Streams

A Teacher's Lament: The Next Big Thing

Friday, September 14, 2012 - 01:10 PM

As a New York City public school teacher, I’ve been attending meetings for almost three decades. There’s always an urgent problem that absolutely cannot wait.

Students need more test prep. Students need less test prep.

Teachers must stand. Teachers must not read aloud. Teachers must sit in rocking chairs and read aloud.

Students must do all writing in class. Students must do all writing at home.

Whatever the Thing is, we must do it immediately.

Somewhere, somehow, someone has a job planning this stuff. I don’t know the precise job title, but I strongly suspect that person makes more money than I do, and has more office space. I’ve been largely working out of my messenger bag for the last few years. My students have nothing but ridicule when I walk them outside the trailer to the crumbling wooden stairway which I refer to as my office.

Someone is sitting in Tweed, in Albany, or at the Gates Foundation right now coming up with the new Thing. I know this because they never fail to instantly tell us about it. Sometimes I ask why they came up with this, and the answer is often, “Well, we had to do something!” So every year, there are meetings.

They begin with announcements about the Thing. Sometimes the principal announces it. Sometimes it’s relegated to assistant principals, and sometimes authorities are brought in to explain it in detail. Regardless of who speaks, the meetings follow a particular pattern.

“Thank you all for coming. It’s great to see you all energized and ready for another school year. Personally, I just can’t wait to get started,” the person will say.

“We have this Thing. You must do this Thing. This is the only Thing that works. We will observe you and pay very close attention to whether or not you do it, because you can’t possibly teach unless you do it every single day without exception. But don’t worry, because it’s the best. After we tell you about it, you’ll break into groups, try it, and report back to us.”

Experienced teachers often disappoint presenters by failing to get sufficiently excited. They ask disrespectful questions, like what happened to last year’s Thing? They are invariably told it’s out. It’s not the Thing anymore.

Some are even more disrespectful, suggesting it’s the same Thing we did 11 years ago, with a new name. This puts presenters in a rough spot. After all, the presenter, or someone for whom they work, was paid to come up with it.

Teachers are chided. You must move with the times, which are after all a-changing. Once we start doing this Thing we will achieve the active participation that’s forever eluded us. Yes, I know I said that about rocking chairs but rocking chairs are so 10 years ago.

This is where the eye-rolling becomes more pronounced. It’s not necessarily that the Thing is bad. In fact, it may work as well as they say. I will steal anything from anyone if I think it will work in class. And if it does, I’ll do it again.

But if I do it every day, it becomes tedious, and my teenage audience will not hesitate to let me know. Furthermore, what works for me may not work for my colleagues, and vice-versa.

I’ve seen teachers, mostly women, who endear their students by calling them honey and sweetie. I’m fairly certain calling enough 16-year-old girls honey and sweetie would earn me a spot in whatever they use for a rubber room nowadays, so I don’t do it.

But I listened with interest when a young colleague told me something similar worked for her. When she worked in my school, I’d shown her how to be assertive, and she instantly took it to extremes I’d not even imagined. It worked much better than the advice she’d gotten from her supervisor, which was none whatsoever. Her students listened to her, but also started calling her “the Nazi” behind her back. Now she’s found her own voice. Students who just obeyed her before now adore her.

In our rush to reduce education to choosing which of four circles to blacken, we’ve managed to utterly exclude teachers’ voices from the equation. Isn’t it, at long last, time to halt the search for the one true Thing?

If we are different, if students learn differently, if writers write differently, can’t we at least ponder the possibility that teachers can teach differently, and still teach well?

Arthur Goldstein is an E.S.L. teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School in Queens.

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