. And it’s a good thing. So, it’s safe to say, and I think the research bears me out on this one, that one thing that motivates a student is a teacher that she likes. But I’ve got lots of students who like me just fine, or even, like me a whole lot, who are, nevertheless, failing my classes. There’s another difficulty.

It’s Not Enough That They Like Me

There is another tool at my disposal; it’s only a question of putting it into good practice—another notch in the list of difficulties around teaching. And perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all, because, while most studies prove it to be the most effective way to motivate, it is perhaps the less intuitive and the more rigorous way to go. All I have to do is CHANGE MY BRAIN, and thus, by an almost supernatural imposition of will, I can change the brains of my students. Carol Dweck, Ph. D., in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, says we must work to change our own minds, and then the minds of our students, from what she calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” And voila!—all will be well and right with the world. I’m not being facetious. I believe this. It’s just really hard to do. Quickly, let me see if I can unpack this: A fixed mindset sees things as predetermined; skills, talents, special proclivities are meted out at birth and can never change. You are either smart or you’re not. You’re either talented or not. It’s a recipe for stagnation and mediocrity. Fixed mindset people are often encouraged by parents, teachers, and coaches (who may have also been fixed mindset kinds of folk), with the message that they are smart and talented—and maybe they actually are, but because the message that they are already a particular way is pounded into their little brains, whenever they are faced with evidence to the contrary, i.e., a difficult task, they get easily frustrated and end up thinking the opposite about themselves. I am not smart or talented after all. In fact, I am stupid and without skill. And then, rather than risk further failure, they give up, or worse, they don’t try, avoiding any revelation of their lack of intelligence or skill. On the contrary, a “growth mindset” person comes at every difficulty as a learning experience and every challenge as valuable in and of itself. Every setback is an opportunity, and only when these folks are being stretched, not victorious, do they feel successful. And they work really hard at stuff. They were not successful because their performance was flawless and they “got it” right away, but because they labored intensely toward a goal they found meaningful and rewarding. And, in short, Dweck says that a combination of a nurturing environment and high challenge are the key to fostering a “growth mindset” and instilling a desire for success within students and other humans. And she, right alongside my hero Alfie Kohn (Punished By Rewards), says that praise and blame, the carrot and the stick, are ineffective motivators.

Jessica, a friend of mine, recently sent, and attached to a posting on an earlier one of my blog entries, a lecture by Dan Pink which beautifully summarizes the most recent findings about motivation in the workplace. Three elements, Pink says, maximize productivity from workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I’m already beyond a thousand words in this particular blog entry, so I will try to bring this to closure quickly. Can we apply the conclusions of Dweck and Pink to the field of education and the question of what motivates students? Hell yeah. And isn’t this good news? Hell yeah. Because now we know what will motivate students! Let’s see what we’ve got: given a nurturing environment (a teacher who cares for students and in turn is cared for or “liked” by students), high expectations, teacher/student autonomy, and a strong sense of purpose, we ought to be simply cooking with fire. Let’s get rid of unnecessary punishments and rewards. There will be no stopping us then. I’m getting really excited.

Wait a minute. Houston, we have a problem. I feel some air inexplicably escaping from a hole the size of a pin in my big-ass hot air balloon. Do students experience a nurturing environment? Well, as much as you could expect from a 1 to 160+ teacher/student ratio. Are students given high expectations? We do the best that we can, but inconsistently, and some students graduate from high school who are barely or only functionally literate. How much autonomy do teachers and students have? No Child Left Behind and the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has swept a lot of teacher creativity and student choice right under the carpet. What about the punitive aspects of schooling, the punishments and rewards that are part and parcel of the daily, monthly, yearly routine: praise and blame, gold stars and frowny faces, A’s and F’s? Surely, these are receding from their traditional dominance in the motivational strategies of teachers, parents and students—aren’t they? Holy cow. One thing at a time. One thing at a time. Please stay tuned.

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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?

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