On Education

Many educators are insane.  Year in and year out they do the same thing with their classes over and over every day and get the same results, failure and discontented students..  Their answer to the problem becomes as simple as, “Bobby and Jane did well as usual—what is the matter with the rest of these kids?"   Of course it’s easy to make those who excel—excel.  The trick is how you get the vast majority of your students to achieve, to become involved, and to become eager learners instead of reluctant or non-participatory non-learners.  That is the task at hand even if there is something “wrong” with these kids.

And of course for some the answer to the problem becomes "control" of classes that are unwieldy.   I have recently seen educators go through the “script” on a daily basis in order to "control" their classes in the name of true learning.  Where the “script” comes from, I’m not sure; however, the central office in the district is a good guess.  It is there that the administrative components of the district meet and meditate over the new, latest and greatest approach to teaching that will get the scores up, usually acquired from  sources other than teachers.   It is there that they adopt these new—"tried and true" procedures as the state of the art of teaching and then in-service the teachers with their new discoveries expecting conformity throughout the district.

Kiesha, please be quiet and raise your hand when you have something to say.  See how nicely Alyssa is sitting in her seat and how she raises her hand.  You can be just as good as Alyssa if you choose to be.

Of course the delivery by the teacher of these words is gentle and controlled and designed to praise and encourage.  Even so, Alyssa is trying to hide in her seat because no kid in eighth grade wants to be singled out especially as the teacher’s pet.  And Kiesha is thinking that this is dumbest teacher in the history of humankind supposing that I can really care about what Alyssa is doing one way or the other.   I have my needs and they are immediate and mine.

I have seen this strategy, (if it can be called that) used at all grade levels, employed quite frequently and of course the effectiveness of such a strategy really is negligible.  Pitting one student against another is counterproductive at best and by using a mantra like this on a regular basis (and I have seen teachers use it repetitively) the teacher begins to sound like an automaton as opposed to a real person and students don’t react well to “programmed” people.  They do react well to sincerity and reality.  And they respond to firmness without meanness.  They especially respond to teachers who engage them.   Canned responses used over and over again when kids are beings kids creates an environment where control and discipline becomes the main issue at hand and education becomes a mere sidebar.  And the fact that the “script” has to be used over and over again during the course of a day should be a tip to the teacher that something is not working.  Insanity is?

In my previous employment, part of my job was as district webmaster.  In that capacity I had the luck of observing the classes of a young man who had been selected district Teacher of the Year.  Below is a section of the article I posted on the website that addresses his ability to “engage” his students in the learning process.  I use the word "engage" with all of its nuisances intentionally.  Courtship is the essence of good education.

There is an ease in the room, a comfort that allows free exchange of words, thoughts, and ideas.  The students interact with one another and with “the teacher” freely and are always on task.  The subject matter today is Newton's theories and graphic examples are written and drawn on the board at the front of the room but are also being demonstrated by the groups of students in interactive scenes around the room.  And then, another scene starts, this time by “the teacher” drawing the classes attention to a mock arm wrestling event in which he and one of his students show how equal and opposite forces work.  Students now cluster around the table at which “the teacher” sits across from his student, hands clenched in ready position—stalemate shows equal forces—“the teacher” winning shows superior force on one side--the student striving for victory shows the opposite force becoming stronger and eventually winning (even if he uses his entire body to obtain victory) which of course evokes laughter and cheers from the class for the new champ.  All share the moment, and all triumph as they discover and understand the complex Newtonian Law made simple in a learning environment that is exciting and unique.   No--the teacher is not "entertaining" his students--an "MTV Special."  He is engaging them with his soft spoken and fun filled teaching style in an environment that is conducive to true learning.

There were no scripts used by this teacher and no need to use them anyway.  There was a genuine caring, nurturing person engaging his students with energy, eagerness and earnestness.  Even with a stranger in the room snapping photos, the students were focused and galvanized into a group of learners trying to understand a complex concept.  Questions were asked freely and answered in a free flowing exchange of ideas.  And still there was order and mutual respect.  The teacher gambled that a spontaneous arm wrestling competition that would excite the class and possibly cause disruption would add to his lesson and his instincts were right.  Control was not the central issue in his classroom: it didn't have to be because learning was happening.

The more I think back to my school days, the more I realize that the teachers who challenged not only me and my fellow students, but the status quo were the ones who delivered the most to us.  They excited us and engaged us.  As an educator I used to tell my students during the opening days of the school year that they would either love me or hate me by the end of the year (I purposely used strong extremes because there is nothing middle of the road about me as a person); however, they would not be indifferent.  Student indifference, and for that matter teacher indifference in the classroom is in my estimation worse than control issues and in fact may be the route of control issues.  It is invisible disruption, and worse, it is insidious. 

My rules for engagement as a teacher were simple although at the time I never wrote them down.  I have now and the acronym that follows delineates them:

·        E – Energize the students by involving them in all aspects of the class including grading, and excite them about what is going on in the class.

·       N – Nurture the students by allowing them to make mistakes without fear, to take educational risks, to think “outside the box”, and to always go one step further.

·      G – Gamble by taking educational risks, thinking “outside the box,” connecting class content to the real world, and always pushing the envelope.

·       A – Answer all questions honestly and teach your students how to ask and answer questions just as honestly.

·       G – Galvanize your class into a community with a give and take attitude, a sense of humor, and an exploratory nature.

·        E – Encourage the students to teach you and their classmates and be willing to learn from them as well as teach them.

During one of my British Literature classes, while discussing the poem, “Do Not Go Gentle In to That Good Night,” I recall that the discussion moved to the closing lines of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle in to that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I read of the poem to my class with a passion stimulated by remembering the death of my father and my relationship with him.  I had also provided information to the class about Thomas and his death bed visit to his father.  A stimulating discussion ensued where the consensus of the class was that lines indicated that fighting death to the bitter end was the advice that Thomas was giving his father and of course the readers of his poem.  A student in the class, who was generally a challenging student in all ways, brought the discussion to a new level.  He was a Mormon, and indicated that in his religion, the need to “embrace death” as opposed to fighting it was fundamental and an alternative to Thomas’ vehement advice.  By the end of class, most of the students in the class of roughly twenty-five had contributed to the discussion using anecdotal information and conjecture.  Some agreed with the ‘rage’ concept while some moved over to the ‘embrace death’ side.  Needless to say, that as an educator I was quite satisfied with the student involvement and more than happy with the opinions being shared so openly without reservation.

In retrospect I see that all aspects of the “ENGAGE” acronym I’ve coined above were employed during the classes I taught in one way or another.  I observed them in the teacher of the year’s class that I sited above.   I’ve observed their absence in various classes I have unofficially observed and instead have witnessed the teacher following a “script” over and over again designed to help the teacher control the class but instead creating an environment devoid of engagement.   As Einstein indicated—insanity is…