It’s only been seven months or so since I last deigned to come on this space and write about anything. There are a lot of reasons for this:
- I’m on Twitter now. A lot.
- The teachforus.org site went all nutty at one point (and it still is?)
- I have been drowning in a sea of ambivalence.
This year was the first year of not having to worry about standardized tests. This was a double edged sword because it meant two things:
- People let me do my own thing AKA academic freedom.
- People let me do my own thing AKA you’re on your own, pal.
I tinkered with the scope and sequence at the beginning of the year, implemented standards based grading, incorporated more “classic Geometry” and less “Algebra with Geometry applications.” This meant making my own lessons from scratch pretty much everyday. I think that was probably a mistake.
This mad rush to try something new all the time and make myself an island of productivity meant I often didn’t have the energy I needed to be my best. In practical terms, I didn’t have the energy to extend lessons, to commit to referrals when I really should have, to call families, to do the little things in a class of 30 that makes everyone feel served. I think this meant a lot of my students didn’t think I was as serious about their learning every day. I built good relationships, though. Every student had some really solid days throughout the year. It just wasn’t the year-long consistency I aim for.
There’s the ambivalence. I’m swearing off “effectiveness”, a quasi-scientific descriptor meant to evoke thoughts of household cleaners. I’m swearing off using standardized test metrics as a measure of my goodness as a teacher. So how will I know if I’m a good teacher? If I have a lot of students tell me I’m their favorite teacher? If I have students who trust me enough to open up about what’s troubling them outside of school? If some students do really outstanding work each day knowing there’s no grade attached to it? And if there’s not quantifiable way to gauge that? Hence the ambivalence.
I have now taught high school for four years. I just watched the freshmen I taught my first year walk the stage on Saturday. And I think I’m just now starting to understand what I don’t know about teaching. When we went through Institute, we were issued a copy of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. The ideology of that book and of TFA’s teacher preparation is that effective teaching is something you can drill, that there’s a procedure for everything, as if Lemov wrote the user’s manual for teaching. I won’t say it’s useless because there are certainly some things you can try from that book if you’re new and you don’t know what you don’t know.
But here is where Lemov falls short. Teaching like a champion, first of all, is the wrong way to think about it. Although it is typical for TFA to put the teacher at the forefront, I’m going to say this all the time for the rest of my life (and in fact I plan on buying a banner with this emblazoned upon it): IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. You are not Freddie Mercury; you are not the champion. The sooner you disabuse yourself of that, the sooner you can be a more humane teacher to your students. They don’t need a glory hog, they need someone who cares about them and they can trust to show them a path forward that perhaps they had not seen for themselves. That end has so many paths and I will totally let you know when I am close but I think I will need least four more years to get there.
What I do know now is that love is the underlying force behind all good teaching. Love for your students, for your work, for your fellow person, for your co-workers, all of them. Teaching absent love is some BF Skinnerish roboticism. I don’t think I realized how much a bad day of teaching came down to me saying “I am closing off my ability to love you and refuse to see your humanity because I feel personally affronted by your behavior.” And I can’t tell you how many good days of teaching came because I refused to believe that line. If this sounds too hippie for you, I don’t know what to tell you. This teaching thing is kind of a hippie game.