Thursday, May 8, 2014

Teacher Appreciation Week: A Personal Tribute to Teachers

It’s easy to see and criticize the flaws in our education system here in the U.S. – especially our public education system. And teachers are the face of public education – which means they often take the brunt of the criticism and discontent from all quarters, even for issues completely beyond their control.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a time to pause and reflect on the good and important work that teachers do – and to openly express our gratitude to these people who have dedicated their lives to helping our children (and us, when we were children ourselves) become happy and productive members of society.

I am a product of public education. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had been born into a society without it. And I can only imagine what my school experience – and my life – would have been like without the benefit of the extraordinary courage, kindness, and skillful teaching exhibited by many individual teachers I had the good fortune to meet along the way.

Carole Rosen-Kaplan, for example, was my 11th grade English teacher. She became a dear friend. Sadly, she passed away recently. Carole’s sons asked me to provide some comments for her memorial service. I realize now – too late – that although we talked a couple of times a year, I never told her how much I appreciated her as a teacher, or what a profound impact her teaching had on my life. I regret that.

I’m trying to make up for it a bit by “paying it forward.” Teaching is extraordinarily hard work. Often it’s thankless. Sharing the comments below is my way of saying to all of you, teachers:
Thank you.
I appreciate what you do.
The work you do influences and transforms your students’ lives in ways you (and they) will probably never know.

 ***

I met Carole when I was a high school junior. Her English Composition class wasn’t the English elective I wanted that year, but it was the only one that fit my schedule.

In retrospect, the class was so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that even today (decades later) I could probably write down most of the syllabus from memory.

I wrote my first short story for that class. It was about an archaeologist who stumbles upon a powerful relic in Egypt and uses it to travel back in time but ends up trapped. Carole (Mrs. Rosen-Kaplan to me then) asked me if I plagiarized it. I thought “Wow, that must be a pretty good story.” I don’t think it was her intent in that moment, but that honest exchange started me thinking that if I could accidentally make an English Composition teacher believe I had stolen a published story then maybe I could be a real writer who actually published stories. (Inspiration takes many forms.)

I wrote several chapters of a novel that year (which she read and commented on in her own time), and later became president of the school’s Creative Writing Club - my first formal leadership role. One of my short stories won a prize in a writing competition. I later wrote a short story for my college essay. It worked! (I got in.) AND a love poem for a woman. It also worked! (She’s my wife.)

It turns out that English Composition is crazy powerful stuff.

That year I argued against nuclear stockpiling in a mock trial of the global superpowers and wrote passionately about the Vietnam war, the Holocaust, and human slavery.

The class *involved* writing but it wasn’t *about* writing. It was about love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong, politics and power.

As I reflect back on the class now, though, I realize that what is remarkable to me about Carole’s teaching is that we didn’t simply *read* other people’s thoughts on these themes or even write about them in the abstract. When writing for Carole we had to choose sides - we had to “try on” different points of view and in the end commit to one. On the theme of War: will you, as the author of this essay, choose to glorify or vilify it?

More importantly - on the subject of war: will you, as the author of your own life, choose to glorify or vilify it?

But helping us find our voice was only one of Carole’s objectives. Her other objective was to impress upon us our responsibility to use it.

Perhaps the most poignant statement of individual responsibility I have ever read is captured in these lines by Martin Niemöller (assigned in Carole's class) about the Nazi purges:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. 
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. 
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. 
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me. 
I have recalled this passage to mind many times over the decades. It reminds me of my right - and my responsibility - to use my voice. More importantly, it reminds me that sometimes doing the right thing is deeply uncomfortable all around - and that courage does not mean the absence of fear but rather doing the right thing in the face of fear. Speaking up and speaking out is not the responsibility of a chosen few - it is the right and responsibility of every human being.

Carole’s class was called “English Composition” but the full title should have been something like English Composition: How to Find Your Voice and Raise Hell Through Writing.

I think Carole saw promise in me as her 11th grade English Composition student and was disappointed that in the end she didn’t inspire me to pursue a creative writing career.

But here is what I would say to her in response to that…

Carole,
Thanks in part to you I know who I am and who I aspire to become. I know what I stand for. I stand for what is right, what is true, what is just, and what is good. I stand for people - especially the people who can’t stand for themselves, like children. I stand for the right of every human being to discover their own voice and have the opportunity to be heard. I stand for the importance of helping people discover who they are, who they want to become, what they are deeply passionate about, and how to become the authors of their own lives.

No, you didn’t inspire me to become a creative writer.

You inspired me to become an Educator.  Like you.

All my love,
-Mike Connell
April 26, 2014

6 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog entry. I also grew up in the public school system, but I wonder if I got a good education; I wonder if it could have been better, like maybe in a private school. I did not begin "wanting to learn" until I started college. I am an educator now and I enjoy my profession, being in the high school classroom. I feel that I can make an impact on students' lives - and some have told me that I do; however, so much negativity is passed on to the teachers from the administrators that it almost makes it impossible to do my job. The negativity fogs our perceptions of what we teachers are here for. At the school I teach at, I feel insignificant, unworthy... like I am only here to babysit children and teach them ONLY what they need to pass the STAAR/EOC test. I disagree with this; the actions that our superiors want us to take are hindering our teaching capabilities in the classroom. At my school, the kids cannot even finish a book... we get to read a chapter here or there and then move on to something else, and it is insubordination if we don't move on. Is it different at other schools? Or is it the same across the board? Is private school different? Better? Sometimes I think if we had more support from administration and they created a positive environment for teachers, maybe it would be different; maybe teachers would feel appreciated and happy and not care about the stipulations we have to implement because everyone would be on the same side. I considered becoming an AP so that I could do exactly the opposite of what or AP’s do here. I would treat teachers well and with respect, providing positive feedback and offering assistance for improvement. This is the treatment that teachers deserve.
    How awesome is it that you had a role model, some who influenced you to be who you are today! I never had one, but I hope I will be one for my children and my students.

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    1. Hi, Heather.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm sad to hear it has been so challenging for you.

      What I see when I look at public education is not a bunch of people (administrators, teachers, parents, students, etc.) who set out every day to make each other miserable. Instead, I see a system that is massively misaligned, and I think that many of the ills you touch on are a by-product of that massive misalignment and the frustration engendered by it - including the practice of "teaching to the test" and the attempt to control teacher performance in ways that oppress them and prevent them from doing their best teaching. I think these are both by-products of the attempt to over-control a system that people simply don't understand and that isn't producing the results people demand of it.

      Unfortunately, both of these particular strategies are having the opposite of the intended effect - they have exacerbated the educational quality problem and, in fact, have become significant contributors to the problem themselves.

      A fundamental problem with public education as it stands today, for instance, is that it isn't reasonable to try to legislate the rate of learning. Trying to do that for a single student is bad enough, but legislating a single rate of learning for all children (giving teachers two days to teach everyone place value, for example) is patently absurd. Learning takes as long as it actually takes, not as long as someone arbitrarily decides it should take. And kids learn at wildly different rates, and have wildly different levels of prior knowledge. Some kids already know place value when the teacher starts teaching it. Other kids might need ten days to understand it. But everyone gets exactly two days. That's the kind of massive misalignment I am talking about.

      There are schools - including public schools - where alignment is much better. The conditions for success are complex, idiosyncratic, and fragile - they often depend on individual personalities and systemic combinations of different factors like leadership, physical plant, geography, character of the parent community, and so on. If you don't like the context you are in, maybe you should find one that you do like. Or, as you suggest, become an AP and become an agent of change. That's a great idea.

      And there are teachers who figure out how to create little bubbles of alignment in their classrooms. I recommend you go out immediately and rent "October Sky" and "Stand and Deliver" (even if you have seen them before) - both are a bit dramatized for the big screen but both are based on true stories of spectacular educational success despite oppressive contexts.

      If you don't like the system you're in, become an AP and start to change it, find one that suits you better, or create a system-within-a-system for your students like Jaime Escalante did. Just don't get trapped in an unhappy situation and let the system grind you down.

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  3. I agree, Heather. See yourself as an agent of change instead of a victim of unfortunate outcomes. Unfortunately the system evolved as it did because educators, who wanted to help students, were using limited educational models. The learning sciences can now offer much better learning and teaching models, so reimagining and rebuilding the educational system with these more powerful models will take time and many committed individuals.

    In the mean time stay positive, even when there are reasons to be negative. Compromise where and when you can, but stand by your principles. Be respectful, but be firm. Focus on affirming interactions and interventions that support growth. You may not be in the right environment or position, so keep looking for environments that you can support and can support you. Look for like-minded colleagues and collaborate. Show the school and community what empowering learning environments can look like. Provide your community a vision of the future.

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  4. I really appreciate the feedback from you both. Something that I have to do is gain more knowledge in order to stand my ground. The more one knows, the less likely they are to fall victim to persuasive appeals. Also, if I am more educated then I can conquer my fear of speaking up and being matter-of-fact.
    I hope to gain the strength to uphold my beliefs and not be struck down by people with titles. No matter how discouraged I am, though, I try to stay positive. It takes too much time and energy to be negative.
    Dr. Connell, I will go out and watch those movies. I will get back with you about them. :) Also, how did the system get so out-of-whack? Do you think if we eliminated testing (which will never happen, but let's go with it) kids would be smarter because teachers could spend time teaching... you know, where learning is actually taking place?
    Dr. Schwartz, I do have one colleague and friend that is on the same page as me; it is comforting to have someone on my side.
    Today, I had a meeting with my principal, appraiser, and my UEA representative and my principal stated outright that students are failing the STAAR test because the 'teachers' are doing something wrong. I was appalled. I feel that he is trying to "improve the statistics", not the school, and "manipulate the numbers" so that he can look like the hero that changed our school; however, the school is getting worse. Not because of the test scores, but because of lack of support and inconsistencies with admin.
    I don't know what the future holds for me or where I will be 1 year from now, but my hope is to make an impact. Go big or go home, right? :)

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  5. > Do you think if we eliminated testing (which will never happen, but let's go with it) kids would be smarter because teachers could spend time teaching... you know, where learning is actually taking place?

    No, eliminating assessments is not the answer (although improving assessments is definitely part of it). Without some kind of assessment we have no way of knowing whether students are learning anything - we can't directly observe their knowledge, after all. And without some kind of standardization of assessments we have no way of comparing across classrooms, schools, districts, or states to determine where we should be looking to find good practices and where we should be focusing on providing additional support. The answer to "bad standardized tests and bad practices of teaching to those tests" is not "no tests" but instead "better standardized tests that can't be manipulated through testmanship skills and other tricks." If the tests measured the learning outcomes that we really care about and couldn't be gamed with test-taking tricks or shortcuts, then that would be a powerful force supporting good educational outcomes.

    Note that "assessment" or "standardized assessment" doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience for students or teachers, and it doesn't have to take away any teaching time at all. With current technology, we have the capability to assess students using "embedded assessments" that are part of the instructional process. You can collect many hours' worth of assessment data without ever pulling kids aside to take a "test."

    Administrators, teachers, politicians, and parents have to use the assessment data wisely to make this work, however. Data alone don't have any consequences. Data on underperforming students, for example, could be used to figure out where to provide additional support, or they could be used to single out people (students, teachers, administrators) for criticism and punishment. More than the tests themselves, it's the policies and practices in which the tests are embedded that impact educational outcomes for good or ill.

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