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 read books about teaching techniques, be forced to “reflect” on my teaching for my evaluation or generally be 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 was Bob Dylan for Christ's sake? I am no Bob Dylan. And I’m not remotely 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 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. 


  1. I agree, too much is placed on our shoulders. Politicians and those far removed from the classroom make all the decisions and teachers get the blame. What a ridiculous profession we find ourselves in!

  2. Very original post, and a provocative way to start out: “I have no interest in improving my teaching.” You make some good points, way to go.

  3. Well you were both there when I spoke those unfortunate words. I just get so tired of the old saw that we all have to be "Great" teachers. Whoever believes that either spent little time in the classroom, or when they did they had a lousy statistics teacher or they listen to the stories of Lake Wobegone too much. Sorry to say it but everybody can't be above average. Is there something wrong with being competent?

  4. Well said, Todd. I've been teaching for over 20 years and my eyes have rolled right out of my head! We're asked to do the impossible and it's frankly amazing what we accomplish in the face of all the ridiculous expectations that are thrown our way.

  5. We're having a faculty meeting tomorrow after school. One of the points will be on the Common Core - we've been asked to read an article titled "Nine Ways the Common Core Will Change Classroom Practice." I hope I have the courage to say something like - "I don't need to change my practice, thanks." Like you did.

    Well done!

    1. Feel free to quote me, but I have to admit our science/math meetings are a pretty safe place to say what you think.

    2. Here are some thoughts that might help:

  6. All top performing schools changed the teaching, not the societies they teach in. While I sympathize with your frustration, the evidence shows that most of our students are not learning as much/well as they should and need to.

    As for the Practices: The Common Core are far more about the Practices than the Content. What is it about those 8 Practices that you would NOT want your own children to be able to do?

    1. I'm just a fellow who works in a small rural district and to be perfectly honest I think my students are doing pretty well, all things considered. By what measure, you might reasonably ask? Well when they leave my science classes they are more excited about science than when they came in. Their parents tell me they argue about science at home. They are more likely to take more advanced science classes than in the past. Does that make us a top performing school?

      We don't make Newsweek's list or anybody else's for that matter but I don't feel like I have beaten the creativity and curiosity out of them either. So are they "learning as much/well as they should and need to?" I would ask who gets to decide that?

      For a number of years I taught AP Biology, a course that is ubiquitous in "top performing schools" and it was the most disheartening experience of my teaching career. Absolutely no time to smell the roses both literally and figuratively. We burned though material like there was no tomorrow.

      As far as which of the 8 Practices do I not think are important? Can't answer that, I haven't read them, though I am sure I will.

  7. "Routinely reform their profession..."

    I looked up "Good To Great" on Amazon. There were 271,000 related hits. I think all sorts of people are routinely asked to reform their practices.

    What I don't understand, is since your not Bob Dillon, why wouldn't you want to keep trying until you are? If Jaime Escalante can get 88 kids to pass AP Calc in downtown LA, then I know I need to keep reforming my own practices.

  8. I wouldn't mind being Bob Dylan the songwriter but I have no talent. Why don't I want to be the Bob Dylan of the teaching world? Because I value my family, I value my life outside of teaching, I think showing my students that I have interests outside of them ( OMG what child should ever hear that?) is healthy for them and improves the time I do spend with them. I could go on but fundamentally the point of my post is that, good enough is good enough.

    In all sincerity if you want to be emulate Jaime Escalante bless you. Hang in there.

  9. The Escalante commenter got to me. Escalante widdled his class size down over the years. Kids who couldn't cut muster, or didn't want to were cut from program. Kids were paid to be in the program and people who know will tell you cheating did go on. And, it was 18 kids not 88.