Monday, July 21, 2014

A Letter to New Teachers

Note: This post originally appeared here in July of 2011. It has proved to be both popular and durable, and as the 2014-15 school year approaches, it seems appropriate to re-post it—PG

In a very few weeks school will be starting, and you will be starting a wonderful new career.

You are probably excited, and probably scared. A dozen large questions loom in your consciousness, trading places with one another in the Anxiety Gavotte that troubles the dreams (and waking thoughts, too) even of experienced teachers: Will I know my subject matter? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my new colleagues? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too? Will my school be a good fit for me?

You’re entering the profession at an exciting time, as I’m sure you have been told. Technology really is changing everything, and even the methods used by your very best teachers, perhaps just five or six years go, are undergoing some major changes. Thought leaders in our world call these changes “disruptive,” and many of them are just that. It’s likely that your school, although they may not have said this in so many words, will be looking to you, who are probably younger and casually adept at thinking about things through a Web 2.0-kind of lens, to quietly set an example for your more senior colleagues.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Paying It Forward: Further Thoughts on Why We (or at least some of us may) Teach

In my last post I suggested that a powerful motivation for some teachers seems to have been a desire to “correct” the teaching that they themselves experienced. I probably implied, without meaning to, that this is a sole impetus for those “restitutional” teachers, as if they were only driven by a desire to fix the teaching thing, at least for their own students.  

I realize that this isn’t quite fair, and, like most human endeavor, the motivations for most of us are complicated and manifold. 

As much, for example, as I have been pleased to work for many years in an environment that seems to offer an antidote to some of my own experiences, I am also aware of and grateful to the many fine teachers that I had and whose efforts, and occasionally whose style, I have hoped to emulate, in some way to continue or carry forward the gift that they gave me. If restitution is a powerful motivator, so is what might be called paying it forward. There are moments when I realize that my career has been a poor tribute to many of those who taught me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Restitutional Teaching: Another Thought On Why We (or at least some of us may) Teach

I have had some wonderful teachers in my life—a solid bunch in my public elementary school and another group in my independent junior high–high school. They shaped and influenced my life in ways I wish I could still tell them about; I’ve managed to get to the survivors, but all of this was long ago.

But I've had some serious clinkers, too: a trio of junior high and high school math teachers who killed off what had been a real enthusiasm, and too many senior teachers and a headmaster in high school who contrived to create an overall ethos so redolent of “guilty until proven innocent” that even my goody-goody self was often uncomfortable and unhappy. I confess I’ve also come to resent that my all-boys independent secondary school offered essentially nothing by way of instruction in the arts, presumably because such pursuits were neither suitably manly nor “rigorously academic” in the way the Old Guard there defined the term. I had loved my regular and well taught art and music classes in elementary school and had been encouraged by the teachers to further pursue both.

Which brings me to an observation I’ve been making for years but never fully explored: that there is something that I call “restitutional teaching,” the idea that for some of us a portion of our motivation is to see to it that what was done unto us or our friends as children: the squashing of spirit and passion, the dehydration of subject matter until it was truly arid and meaningless, the petty and often unintentional unfairnesses and humiliations that can scar kids for a lifetime.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Failure Studies

We’ve been reading quite a lot about failure lately, and clichés and nostrums aimed at getting teachers to embrace failure and to encourage students to do the same trip up and down my Twitter stream at the same rate similar exhortations to embrace “excellence” might have done twenty years ago, before a couple of stock market crashes (one just for dot-coms, one for everyone) and a brace of nasty, ceaseless wars. At least we’re trying to be realistic.

Failure is pretty wonderful, we’re told, and it is axiomatically the ancestor of all success. It’s certainly true that folks who don’t experience failure, either because they’re intentionally insulated from it by well-meaning but misguided responsible parties (parents and teachers and that sort) or because they are fortunate enough to get most things right most of the time, are in for a hard time of it when their ship inevitably grazes a rock or collides full-on with an iceberg. It is a truism that trial-and-error, the technique by which even the most intentional of us often wind up using to get from Point A to Point B, is very much about making and then correcting errors. It’s an iterative process; so, pretty much, is everything. Welcome to the world. 

Once upon a time I knew and loved a man who had devoted his life, quite unintentionally at first but ultimately with full awareness of his predicament, to failure. I’ll not name him, but he was my father-in-law, a PhD neuropsychopharmacologist who had pursued his science after a stint as a medic in Patton’s army, where he liberated, if that is the word, several death camps; he had come to the conclusion that the world was a pretty crazy place and needed all the help, scientific and otherwise, it could get. We’ll call him Doc, which is how his neighbors, students, and colleagues referred to him.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Father’s School—for Me

For a long time after my father died two and a half years ago, I would occasionally have dreams in which he was present in the world of the dream but not present in my direct experience in the dream. He was there, but not right there. I imagine this is a not-uncommon experience.

More recently, however, he has made appearances, although there hasn’t been much communication that I recall between dream-Pop and dream-me. But one of these dreams awakened me to something I’ve been thinking about, which is, Things my father made sure I knew when I was a kid.

For example, my father wasn’t always entirely impressed by my teachers, and on occasion he would do the intellectual equivalent of strapping explosives to me before sending me off for some interaction with one of them. Once it was to teach me the term “aeger,” which in British university usage is a medical excuse from something. (How did he know this? Beats me. It’s the kind of thing he liked knowing.) I handed some poor teacher a note requesting an aeger from athletics, prompting a request for an explanation. When I gave the explanation, the teacher was certain I was being disrespectful and flippant, which perhaps to an extent I was, and before the episode had ended I was required to write a note of apology to the teacher.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Being Who You Are

A recurring moment in my life as an overnight camp administrator for many summers was when older campers and staff—many time “lifers” who had been campers and moved on—declared in some comfortable setting that “camp is the only place I can really be myself."

I never actually went to camp, but I could relate: there was a month each summer when I could be myself as explored the space around my grandparents’ place, mostly free of the structures and judgments of growing up among teachers on a school campus.

The past couple of conversations on the #PubPriBridge Twitter chat have been inspired by the very general topic, “K-12 Education and Summer,” and there have been moments that brought the whole idea of “being yourself” back to me. One of the questions with which we wrestled, in general, even global terms, was the whole idea of school responsibilities for students during the long summer break.