Respect Individuality (No, Silly, Not Yours)
What would happen if you told Dracula that you really needed him to stumble around a shopping mall all day long and eat human brains?
He’d tell you to stick it up your ass, that’s what. I sleep all day, yo. I get up a little after dusk. Shower. Read the paper. I clean up my apartment a bit. Then I go out. I bite necks and drink blood. That’s what I do and I’m awesome at it. I’m not into that sloppy-ass zombie shit. Plus, I work alone. Hey…what’s dumber than a bunch of zombies staggering down the interstate? NOTHING. They are the dumbest bunch of assholes you will ever see.
Dracula’s got his thing. Zombies got their thing. You’ve got your thing. And your students got all kinds of things.
Their individual learning styles. The reading levels. The types of activities they find most stimulating, entertaining, challenging, accessible and relevant to their daily lives. Is the student funny or shy? Does she like sports? Singing? Banjos? What tone of voice does she respond to best? In which circumstances?
Wouldn’t we love to know all of this and be able to act on it? I can sort of do this with my own kids, but not as well with 70 new students each semester I see for a few hours a week.
It would require an unrealistic amount of attention to each individual student and uncanny skills in a teacher to come anywhere close to this ideal. Classes are too big. Time is too short. The array of aptitudes and interests too wide.
But we wink and nod and tell the world that it ain’t no thang. We got it. We are giving each and every child the best possible individualized educational experience, specifically calibrated to their strengths and growth areas so that they will become critical thinkers and problem solvers and ready for college and….you’ve heard this before.
Here’s my point. Given the extraordinary level of teacher effort and ability that is assumed in order for this pretend ideal to be even approximated, let’s ask this question: Aside from smaller, more homogeneous classes and more physical resources, What might help teachers to do this job better?
I say that freedom to make decisions in the classroom is key for two reasons. Without this, teachers are not allowed to use their individual strengths to maximum affect; and they come to understand that they are not truly respected or trusted as (para)professionals.
I’ll give you a couple of anecdotes to illustrate.
Anecdote Number 1: I created a project for one of my classes. From readings to rubrics I built this project. My department chair/VP approved it. For two years I tweaked it and improved it and developed three or four weeks of curriculum around it. I was invested in this project and really enjoyed teaching it. I changed things about it over time so that my students liked it more.
But then something bad happened.
My VP went on the internet. Every time he looks on the internet he finds some shit that all the sudden we absolutely must do now in our classes. Right away. The amazing Internet Man swooped down with a project from the internet and commanded that it must be taught instead. And that was the end of it. No critique of my project was offered. Nor was it explained why the internet project was better. That’s just the way the place rolls.
Admin say. Teacher do.
I don’t really like the new project. I am not as invested. And Internet Man has also created a great number of brand new inefficiencies to pile onto his old ones.
Anecdote Number 2: This is not a specific story, but a general thing that happens to teachers every year in my school and maybe yours, too. At the beginning of the year, before the kids come back, the teachers get very detailed, yet vague and sloppy instructions about what must be posted on all four bulletin boards in their rooms. One must have a data wall, one must have a word wall, one must have a wall with something about the standards, and one must have….(wow…I can’t tell you how refreshing it is that I can’t remember what goes on the other bulletin board. Cool.) In addition one must have the classroom norms posted, a seating chart, the CHEC Creed, etc.
Every year this brings new teachers quite literally to tears. Every year I would get some bitchy email or phone call at some point during the weekend before school starts about my room not being ready when we all know that everybody comes in on Saturday and/or Sunday and/or early on Monday to finish. Here is my email from last year.
The room requirements don’t even begin to touch how objectives must be written, what must be on the board every day, or how each lesson must be structured, including such arbitrary dictates as “all classes must have stations every Thursday.”
Anecdotes 1 and 2 illustrate very well how the talents and preferences of individual teachers are denied, disrespected and sacrificed in order to enhanced predictability and make sure that more people are doing more of the same thing at all times. I argue that this kills the creativity and spirit of teachers.
Why shouldn’t teachers be able to play to their own strengths? Why shouldn’t you be able to lecture more if you are a great speaker and storyteller? Why shouldn’t I be able to do more group work if I am the master at designing and directing group work? Why should teachers have to live in fear that at the moment an administrator walks in the conversation has strayed slightly from the objective, the warm-up had lasted too long, or group work had started too early? The myth that if teachers would only do exactly as they are told and our problems would be solved is looking sillier all the time. Last I checked, it seemed the Achievement Gap was still eating pretty well.
You will only be able to blame teachers, nitpick them, and shoehorn them into your little reform boxes for so long. After a while you will run into a real problem recruiting teachers who actually possess any of the critical thinking and problem solving skills we claim we want kids to learn from us. The entire American teaching force will be made up of 22-27 year old yes-men (and women). But then, maybe that’s the real plan.
Someone once wrote to me who was thinking about going into teaching. He asked this question: Are Teachers Morons? I don’t think they are. But I would consider myself a moron if I went into teaching knowing everything that I know now about this job.