I wish to introduce myself, the author of these pages, and to speak a bit about the pages themselves. I begin here with a small sampling of essential material – a bit of perspective through the author’s eyes and heart.
Teachers are at the center of the center of our culture and our being:
Whether a teacher is certified or unofficial, parent or friend, recognized or invisible, each of us learns from teachers and each of us is a teacher. The degree of teaching varies as do titles, yet we all have experience with teaching – expressive and receptive.
At the center of our culture is the child, a stage which every person experiences – a critical, pivotal, vital stage, determining the integrity and ability of the adults we grow into. At the center of childhood is experience and learning. At the center of this learning are the teachers, beginning with parents and those closest to the child, and as the child grows moving on to include the more formal body of school teachers.
Teachers help us grow into who we come to be (who are we on the surface, who are we in our depths? more on this later), contributing greatly to the very being of each of us. This translates into a tremendous responsibility for every teacher, of whatever subject, credentialed or not. How teachers act, think, and feel will carry weight far beyond the subjects they teach or the words they speak. The being of the teacher will connect directly to the being of each student. It is not enough to take data from one location and shift it to students, to espouse or to deliver only book-learning. Witness the inherent weakness often alluded to in the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”. Children learn by watching and experiencing. Teachers then, must become aware of their own being – and work to develop their own being, if they wish to maximize a beneficial effect for their students. [This is a topic worthy of considerable attention. It will be directly addressed and will weave throughout these pages as well]
For this reason, there is no healthy place in education for careless teaching or even casual teaching; the stakes are too high, and the subjects too valuable.
One might then ask, “What is serious teaching? What does it look like?” Here we butt up against one of the more difficult tasks in writing about teaching and education – which path to take next. With each of the writings I have published to this blog, numerous words appear that become springboards for deeper consideration. Words like habit, objective observation, choice, being, intelligence of the heart, learning, or practice for action all open up a wealth of discussion and learning.
Take for example, the phrase written above, “…there is no healthy place in education for … casual teaching”. Hmmm! As the author do I now need to explain that while casual teaching can amount to an injustice to students, a casual approach in manner with students can go a long way toward making them comfortable with you the teacher? And should I point out that a setting that has a casual atmosphere, while simultaneously holding a seriousness about learning effort, can be an ideal setting for student growth? Or do I save this for another day, another entry?
Choices must be made.
And so to begin, in an effort to bring some order out of a vast topic, I will focus on the group of teachers who hold an official status, whether in public of private settings, who are charged with the well-being and growth of children and adults of all ages. The writings and responses of these pages are, however, for any and all who are interested, as we each are learners and teachers in our own right.
Teachers as agents of change:
Is there any doubt that teachers can effect change? The doubt perhaps might be regarding the scale to which the teaching population can influence individuals and society at large. Let me state this clearly. Teachers are in a position to make substantial contributions to the direction every individual person takes and thus to how society is shaped. Teachers are able to change the face of entire generations, change the shape of the world, and this in turn can change even the face of the earth itself. Teachers are in a unique position to do so.
I know that this statement sounds grandiose, but I will make my point in time.
The potential for human growth is a vast and beautiful thing:
As a teacher I have had opportunity to not only ponder this truth, but to see it in action, up close. We are creatures designed for growth. This growth can be deep, valuable, and shared exponentially. To see children and young adults help one-another, to laugh and play and share joy together, to find deep satisfaction in themselves, brings me joy, hope and the energy to persevere in my efforts as a teacher. The potential really does seem endless at times – and progressing along that path can be observable at the same time.
There is much that interferes with the healthy growth of students:
-Children treated as commodities, to be simply turned into workers & consumers
-Children treated as minimally competent, kept in an environment where they are primarily directed from exterior sources (not self-directed) until well after puberty – far past when they are capable of serious and valuable self-direction and self-development – creating grown-up children rather than competent young adults
-Children growing up before the current generation were conditioned by a similar, limited schooling environment – and grew into the parents of this generation of children, doing the best that they are able to do as parents
-Children exposed over and over to blasting, attention-grabbing influences that have little to do with creating self-possessed, intelligent, empathetic, self-learning, deeply capable beings – and instead are simply being manipulated or mind-numbingly entertained
-Teachers teaching how to learn and to love learning when they no longer can do this themselves
I have been teaching for more than four decades. I began by jumping into the fire. Having graduated college with a BA in Mathematics I had little idea of career direction. I happened into a two-month Teacher-Assistant position in a classroom and realized that I enjoyed working with children. From there I accepted a position offered as head-teacher at a Head Start Program – two classrooms – thirty 4-year-olds. I loved it.
Having no teaching courses under my belt or teacher-training of any sort, I learned by stepping in and experiencing the practice first-hand. I learned by observation of children, by observation of myself with children, by seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and what it even meant that something worked or didn’t work. I am still learning forty plus years later. Yes!
From preschoolers to high-schoolers to out-of-schoolers I have worked with every age, as individuals and in classes, over a wide array of subjects, in regular and special-education settings. My favorite age has turned out to be – every age, or more specifically – whatever age I am working with at the time. I always felt engaged, with plenty of challenge and satisfaction to be had.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this I stepped out of teaching for a bit of time to get an MS in Elementary Education and Special Education K-12. The spark for this was a new state mandate. Pay scales were to vary between teachers who were certified and those who were not, even in private schools. The thought of getting paid less, with fifteen years of experience, than a certified teacher with near zero experience did not sit comfortably. And of course a Masters degree did open more doors.
I offer here a few examples to illustrate one very important thing that I learned – that all along the way I learn as much as I teach. This may not be directly quantifiable, but I know that every little bit I gain as a teacher, every insight garnered no matter how small, can translate to being better prepared and better able to teach in the next setting to follow.
**Danny was 4-years old and looked like a tough little boy, akin to a miniature NFL line-backer. But when dropped at the pre-school program each morning he could not tear himself away from his mother. He cried and he kept on crying. If his mother stayed with him for a while and played in the various interest-areas within the classroom he was fine. He enjoyed himself. But as soon as Mamma made signs of leaving he fell apart. Once he became familiar with the classroom setting it was time for the next stage. I asked his mother to tell him she was going to leave, for a short while, and would be back at 12:00. I held him. He cried, loudly. It was as difficult for her to leave as it was for him to unleash his clutch on Mama.
I held Danny with me for 20 minutes. He cried. We played games at a table and built with blocks. He seemed to be enjoying himself. The entire time he cried. Mamma Mia! He was getting heavy. At about 40 minutes into the morning he started to lose his steam for crying, and eventually just let it go. When Mamma came at noon he ran to her.
The next day he cried again when she parted – but the crying lasted a shorter time – decreasing with each consecutive day – until one day he was able to make a clean break. What he learned was clear, and precious. He learned how to deal with some strong emotions, about the passing of time, about how to face crippling emotions that gripped him, about standing on his own, and more.
What I learned was about patience, perseverance, how different each being is, and how to bring safety ad comfort to a frightened child. I learned how to observe, to adjust my behaviors and to open my heart to another – strengths for any teacher.
As difficult as this experience was for Danny, there was something humorous about the way he was able to cry his eyes out and simultaneously enjoy placing jigsaw puzzle pieces. He was able to hold these clearly opposite emotions within himself and carry on – a skill that all of us could use in life. I also learned that there are things that I and other teachers might chuckle at, with no disrespect for the challenges being faced by our students. It is more of an appreciation for the odd circumstances and difficult learning experiences life puts us in.
**As an Adjunct Professor for graduate students at a teaching college I rarely adjust a final grade once it is given. This is one case in which I did. Elise came to me, upset with her assigned grade. The A- would be the only non-A grade that she would receive, going back to prior semesters as well. She said, “I thought when I showed you the paper I was writing you said I was on track and that we had an agreement” Yes she was on track, though this of course is no guarantee of final grade. And No there was no “agreement” except in her mind. Those were her complaints. She voiced two arguments as well.
“I believe I deserve an A.” and “It’s troublesome to have a portion of my grade affected by a group project where one or two others do not do their part.”
My response was as follows:
“If you wish to argue the merit of your grade, or that I was wrong in assigning the grade I gave you, you will lose the argument. I can easily show you some of the papers written to which I gave an A grade. Yours is not in that same category. It’s a difficult path to argue a grade with a teacher unless it was given grossly in error. If you do wish to discuss a change of your grade then focus on the second part of your argument.”
I then allowed her to further explain herself according to the teamwork project. I do have sympathy for this argument, having experienced the same frustration a number of times. When consequences come to you that are out of your control and in the hands of others it can be very frustrating. We spoke about what she learned in all of this, both in working with others on the team project and in her efforts at changing a college grade. I gave her a written assignment as well – to complete one portion of the final class paper that she had submitted earlier regarding self-reflection. This had been a weakness for her. She completed it and I changed her grade.
Here is some of the reasoning involved in my decision:
-Elise’s accomplishment in class could have gone toward an A or A-. It was at the cusp.
-Having one’s grade affected by the actions of others can be troublesome, for sure – I agree
-Through our discussion and her difficulties I believe that she learned some valuable lessons – this was the very purpose of the team-work assignment
-I saw no reason, for her benefit or mine, to retain a grade of A- (in another circumstance it could be just what is needed) and to spoil the greater effort she was making
Things she may have learned:
-Just because she wants something, or believes that she will get it, does not guarantee fulfillment, no matter how great she builds the supporting structure in her mind
-Having a conversation with someone does not mean that your perspectives are in common with the other person’s perspectives
-How one approaches someone who has something you want, makes a difference. If she had continued down the path of complaint she would have gotten nowhere with me. Instead she took a reasonable approach and allowed me to guide her in how to speak to me, the teacher.
-Working with others can be a difficult thing, and one that cannot be ignored, at school, at work, in life. It must be addressed. How shall one proceed?
Some of what I learned:
-How to hold a firm stance with a student while at the same time holding a willingness to yield. This creates options, as I am not stuck in any particular trajectory, and choice is a valuable commodity for teachers.
-How to fine-tune the guidance I could offer a student so that she both learns something and knows that she is learning it.
-How to hold a position of objectivity without being defensive, to hold empathy for this other person, and at the same time weigh my actions on several scales of value (for me, for the student, for the school…)
**Every Monday Sandra came to the Learning Center for help with Language Arts and learning to read. Every Monday one of Sandra’s parents came and sat with her during her tutoring lesson. I was comfortable with this. I didn’t consider them helicopter parents and they were not looking for faults in any direction. They were simply highly-interested parents. Typically parents did not accompany students who visited me or other tutors I hired at my Learning Center.
I incorporated visual materials from the Orton-Gillingham program designed for students with Language Arts difficulties. The materials (and multi-sensory approach) were great and worked well with any beginning learner. They helped to make the process clear and understandable. I used them often.
Sandra made progress on a slow and steady basis, with occasional big leaps forward – but it was hard work for her. A time came when she no longer needed my tutoring services and was able to stand on her own. It’s not always clear whether earlier difficulties like this will be an indicator of slower or more labored reading/writing efforts later in school. And I usually never find out, one way or the other. When students are gone they are gone.
I helped Sandra with the the listening, the reading and the writing of the English language. Then it was time to change. I went on to work with a high-school student writing a thesis paper the next hour and then help a student with Algebra and Trigonometry the hour after that. I had moved on as well.
An interesting part of this story is that I received a call from the father, out of the blue. It was June, well more than a decade later. He said, “Sandra is about to graduate from college – and we owe much of this to your help. Thank you.”
Wow! a rare bit of feedback. “People may be grateful for early support for their children”, I said, “But rarely do they actually make the effort to call. I give you a lot of credit for this and I thank you.”
The gratitude I felt for the effort of Sandra’s father was rich. It helped me as well to realize how little of this long-term feedback I’ve needed in order to give fully to each student I sit with – for the gratitude has been built in. The gratitude has been in the moment, in having the opportunity to connect, to help, to shed light. Still, this feedback after nearly a decade and a half tasted sweet, and made all of the other moments of gratitude a bit closer and a bit more tangible.
I have presented information about myself, my perspectives, and some of the challenges and joys I experience through being a teacher. I hope that an appreciation also can be had by the reader regarding some of the challenges I face as a writer. Choices must be made.
Several topics have surfaced in the writing of these pages I feel should not be left unattended, such as “…to hold these clearly opposite emotions within himself and carry on”, “multi-sensory approach” and “The being of the teacher… “. As I attempt to tie a bow neatly on one package (this writing) several more gifts appear that need wrapping, popping up all around me. I could face this as an exhausting or as an exhilarating exercise.
One thing does, however, stand out for me in all of this: what I have been speaking about is currently taking place. I am being challenged and I am learning – still – how exciting!