Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

teachers, memory, and public education ~

I love this cartoon — I’m sorry I have no better attribution, as it has to have been done by someone intimately acquainted w/ teaching and/or teachers. Because this is the secret about teaching: you can’t prepare for most of it. You can have content knowledge out the wazoo — biology, let’s say — and be left feeling stupid when you need a background in counseling to deal w/ a student’s life derailing.

Or we envy a computer tech when new national standards mandate we use technology in  American history class. And don’t get teachers started on how much they’re supposed to know about writing, even if their areas are as different as math, music and material design.

I spent Friday with 130+ great teachers. It was, supposedly, a 4-day weekend. Except for teachers, who spent the day listening to discussions of new state (and federal) standards. And there was, I confess, FAR too much ‘listening’ and not nearly enough ‘doing.’

Digression: why is that EVERYTHING we know about learning flies out the window when we deal w/ adult learners? Just curious… Anyone understand this?

Here’s the deal: despite an early morning, despite technology glitches that rendered much of the morning presentation unheard, despite a crowded cafeteria where the conversation of 130+ adults sounded like a stadium crowd, these 130 teachers were polite, witty, committed and professional. NOTHING like the current political arena paints them…

Another seeming digression (trust me ~ it all comes together): years ago, my younger son complained I had abused him (really). I had, he noted seriously, spanked him four times. And he could remember every one ~

“Once I was going into the street; once I was playing w/ fire; once I told a lie, once I…” he counted on his fingers. I interrupted.

“So: these were major infractions, correct?”

“Yes, but you’re not supposed to hit children, Mom. That’s what you say.” What a smug child we’ve raised, I thought.

“Noah, do you remember every time I’ve hugged you?”

He rolled his eyes. “No, Mom.”

“Do you remember every time I told you I love you?”

“No, Mom,” he said w/ increased exasperation. “You’re always telling me…” His blue eyes widened, understanding beginning to dawn.

So what does this have to do w/ bad teachers? The current belief in ‘bad teachers are everywhere, and at the root of all educational evil‘ actually is a collision of math & memory. How many really bad teachers did you have? Not ones you heard about, or ones someone else told you about. A teacher you yourself had — a teacher who kept you from learning, or who ruined your year, the class, the subject. And here’s the truth: I can’t remember one. A couple who were less than warm; one who thumped kids on the head when they didn’t pay attention; another who insisted I pronounce Việt Nam  to rhyme w/ we et jam.

When I asked my husband, he can’t remember one. Nor can my sisters. Nor can most of my friends. I must have  had teachers I didn’t like (although to be honest? I don’t even remember them now…:)). But I don’t remember one who would have caused me to score badly on tests forever, or who was incompetent, or didn’t TRY. Even when I was silently ADD in the back of the class (bored and writing a poem, or a story, or just doodling), or vocally disrupting class to ask Mrs. Miller yet again just WHY you had to ‘divide and multiply’ w/ fractions..?

The human mind looks, like the Large Hadron Collider, for aberrations. What is continuous is the norm — we feel we know it, and so move forward. So that if I tell my son I love him daily — even multiple times a day — that’s normal. He takes it for granted.

But a spanking? One of only four he received? Those are discontinuities – the pattern has been disrupted. So they bear analysis.

I’m afraid that’s what’s happened in education. I work with teachers — and I know hundreds. Literally. Although given to ‘poetic license’ (my vanity plate reads ‘POETIC’), I really do know hundreds of teachers. And they work harder than any single profession with which I’m familiar.  But it’s so much easier to point to teachers as the cause of education’s failures — despite the fact that no one I know can remember many bad ones (confirming the Noah hypothesis, that only the aberration is remarked), than to tackle the other, much more complicated vectors that influence educational outcomes for children.

Vector.’ Such a perfect word to describe the complexities of educational influences:

  1. A course or direction. So many things can blow educational achievement off course — a bad testing day, for instance. What if John is coming down w/ a virus that doesn’t manifest until tomorrow? What if Jennifer was awake all night last night because her new baby brother had colic and screamed for hours? Not to mention things like hunger, abuse, situational homelessness.
  2. There’s also the idea of ‘vector’ as a pathogen carrier. This one seems particularly apt. There are reform forces dead set against public education as it is today — not the parts that don’t work as well as we’d like (and certainly there are plenty of those :) ), but the whole ‘public’ (and free) identity of contemporary education. And that, to me, is an attitude that poisons the entire body of education.
  3. Finally, there’s the idea that a vector carries ‘modified genetic material.’ I think this may be my favourite, because new ideas in education — creative, research-based, genuinely learning-centred ideas — are like new DNA in the body education. I love that idea! Unfortunately, today’s version is more the kind of DNA that would change public education to private, fee-driven charter schools. And if you can’t afford them? Well…. Who knows? No real plan for that, is there?

The teachers with whom I worked Friday are far more the ‘norm’ than not. They tried new classroom strategies, listened to the research, and were as polite as could be.  Heck, they sent us home w/ flowers! But this doesn’t make news, teachers sitting in an echo chamber of a cafeteria trying hard to improve how they teach. It isn’t ‘sexy,’ as the news media says. Nor is it controversial. But it is very common.

So here’s my point: bad teachers are real, as were Noah’s spankings. But they are not responsible, personally and collectively, for derailing public education. Only we can do that, if we succumb to faulty memory, bad physics and mythology. And if we do, our children will be the ones who suffer…


  • Derrick Coy

    The same can be said for many religions. Members of each religion do good works every day, but the ones who do wrong in the name of their religion are the ones who are noticed and remembered.

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