Friday, November 30, 2012

Please Don't Try and Make Me Into a Better Teacher.

The more I teach the less I want to think about teaching. At a recent district wide science and math meeting I announced, “I have no interest in improving my teaching.” This shocked pretty much everyone within earshot, and like a politician trying to take back an unfortunate soundbite, I backtracked on my words and tried to explain them. But fundamentally they were true. I have taught for fifteen years and that is long enough for someone who makes it past the first few trying and desperate years to learn the craft. And a lot of it is a craft. Preparing lessons, time management, grading papers, learning to manage a classroom are skills that one learns over time and skills that become easier with time. 

And just because I want to think less about teaching doesn’t mean that I do.  In the shower in the morning I tweak my lesson plans  for the day. I wake up in the middle of far too many nights with school on my mind and on my drive home I still wonder and reflect about what went well and what didn’t. But what I don’t want to do is to told I have to read books about teaching techniques, be forced to “reflect” on my teaching for my evaluation or generally keep being told that I need to improve my teaching. Frankly I am good enough. 

I once heard an interview with Bob Dylan who was asked whose music did he listened to and who influenced him now. He laughed and said he didn’t really listen to anyone anymore. Why would he, he is Bob Dylan for Christ's sake? I am no Bob Dylan. And I’m not even proportionate in the teaching world to the Bob Dylan’s of our profession. 

But I am the teaching equivalent to a journeyman studio musician or a journeyman carpenter for that matter. I know what I am doing, I put in a full days work and I can be counted on to adapt to new situations, new curriculum and a changing student population. I try new things. I spend a lot of time finding new activities and techniques to connect better with my kids. I work to adapt my teaching to my audience just like any proficient professional will. But being a teacher is what I do, it is not my life. 

And I am think this is a good thing. In fact I think this balance in my life makes me a better teacher than I would be without it. It also means I haven’t burned myself out trying to be the Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ of teaching world. 

No one expects their accountant, their doctor, their lawyer, their favorite athlete or even their carpenter to routinely reform their profession, but for teachers reform is the norm. It is the norm to the point that veteran teachers roll their eyes with a “What goes around, comes around,” look at the introduction of the latest techniques  or technologies that we are expected to adopt to make every child succeed. 

But nobody talks about reforming our society so that kids aren’t left alone while their parent(s) work two jobs. Nobody talks about reforming our society so that our students most stable and caring place isn’t just in their classrooms.  Instead we reform education. We send teachers to relearn their craft on the fool’s errand that with enough  blame, with enough cajoling, with enough threats we can get teachers to solve the problems that our larger society refuses to face.  

But more training won’t teach me to me more empathetic. More accountability won’t tell me which kid’s parents are getting divorced. More inservices won’t help me notice that a kid is looking depressed. These are the intangibles that make me a better teacher. And I don’t want training in how to learn them. I think as caring aware humans we learn these lessons all on our own though experience and perseverance. And while we embrace the idealism and enthusiasm of new teachers, unfortunately idealism and enthusiasm are the first casualties of working in a system where your profession isn’t respected and you are blamed for the failures of that system. 

Most teachers are foot soldiers in the war on ignorance, a few make it to platoon leaders and an even fewer few might make the rank of of a non-commissioned officer and with that rank have some input into developing the strategy of this war. But unfortunately most of the educational strategists aren’t teachers, they don’t spend time in classrooms, instead they radio in their orders from afar. 

I am an optimist, I don’t think you can make teaching a career if you aren’t. But I am also a realist and I am not ashamed to say that that realism tells me to not to accept even more irrational responsibility for things that are out of my control as a teacher. So the next time some policy maker, politician or administrator tells me I need to improve my teaching I apologize in advance if the request is met with a roll of my eyes.