The Essence of Teaching and Learning
I remember when my eighteen month old son toddled up to me, put his little finger on my shirt button and said, "That’s a button!" His first complete sentence. Made me proud and excited. The potential. Somehow he had learned language.
When I taught English to teenage outcasts, I established a complex relationship with my students and a similar interplay of teaching and learning occurred. With my students, it was more direct. It was my job. It wasn’t unplanned and retroactively successful like my little boy learning language from his parents who eschewed baby talk. But I felt comparable proud moments when they "got it," whether it was understanding a comma placement or the nuances of complex poetry. Or when some of my otherwise disenfranchised students were able to accept their success and discover self-worth with poems published in a local newspaper.
I became principal of that alternative private school. And while rooting out drugs, calling police, and backing away from knife wielding students, I developed behavioral learning plans that taught them that they could (as my father used to say) gain more from being positive. Those learning moments were almost impossible to see, hidden by the exterior pose of tough antisocial teenagers. Sometimes, after verbal sparring, I could see it happen, their glare abruptly interrupted, eyes filling momentarily with understanding, then receding back beneath the rough multi-layered exterior. Learning occurred by accumulating similar moments over long periods of time.
As teachers know, this constant effort can take its toll. Negative energy drains you. You become exhausted and overwhelmed, unable to see the learning. After fifteen years of working with alienated teenagers, I had to move on. But another profession didn’t work for me, and now I teach English to technical college students, many who hated to write most of their school careers. Thankfully, I’m able to see learning occur again. It takes tremendous effort, and lots of repetition, but it does happen.
However, all of the challenges during my career in education pale in comparison to my wife’s. She has taught at the same public elementary school for 24 years. She is a brilliant teacher. Her challenges were and still are very different than mine. While generally my focus could be primarily on my students, her efforts to create learning moments are constantly and sometimes overwhelmingly interrupted by nonsense. Especially in the last decade. Politicians who have never taught in any sort of classroom dictate procedure. Administrators fearing for their jobs pressure teachers, and a toxic culture of fear ensues.
Under these extreme conditions, my wife has persevered, and often her students, even former first graders, come back to thank her. I listened to her stories, discussed plans and methods with her, and unfortunately, often I had to defend her. My admiration for my teacher-wife increases each year. I tried to convey this admiration for her and for all dedicated teachers by recreating many of my wife’s true-to-life situations in my fact-based novel No Teacher Left Standing. "All her preparation would never fully match the needs of twenty-five, stumbling, loud, anxious first-graders and their equally anxious parents. She could only brace for the onslaught. The daily presentations, nightly preparation, long hours, staff meetings and conferences, a long slog to winter break and the craziness of the holidays, but all worth it for her little ones."
The essence of teaching and learning lies in the hundreds of moments a day when students learn something as a result of the teacher’s actions. What they learn depends on teacher experience, temperament, and creativity, but also on administrative leadership, curriculum, political demands, and parental influences. Additionally, learning is affected by the wealth of the district, background of individual students, class size, classmates, social dynamic of the class, and the physical class environment. And much more of course. It’s easy to see how the variables increase exponentially.
The current educational trend, in place for over ten years, is a simplistic top-down bottom-line approach. A business model based on standardized tests. Students either pass the test or they don’t. Schools either make annual yearly progress or they don’t. While this seems clear and simple and workable, something everyone can understand, it has been a terrible mistake. Teaching becomes all about administering tests and data collection. While the teacher is collecting the data, the student is learning how to take tests. It drains teachers and wastes valuable instructional time.
There has been high profile pushback against the corporate takeover of our education system. Actor and teacher’s son Matt Damon has famously championed the empowerment of teachers and has called the current trends focussing on bottom-line testing "simple-minded" and "punitive" driven by "some corporate reformer" who has "never taught anyone anything." And esteemed education historian Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education and initial supporter of No Child Left Behind, has written extensively about the damage caused by the corporate takeover and emphasis on testing. Her most recent book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. And of course Jon Stewart, another son of a teacher, often counters conservative arguments for so-called accountability.
My own experience with current trends stems mainly from my wife’s travails in the public school elementary classroom. Since I have written fiction all my life, logically I use that medium to help shed light on an often misunderstood profession. My guess is that about ninety-nine percent of teachers are not overpaid laggards, as ultra right wing pundits want you to believe. As I try to show in No Teacher Left Standing, this piling on of negative influences can create extremely tense situations overcome only by the devotion, tenacity and strength of teachers protecting the essence of teaching and learning.
I wonder if my son would have developed his proficiency at language so quickly, and I wonder how enthused I would have been, if I had forced him to repeat "That’s a button" to a politician.
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