Elements of Successful Teaching: I Got Nothin’

Ben Bernanke finally being honest.

Welcome back to school New York City teachers. I hope everyone had a good first day yesterday. It also marked the start of a new season of blogging for me here. I needed the time to myself over the past few months after my mother’s passing. Now I aim to update this place once daily at least. My prior clip of twice-a-day rants probably will not be reached until much later, for I might need to find a place to live in the coming weeks. Once I get my feet under me again, blogging will be much easier.

So yesterday was filled with the same first-day-of-school rituals we are used to at my humble Manhattan high school. The staff milled in between 8:00 and 8:30 and did some catching up, then we had a morning full of meetings and then we had the afternoon to prepare our rooms. Preparing my room gave me time to think about the morning meetings. I finally learned, after it was taught to me a million times throughout my life, that I know absolutely nothing about teaching.

Last year was not my best teaching year. I think most veteran teachers can look at individual school years and say “I was really on my game” or “boy, I stunk up the joint”.  For example, the 2009-2010 school year was really good for me overall. I was ahead of my workload, tried many new and successful strategies, read a ton of books and developed a great rapport with my students. That was the year 100% of my 11th graders passed the U.S. History Regents, with around 65% getting a grade of 85 or higher.

I thought it made sense that all of my students would do well on the Regents since that was really the first year I brought my decade-plus experience to bear in the classroom.

Well, fast forward to yesterday morning and it all goes out the window.

We were looking at the passing rates for the previous school year’s Regents exams. Since the end of that school year passed by in such a depressing haze for me, I never had time to marvel at the fact that 93% of my students passed the U.S. History Regents. Now, of course, if we were going by the ludicrous idea of “value-added”, that means I lost 7 percentage points over the previous two years and suck as a teacher. We all know though that value-added is a joke, a voodoo social theory backed up by nonsensical equations, much like Reaganomics was voodoo economics.

I sucked last year. The entire school year from September to June was nothing but personal turmoil. Colleagues were under investigation, a long-term relationship I was in failed around New Year’s Day and, most painfully, my mother was very sick in the days after that.

As a professional, it should be my line that “those things did not affect my work”. However, one would have to be near robotic to not have personal tragedy impact daily personal performance in some way. I did not have time to write great lessons, I fell way behind on grading and I was, at times, very uncomfortable with being in front of a room full of teenaged people. One day, I even wrote the wrong aim on the board and was around 5 minutes into the lesson before I realized it, causing me to erase and start everything over again. I felt I was stumbling towards the finish line, and the finish line was still 4 months away.

My students, for the most part, seemed understanding of my shortcomings. As every year I have ever taught, the vast majority of my students were nice people with whom I found common ground. I could make a million mistakes and laugh it off and they would not hold it against me. Last year that group of students was really tested, because I probably did literally make a million mistakes.

And, throughout it all, I was thinking to myself “darn, these kids are going to absolutely BOMB the Regents in June.” It was not their fault. It was the fault of the distracted teacher who not only wrote the wrong aim on the board, but who was also absent for the last month of the school year.

I reflected back to my 2009-2010 slam dunk year. That year, I had a group of very well-motivated students whom I considered very bright. On top of that, I was “on” most of the time. It was a perfect storm of teaching and learning. I compared that with this past school year, where my classes needed a little more guidance and I felt that I was not there to provide it. If I broke a 70% pass rate, I would be floored.

When we started grading the Regents in June, I was confirmed in my fears. When I came across an essay a student of mine wrote, I said “I should have taught them (fill in factoid or complete idea here).” It seemed that all my crummy teaching was coming home to roost.

Then, after we scanned everything and the results came back, 93% of my students passed. It was not an easy Regents, and there was no way to scrub the results even if we wanted to, but they still ended up passing at a 93% clip. Granted, this is not the 100% of two years ago, but it beat my previous year’s results when I was certainly more “on” as a teacher. Why did 93% of them pass? I have not a clue. I am glad that they did. I do not say the word “proud” since that means I would be taking some sort of credit for their success, which I certainly do not.

So, I can safely say that I have no idea of the dynamic between what I present as a teacher and what filters into my students’ brains. Furthermore, I have no idea how standardized exams measure that dynamic and highly doubt they can measure that dynamic at all. I remember when I was a student at Brooklyn Tech, there was an Advanced Placement math teacher who taught nothing all year. Instead, he regaled the class with tales of his personal life. Practically everyone in his class got 4s and 5s on the AP exam anyway.

There is a reason why no civilized nation on earth uses standardized exams to penalize or judge their students and teachers. It is because they mean nothing. They measure a narrow set of concepts in a narrow space of time. It is a snapshot of a few hours. It is the height of madness to use them to judge the quality of the students who take it and it is downright Lewis Carol trippy to use them to judge the teachers who teach those students. Yet, the president of this supposedly most civilized of nations pushes testing on us like a grand elixir, and he supposedly represents the most civilized and humane political party in this civilized nation.

Teaching is a great unknown. When it works, something happens in that classroom that cannot be expressed in numbers and can barely be expressed in words. That is why it takes professionals to teach, not automated robots or cookie-cutter fast-food workers. They cannot be trained at so-called colleges funded by charters who claim that the key to teaching is having students wave fingers of good energy at each other, or for the teacher to humiliate students by putting them on the spot for a question that requires a one-word answer.

Unfortunately, this is what testing and all of the other programs of “education reform” aim at. It is imperative for the “reformers” first to demean and then deskill the teaching force so that we will be powerless to speak out in criticism against them. They do not want professionals. Anybody arrogant enough to think they can lecture the nation on what good teaching or good learning looks like is a demagogue. Me and many other “good” teachers are good because it is in their hearts. After a decade or so, it becomes something like muscle memory. Within that category of good teachers there are all types of different people with all types of different styles and beliefs.

Why are they good? I cannot tell you that. I got nothin’. Anybody who is honest about what makes a quality teacher should make that their stock answer.

2 responses to “Elements of Successful Teaching: I Got Nothin’

  1. … teaching is a learnt skill when starting out, then becomes a craft after a few years and will eventually flower into an art if left alone (stay with me here) by ‘chemical growth foods’ and given a nice sill and a spray of water every now and then.

    In the 1970’s in the UK, Hartley’s Jam ran a TV advert, the punch line of which was watching a stream of whole fruits pour into an open jam jar with the words: “we put a pound and a half of fruit into each pound jar” and this is sealed when the lid of the jar crams it all in with a door-slam which makes the whole image shake: KCTHUUUM!!! Jam – almost onomatopoeically – contains fruit which cannot be wholly recognised because it is mashed and pulped – pips and peel give clues that this was once fruit. Jam is OK, but it is, after all, a way of preserving fruit; fruit is far more nutritious when fresh and replenish-able.

    There are plenty of fine and correct educational ideas which are poured into education: from government to management to teachers. They make sense, they are creative and colourful, and yet they end up in about 400,000 little receptacles, already nearly full with teaching. And then comes the lid – KCTHUUUM!!! – shaking of careers and lives. The lid is ‘professionalism’, and it is screwed tight: accountability, league tables, residuals, performance, ‘long holidays’. Inside each ‘jar’ is much pressure, little room for manoeuvre and only occasional pieces of fruit: some jars are conserve, some contain just jelly; all of them are sweet, because they are jam: teaching. But they are not fruit.

    Teaching is, after all, just a highly sophisticated communication. A communication which is not measureable either through input or outcome. This is presumable why your students did well anyway – you will still have some mojo working (twelve years now?) even when everything else is low … there you go, teaching is a matter of mojo-working. Full stop.

    • That is a nice explanation. Mojo is an apt word and when you try to say something like this, people from the outside assume you’re a kook or that you’re lazy or incompetent. It’s like people assume that everything in this world can be articulated when, in fact, the most important things can probably never be articulated.

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