October 6th, 2010

Learning Through Experiences, Not Test Scores

As a teacher of high school students and a leader of the network Accomplished California Teachers, I know how much we rely on parents and community members to support our work.  I don’t mean support  strictly in a financial sense, though obviously that’s an essential part of the issue.  But beyond the allocation of dollars, we need to the allocation of good will, the validation of our work and our institutions.  We must earn the confidence of the community, and where we succeed, we need that confidence on display, broadcast loud and clear.  I’m excited to be working with Educacy, as a teacher and a parent.  I’m hopeful that we are joining together as advocates who value public education in California, who appreciate its successes, and who will fight to strengthen the system in times of need because we know that a high quality public education for all is the best path to a peaceful and secure future for all Californians.

If you think back to your childhood and your schooling, what do you recall most vividly?  What experiences had the greatest impact in shaping the person you became?  I’ll bet that whether you’re recalling positives or negatives, you’re thinking about how someone made you feel, or something you learned to do for yourself.  Feelings of intense shame and bursting pride are likely to stick with us.  Opportunities to build something or perform something, opportunities where we could have failed but ended up a success – these are the lasting lessons of our younger years, recalled with ease even when all the facts and formulas and grades have faded from memory.

If you are a parent, what stands out most vividly about supporting your child in school?  I’ll bet that whether you’re recalling positives or negatives, once again, you’re thinking about how you or your children felt, or what they learned to do.  That’s the way we operate.  Grades and test scores are ephemeral, while that which touches our humanity remains with us, sometimes for years, and with startling clarity.

So how did we get here, to this juncture in education history?  Why are we measuring our children, our students, our teachers and schools with numbers when we talk about education in the public arena?  In the present era, we have access to previously unthinkable amounts of data and information.  We push aside our most powerful experiences and forget our own learning.  We choose instead to gather the data, revere the research, and make a fetish of percentiles and indices.  Acronyms assume meanings, labels take on lives of their own, and we give them power by speaking their names over and over.

The Latin root of “education” is “educare” – which means “to pull out, extract.”  As a teacher, that etymological lesson is a reminder to seek what is inside my students.  I build a safe and stimulating environment to coax out of them the willingness to take a risk, the energy to care, the personal drive to learn, to make meaning from everything around them and derive knowledge that can only come from within them.  The test of this education doesn’t come at the end of the year; it comes every day thereafter, when we see what students can do with whatever has been “pulled out” of them.

Some observers suggest that this philosophy is fine for certain students, privileged and successful, while other students are so deficient in basic skills that we must address that problem first. By subscribing to the “empty vessel” theory, they see education backwards, and argue that teaching is about putting something in – facts and formulas, “value-added” – rather than pulling something out.  By being in touch with our own best and worst educational experiences, we remind ourselves what it meant to us when schools and teachers helped something new and wonderful emerge, and what it meant to be bottled up or shut down by people or systems that failed us.

Let’s join together to bring about a new phase of education debate and advocacy, one defined by a shared vision about the purposes of education, rather than splitting ourselves into factions, exaggerating our differences and gravitating towards ideological encampments.  In fact, it is the lack of a unified vision about educational goals that many of us feel hampers the debate and stalls much needed broad systemic reforms.  When we don’t agree about why we’re educating students, we see our discussions devolve into arguments over means and methods without a mission.

To articulate this mission and achieve it, we need the whole community of parents and students, educators and researchers, business and citizens.  We need to maintain a vision of our best selves and our students’ best futures, talk about who we are, who we will be, and what we will do.  We need to listen to each other with appreciation, and trust each other enough to ask and answer questions that refine everyone’s thinking.  To paraphrase John Dewey, we must care enough to provide for every child the education we most valued for ourselves, and want for our children.  Let’s hold ourselves, our educators, community members and policy makers to that standard, and good results will follow.

Fore more information on InterACT, please visit our website:  http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com

From the Teachers

October 3rd, 2010

The Young Human Blues? The Call for a Teacher Hippocratic Oath

On Monday mornings, does your child awaken eagerly anticipating school?

It’s a simple question. Yet, the answer has powerful consequences. Your child’s attitude towards school affects your entire family–one “bad” school year can poison family peace for years to come. Ask any parent who has trouble getting their child out of bed—it is a repetitive and hellish battle.

This “I-Want-to-Stay-in-Bed-Itis” can turn into a dis-ease that needs monitoring like any high fever.  If it continues without treatment, it can psychologically scar your child beyond adolescence. The most common causes can be sorted roughly into three categories: teacher/student, peer, and child/parent relationships.  I will be addressing only the first today. Too often, there is an unspoken but real mental battle between the teacher and student. The child may not be able to verbalize it, but it can work something like this:

“My teacher really doesn’t get me. She is judging me by a skill I don’t have or a personality trait I do. I try to do the work as best I can—I really try to pay attention—even when she is boring.  But sometimes my mind slips somewhere else, and she calls on me and…I don’t feel worthwhile. I feel like a loser. I don’t always get what she is trying to teach—even though it’s probably simple for others.  It is hard to feel like the good person I really am.  After all, my teacher is a smart adult, and if she doesn’t think I am good enough—maybe I am a bad and stupid person.  And, if I am bad and stupid, that puts me in a bad mood.  I don’t want to keep going to school to repeat that failing feeling—not just as a student, but as a person as well.”

Imagine if you had to survive your work in that mental state each day!

Here’s a question I’ve asked hundreds of adults: how many teachers do you remember dearly—teachers that had a strong influence on you? Most people answer only three or four. If you have been through college, you have had approximately 150 teachers since kindergarten.  So, the truly memorable ones are a mere three percent at best.

What made those teachers so special? There are many reasons, but there seems to be a common denominator.  Bottom line: at a deep level, you knew that teacher was “pulling” for you–believed in you even if you didn’t.

Most every child knows if their teacher(s) really care for them or not.   Consciously or unconsciously, they just know.  Sadly, they may not be able to express their conviction in words, or defend their convictions logically.  That’s why it’s necessary for the adult to “discover” the child’s feelings by deciphering what their body language, comments, and actions mean.

In twenty years of teaching, I have never met a teacher who deliberately made a child feel bad.  Why, then, does it happen so often?

Sometimes, teachers, being human, let their personal belief systems cloud their ability to see and understand differing beliefs.  For example, imagine you are a neat, even fastidious, person who highly values your appearance.  And, every day, “Sloppy Joe” walks into your class with shirt out and jeans torn.  What are you to think?  Actually, there are many choices.  Perhaps, this child is poor or without a mother.  So, instead of judging, you would naturally regard this student with patience and compassion.

What about more subtle beliefs?  The ill effects of a teacher’s unexamined, unconscious belief system can be devastating to students.  Fortunately, I have done my best teaching with students that I had little, or no, immediate rapport. It is easy teaching and being with kids you like.  I needed to check myself to make sure I didn’t judge students who exhibited behaviors I didn’t appreciate.  For instance, take a student I perceive is self-indulgent. In my mind, whether accurate or not, that child is being analyzed, judged, and executed in a mere second. And, it will take numerous counter examples for me to change my mind if I remain unaware.  These snap, unexamined judgments are often written as gospel on a child’s permanent record—the ones that follow him until high school graduation. And it just may be a projection by an adult with a different background.

Perhaps, there should be a Teacher Hippocratic Oath.  It would go something like this:

“As a teacher of young ones, I have the sacred duty to treat each child with loving kindness and the utmost respect–since we are equal at the highest of levels. My greater experience and knowledge is only temporary. May I not simplistically label this child.  And may I be wise enough to do what’s in this child’s best interests.”

This is a crucial issue.  This is an issue where, literally, millions of fledgling imaginations are ever so gently bent, inadvertently broken and eventually mutilated. It happened to me. At 12 years of age. I believed Mr. Meltzer’s (my seven grade English teacher) analysis of my poetry.  I bought his theory for the next twenty years hating any writing assignment. Then, I found myself almost-magically writing for a living.

This vital skill of teacher self-reflection is rarely, if ever, taught to prospective teachers in college. Would-be teachers are trained to reflect on the success of individual lessons.  Being taught to effectively reflect on their relationships with their students is at least as important.  If it exists, it is far too scarce of a commodity.

As the brilliant educator, Parker Palmer, understood: number one, you teach who you are, and everything else is second.

And so, in this era of teacher evaluation–just like so many standards, measurements, and inspections in school, we are trying to measure all the wrong things.  Will you, your child, and your entire family be the next ones to pay for this lack of consciousness?

Mark Gordon is founder of Kinesthetic Academics—learning academic skills through movement (in half the normal time, he can teach nearly anyone how to write a clear, five-paragraph essay by playing ball).  He has been Executive Director of an innovative learning lab, The AHA Center. His book, If Einstein Ran Our Schools, will be published next spring.

From the Teachers