Monday, October 12, 2009

Are You Experienced?

I read something recently about the counter-intuitive lessons of experience. A research study showed that as we get more experienced in a profession or a task, we do get better, but we also often become overconfident, overlooking the details or the steps that made us successful in the past.

I've been considering this lately as I wonder about myself as a teacher: Am I as good as I used to be? I can remember past classes that seemed magical while my present classes seem good, but some days are a bit of a slog. Perhaps as I look back on the past I'm painting over the ugly patches in my memory with Cocoa Rose (actual color) or remember my students at the end of the class more than the imperfect creatures they were at the beginning.

Regardless, I think we must slow down, remember and savor the steps, and not rush our students or ourselves. One of my favorite quotes comes from legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, who would tell his players to, "be quick, but don't hurry." As a teacher it is so easy to become so overwhelmed by the numbers of students and all the details that we rush or skip important steps like, "Why are we doing this?" In the goal oriented nature of education (these days), do we perhaps undervalue the process that is less easily measured? We know our students do. Their parents do. Our administrators often do.

The danger in skipping steps comes in creating a gap between our expectations for students and what we've actually prepared them to do. If we've rushed or forgotten something important without realizing it, and our students are underperforming, do we begin to blame the students? Have you met a mediocre teacher always bellyaching about how terrible the students are "these days" and what they can't do? Perhaps we're all in danger of becoming that teacher if we don't slow down, dig in, and do the slow and messy work that needs to get done each day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Looking for Inspiration? Try Three Cups of Tea

I know this book has been out for a few years and on the best sellers lists for a long while, but if you are like I was and hadn't gotten around to reading it yet, I believe it's worth your time.
In this inspiring non-fiction book, Greg Mortenson stops at nothing to get schools built and staffed in the mountains of Pakistan. He fights centuries of inertia, cultural bias and poverty, and...wins!
As a whole, the book makes me think about all the seemingly petty excuses for lack of success I use from time to time when things don't go well for my students or school. How often do we stop ourselves simply because of our own misguided beliefs and attitudes? Why do we keep on doing the same old things that don't work?
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said on the Charlie Rose show this summer that the biggest barrier to success is simply the willingness to act. When there is a problem, most people slink around and let it fester. The difference between success and failure often isn't intellectual brilliance or moral fortitude, it's just the ability to act. Something isn't working? Act. That doesn't work? Try something else. How often are frozen in place by our fears, doubts and conventions?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Energy to Teach

Now that I'm solidly back in the school year, I'm reminded of what a physical challenge teaching can be. Here was my schedule today:

  • 6:30 Arrive at my classroom...Organize the room,board and materials for a kid with Chemistry homework (I'm an English teacher) off to pick up the computer lab key...Boom! The first bell rings.

  • 7:50-9:20 Analyze college essays with bleary-eyed AVID students...develop some starting points for their own essays...go over to the computer several students one-on-one with the wording and conceptual approach of their essays...Boom! The second bell rings.

  • 9:20-9:50 Run back to the library and return the computer lab key...find my waiting homeroom students outside...try to connect with the twenty or so new freshmen kids in my homeroom whose names I'm still foggy on...answer their questions about how to get a password for their online grades account...Boom! Time for 2nd period.

  • 9:55-11:24 Analyze an allegorical story with my 38 English 10 Honors students...discuss the relative merits of rushing through life and being "phony" (We just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye)...Talk about what makes a good writing prompt for an groups develop prompts...Boom! Time for lunch.

  • 11:24-12:05 Run and grab my lunch...head up the hill for an AVID college tour fundraising with kids and another teacher to figure out how and where were legally able to sell food...choke down a tuna sandwich...boom! Lunch is over.

  • 12:05-1:33 Prep period! Whew...At least some peace and quiet...Read, respond to and "deal with" about 30 new e-mails...grade five reflective essays...Boom! Time for the last period of the day.

  • 1:39-3:10 Honors English 10, do the same thing I did 2nd period all over again with more exhausted students...Boom! End of school.

  • 3:10-5:00 Type up student prompts and post to the class with a parent and her son who isn't working as hard as he could be...Mom and I search for something that will motivate him...grade two reflective essays...A former student stops by looking for work as a tutor...Wife calls...time to get home!

Even just typing all this is a bit exhausting. I wish I could say I accomplished all these tasks in a calm and deliberate manner, but I felt rushed and harried all day. Perhaps the solution is to accept that there is simply too much for one person to do every day. When I woke up this morning I wanted to get even more papers graded, but the kid with the Chemistry problem and the former student, plus all the other unmentionable minutiae of the day, prohibited all that.

Sometimes I feel like I'm running in place or chipping away at a a tunnel with nothing but a mechanical pencil with a tip that keeps breaking off. It is too much but I don't plan to stop. My kids need me to do all these things day after day, so I go on. I suppose I just have to draw the line at my physical health and sanity. When I feel cracks forming in my patience or sense of hope it's time to take a break.

If you're wondering why I'm blogging, on top of all this? I'm back to the essays as soon as I hit this period.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


In order to teach and teach well you have to have a kind of cockeyed optimism or force of will. As Walt Whitman exhorted in Leaves of Grass, “By god man, you will not go down! Hang your whole weight on me.” Sometimes you just have to believe in your students and yourself against all odds and empirical evidence.

You have to be the optimistic one. Some days in class, you may be the only one. Especially when the kids are tired or if you have a tough class with kids who aren’t successful in school. Sleep deprived kids in a morning class may just want to endure it. Sometimes, it’s simply all on you to provide that spirit.

I don’t think many of us are used to being that person. Some of us have to reach down and find that optimism. It may feel like you’re putting it out there and no one is reciprocating, making you feel ridiculous. We’ve all seen the cliche of the extremely excited teacher (see Hamlet 2 if you haven't yet) who is not connecting to the students and looking clownish.

As a teacher, you have to risk becoming the clown and act in relentlessly spirited, optimistic and good natured way on the side of your kids. You can't simply protect yourself. Not only in the classroom but outside, when you see kids on the street or in the hallways, stop, talk to them. Some of the best teaching happens in these situations, when you have a moment with a kid alone and you can give a word of encouragement or a compliment. You must show that you care and that what happens in the classroom IS important, you notice, you think about them, worry about them and you ultimately believe in them. They will respond.

I’ve heard a lot of kids talk about teachers who they think are fake or going through the motions. When they catch them “offstage,” they’re just empty, or don't have time. That reaffirms the idea that everything kids do in class is arbitrary, fake and false, so everyone continues to go through the motions.

While you have to be that strong person, that leader, you don’t want to dominate the classroom. You have to be humble as well. You can’t just be Mr. or Mrs. Onstage Superstar all the time. You have to be that spark, then let the kids go and create the opportunities for them to shine. They can't do that if you're the only one doing the thinking and performing all the time.

Sometimes that’s hard when you get a really difficult class. Day after day it seems like you are the one dragging the class along like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill. However, if you stick with it day after day after day, the kids will respond. Maybe not all of them, but even the ones that don’t will respect you for it and at least have an example in their mind of someone who doesn’t give up.

You never know what seed you’re planting. A kid could change a month after your class, a year, a couple years and perhaps a piece of what you did helped them. Just keep plowing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Your Life Outside of Teaching

Where do you draw the line between teaching, your family and life outside of work? If you have been teaching for awhile now, you know how all consuming it can be. If you haven’t taught yet…get ready. Although you will have the great vacation time that comes with teaching, the flip side is the school year with its fast pace and huge work load. At certain times of the year it feels like you work and work and work, come home, collapse and do it all over again. I sometimes feel, as Bryant Gumbel described when working as host of the Today Show, that I am eating breakfast again every five minutes.

We must be good models of human beings as teachers and if we are out of balance in some way and not living up to all of our responsibilities as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and friends, then we aren’t modeling appropriately. You have to craft your life so that you draw the line in certain places. Create boundaries where you say I’m going to work at this time and be with my family and friends at this time.

You must take care of your health, and get enough sleep, so that you can work effectively and when that time away from work comes, you don’t just collapse or hide in a dark room, failing your other connections in life. Keep yourself in that harmonious, singing mental state.
Again, make time each week. Don’t save all your needs for weekends and vacations. It may seem uptight, but planning is the best way to ensure that your needs get met. Otherwise, all your responsibilities as a teacher (whose work never ends) will creep up and bleed into the rest of your life.

I heard a teacher once say at a conference "Don’t neglect your own children in the raising of other people’s children." There are so many students with so many needs you could spend forever on those other problems. As someone about to have his second child, I'm determined not to let them grow up with their dad locked in a room grading papers.
Keep your inner life full and healthy for your own sake and your students' sake. They won't learn from a shell.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Joel Klein vs. New York City teachers : The New Yorker

Joel Klein vs. New York City teachers : The New Yorker

This is a disturbing piece about the nearly 1,500 New York teachers who are paid to not work. I generally support our teachers' unions and think they're necessary to preserve academic freedom. I observed some countries during my time in the Peace Corps where the staff changed at high schools as determined by national elections. Tenure does and should protect and preserve academic freedom from these kinds of political gyrations.

However, the unions undermine their own position when they defend incompetent teachers at all costs. In order to improve education in any sane time frame there must be a mechanism to move consistently poor teachers out of the profession. One teacher in this article implied that poor teachers would realize they couldn't do it and voluntarily leave the profession. While this does sometimes happen, I think we all know there are folks who stick around for decades when they don't deserve to.

The difficulty comes in how to judge teachers. Do we trust administrator evaluations? Test scores? I'm not sure either of these are accurate measures, but to claim that there is no possible way to judge teachers fairly, and therefore all should keep their jobs no matter what, is intellectually dishonest.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Future of Reading -New York Times

The Future of Reading
Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like

This is an interesting New York Times article about some teachers and districts letting kids read whatever they like in English classes in order to encourage them to read more and like what they read. I understand why teachers would do this, however, I wonder if we should abandon the great books of our history and culture so easily.

Perhaps we simply need to do a better job of making the case to our students for these books so they actually want to read them. Maybe the failure is ours, not theirs.