Tag Archives: teachers

Thoughts on a Philosophy of Teaching

I was asked about a year ago to write a statement of my teaching philosophy. I just came across it, and it still seems pretty accurate, so I thought I would post it here:

The most fundamental thing I do in my work with middle school and high school students is help people relearn how to learn. Human beings are born self-directed learners and creative problem-solvers, but once they are trained to be passive about learning it can be a challenge to help them be active again. Also, almost everyone needs help learning to think critically and to evaluate sources of information, so I tend to make that a significant point of focus.

I am aware and appreciative of a variety of educational approaches. There are times, albeit few of them, when straightforward direct instruction and rote memorization can be the best choice. There are people, albeit relatively few of them, for whom the Summerhill or Sudbury models of complete freedom are best. In my experience, for most people most of the time, something between these extremes is what works, but exactly what works can vary not only from student to student, but from day to day. I believe a good teacher has many tools available and is willing to adapt practice to the needs of the moment. A great teacher knows instinctively when and with whom to use which tools. A master teacher uses all those tools expertly. I have seen only a few master teachers in my life, and they are every bit as impressive as the master musicians and mathematicians and other geniuses of the world.

My education hero is Maria Montessori, not because I agree with everything she ever said (I don’t), but because she based her theories and strategies on her observations of how children actually learn, and she believed in continually developing her practice, building on what worked and throwing away what didn’t. Current neuroscience supports her ideas. It seems every time I read about a new study of how people learn I find myself thinking that Maria Montessori figured that out a hundred years ago.

Theorists of education, like theorists of any discipline concerning the behavior of human beings, tend to fall prey to the natural human desire to reduce everything to some neat, replicable pattern, some set of universal rules. While it is possible to discover predictable patterns and tendencies and to build effective structures based on them, it is a mistake to believe you will ever be able to find a rule of human behavior for which there is no exception, or that you will ever be able to build a structure for human use, physical or theoretical, that will never need to be changed. Human beings are too varied and odd and unpredictable for that. That is why I love working with them. The challenge never ends, and I am confident it never will.

I am a good teacher. Maybe, on my best days, I am even a great one. I am far from mastery, but I am so driven to help every student that I continually seek out new tools and techniques and work hard to develop my ability to use them. I believe it is crucial to get to know each student well. Even the most difficult to reach student has a way in that you can find if you keep trying, and even the most delightfully easy to teach student has a challenge he or she needs help to overcome.

It took me many years to figure out which of the many problems in the world I most want to help solve, but I finally realized that what upsets me the most is wasted human potential. If we all make the best possible use of our abilities, our world will definitely improve. That is why I focus my energies on education. I believe solving that problem is the way to solve all the others. It is my version of a Universal Theory of Everything.

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Why I Quit, and Why Teach For America Should Too

A lot of Teach For America (TFA) alumni have been telling their stories lately. Here’s mine:

In 1993, the year after I finished college, I joined TFA, which was still a new organization. At the time, there was a teacher shortage, and the whole point was that we were going to work in schools that couldn’t get qualified teachers.

I was supposed to be placed in an ordinary elementary classroom, but at the last minute a school in Louisiana needed a French teacher, and since I had a few French classes on my transcript (although I did not, by anyone’s definition, speak French) I was sent to fill that position.

There had been a fully qualified and dearly beloved French teacher at that school, but her husband got a new job in another town and so they moved. I was a far inferior replacement, but I was a replacement. As Teacher/Blogger/TFA Critic Gary Rubinstein has said, at that time TFA’s motto could have been, “Hey, we’re better than nothing.”

I struggled, a lot, but I was prepared to keep trying. Then, not even halfway through my first year, the French teacher’s husband lost his new job, and they returned. I don’t remember anyone’s explicitly telling me she wanted her job back, but it was a small town, and it was pretty clear. I met her. She was a lovely person, fluent in French, known and respected in the community, adored by the students. It was obvious to me that what was best for everyone was for me to quit so she could have her job back, so that’s what I did.

I asked TFA if I could be placed somewhere else, because I still wanted to help, but they said no, that they had a rule against changing placements and they couldn’t make exceptions because they didn’t want to be seen as a job placement service. It seems kind of ironic now, but that’s what they said.

I accepted that, and I was a dedicated alumna for about ten years. Then one day I got an email saying that TFA had decided that people who hadn’t finished their full two year commitment could no longer be counted as alumni. It was a bit insulting, that my ten years of talking them up and supporting them suddenly didn’t count, but now I’m glad, because I don’t want to be affiliated with them anymore.

TFA is no longer about filling a desperate need, where no qualified teachers can be found. Now the organization does what I refused to do. They take jobs away from people who are better qualified, more committed to teaching, and much more knowledgeable about the communities in which they teach.

I believe that most of the people involved in TFA have good intentions. I also believe that some TFA teachers may be better than some of the teachers they replace. On the whole, though, the organization is now doing more harm than good, and the people who run it seem to be wearing goggles, made from confidence in their own intelligence and virtue, that blind them to the detrimental effects of their work.

Maybe they don’t have to quit. Maybe they just need to find a way to restructure, so they can go back to filling an actual need. What I know is, when my attempts to help became a hindrance, I stepped out of the way. TFA needs to take off the we-are-saving-the-world goggles and do the same thing.

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Ossining, NY: A School District with the Freedom to Educate

This inspiring story by Jackie Mader in The Hechinger Report about the school district of Ossining, NY contains a lot of interesting information, but what struck me most was an innovative approach the district took to increase integration. They reorganized their four elementary schools so that each school, instead of serving a neighborhood, took one or two grades, and all the children cycled through all the schools together. It is not something that would be right for every community, not something that should be “scaled up”, although it might be something that would work in some other districts. It certainly worked for Ossining.

One of those elementary schools is now the Park Early Childhood Center, which has not only Kindergarten and PreK, but something called the “First Steps Program”, described on their website as “a family outreach program that… may provide assistance with anything that helps family stability, from health screenings and parent workshops to family enrichment, intergenerational activities,” and more.

This is a school district that is responsive to its community, always striving to improve, and addressing needs as they arise. They are able to do that because, as the principal of Ossining High School, Joshua Mandel, is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a supportive community. They give the high school the opportunity to experiment and try different things.” This flexibility is exactly what is necessary to provide for the needs of all students.

This approach is the exact opposite of what is now being promoted by people who call themselves education reformers. I believe most (but not all) of them do have good intentions, but they are fundamentally wrong. Everything they propose reduces the ability of individual teachers, schools and districts to adapt to the different and changing needs of their students. As more and more standardization is required, whether it be in terms of tests, curricula or school structures and practices, less and less room exists for creativity and true innovation. The changes Ossining made would not be right for every community, but they were right for that community, and that is the point.

As Joshua Mandel also said, “There’s not one thing that’s going to fix everything. We’re willing to try different things and to try to instill in our students that we will never give up on them.” These are essential characteristics of a good teacher, school or district, that commitment combined with that experimental attitude, and all good educators know this. It is only possible to exhibit these characteristics, however, in an environment that allows for it.

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Teachers Want to Teach

Teachers love to teach. That may sound obvious, but it is an important fact that the public debate seems to be ignoring. There is nothing better, for a teacher, than seeing a child’s face brighten in comprehension. There are few things more exciting for teachers than a classroom full of engaged students, learning something new.

If you start with a small group of students, all of whom have parents who value education highly, have the time, resources and skills to care for their children’s needs, and respect teachers, then you get to spend almost all your classroom time actually teaching. If you also have access to top-of-the-line materials, the latest technologies, interesting field trips and enrichment activities, you are in teacher heaven.

That situation is of course imaginary. If you have access only to outdated textbooks and computers that, when they work at all, are too old to run current software, even if you could get it, that is frustrating, but you do the best you can. If administrative edicts that bring new meaning to words like “byzantine”,“paradoxical” and just plain “idiotic” make you pull your hair out trying to comply, that is even more frustrating, but you do the best you can. If some of your students are in obvious need of medical or psychological attention, but neither their parents nor the overburdened social services system is meeting that need, then your attempts to make up for that take time and energy from teaching them or any of your other students. That is heartbreaking, but you do the best you can. If, on top of all of that, you are required to take hours away from the little time you have left to fill out endless paperwork, prepare students to take poorly designed tests, and address ludicrous criticisms made by people who have no idea what you do, it is hard not to throw up your hands and quit.

There are stories of teachers who have overcome even the worst circumstances and had brilliant results. This is cited as proof by people who clearly never learned logical thinking, much less critical thinking, that anyone can overcome these terrible circumstances. Even the star schools that seem to be succeeding have a high teacher turnover rate. The question that, incredibly, no one seems to be asking, is why do we continue to put our students and teachers in such terrible circumstances? An education system that requires the the Seal Team Six of educators in order to bring students to a basic level of proficiency is an embarrassment. No one wants to improve the situation more than teachers do.

I spent most of my elementary years in public schools, but I graduated from an expensive, private high school. I remember noticing that every single student in my class, no matter how untalented, unmotivated, or on drugs, graduated and went on to college, at least community college. Our teachers were good, but I highly doubt they were the deciding factor in this phenomenon.

Of course teachers can do better. That is what they most want to do. Perhaps there are some teachers who never cared about kids and just wanted some benefits and a pension, but I don’t know any. I know some who became so burned out by the frustration and the heartbreak that they now occasionally talk like people who have those motives. I know many more who continue to spend nearly every waking hour trying to find better ways to reach more kids more completely. I don’t know a single teacher who works from 9-3 and takes summers off. That is a fallacy. Are lawyers working only when they are in the courtroom? Are surgeons working only when they are in the operating room?

The idea that standardized tests will provide useful information for teachers is asinine. Teachers already give tests, and the good ones know how their students are doing even without tests, because they see their progress every day. They also know which students do well on tests and which ones get nervous. The tests may provide information that is useful to school districts or states, but they don’t tell good teachers anything they don’t already know. These attempts to second guess everything a teacher does are a terrible idea. If you make a job so devoid of decision-making that a monkey could do it, then only a monkey will do it. Anyone with any options will go somewhere else.

Of course bad teachers should be fired, and so should bad principals, and bad superintendents, and bad anything else, but has no one heard of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Good teachers should be respected and encouraged, and protected from things like bad principals and bad superintendents, and even misinformed and overreacting parents, although informed, concerned parents are a teacher’s greatest allies. As for merit pay, that is useful only in forms that don’t pit teachers against each other. Teachers must collaborate, and anything that incentivizes keeping their best practices to themselves is bad for everyone.

It is frustrating and heartbreaking work, but teachers love to teach, and sometimes, when they manage to get clear of the paperwork and bureaucracy and politics for a moment, they get the chance. When teachers protest the new requirements that are endlessly foisted upon them by people who neither understand nor respect what they do, it is not because they want to teach less. It is because they want to teach more. Wouldn’t we all benefit if we let them?

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