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The Essence of Teaching and Learning

Updated on May 20, 2012
Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch
Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

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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    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      5 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks Ausseye for stopping by and offering your insightful, experienced comments. Jeff.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Hi JeffMaybe: A wonderfully thoughtful hub with so, so much to say. The same is happening in our education system, seems like corporate simplicity is the very foundation of our ruin. Corporate power ha made the truth know, power corrupts and it’s doing it job. True passionate teachers live by the moment, both of joy and utter defeat, no venture no gain. True education for that individual is priceless, and comes from so may possibilities of intervention, too much to unanticipated option to control for a corporate system, so the powers just flatten it and take out the possibilities and call it educational progress. I pity the future generations who have to put up with such a flat poor fake system they call education today. Loved the read and appreciate the authors knowledge. Corporate universities are following the same road, flat, boring and unstimulating………seems the powers to be want us all illiterate, unquestioning and docile easy to control. The Mac-Ered this world or should that have started with the next alphabetical letter. Great hub.

    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks donnah75. Stay standing!:)

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 

      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      We all "gain more from the positive." I wish those imposing the top down mandates could see that. As a teacher, I do my best to stay standing and get the job done. I will surely be finding and reading your book.

    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi yoginijoy, Enjoyed your comments. Yes, sometimes I wonder about the education of our politicians. If you have a Kindle, I would be happy to send you a free kindle copy of No Teacher Left Standing.

    • yoginijoy profile image


      6 years ago from Mid-Atlantic, USA

      I love that you wrote a "fact-based novel" on your wife's experience in the elementary school! That is a superb way to show your respect for her and by extension to all those who teach.

      As a college educator, I know what you mean when you say it takes effort and it can be draining, but it is a vocation. Once a teacher always a teacher. Perhaps we could invent a way to teach the politicians? That is where we need to do some serious assessment. Wouldn't you agree?

      Great hub. Voting up and interesting.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      i am a chinese teacher.but i think your views can be applied to chinese students

    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Kris. Unfortunately, being a teacher often involves protecting and defending yourself, taking more time away from students. Everyone has gone to school as a student, erroneously view teachers as the ones in control, and unload their frustrations on them. Thanks for stopping by and offering support. Jeff.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      Great hub! I admire all K-12 teachers - it's not easy and while I know there are some emotional rewards in seeing a child do well, we as a society should do more to support these dedicated teachers. These kids are our future and I think we all lose sight of that fact.

    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks, you obviously are much more than "just" a teacher. Jeff. PS Diane Ravitch's book about the history behind NCLB and the negative effects is excellent.

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 

      6 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      Wonderful is pretty sad that as teachers, we must "teach to the test!" Maybe things will change and once again, we will be able to teach children the way they need to be taught!


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