Saturday, June 28, 2014

Let Teachers Find their Ways that Work

Let Teachers Find their Ways that Work

I wrote the comments below after reading the post reached via the link:

[Ed Notes Online] Shades of 2004: Balanced Literacy Plus High Class Sizes a Recipe for Failure [3 Updates]
I have worked for close to three decades as a teacher in the high schools in New York City, including several years on family leave, working as a day-to-day substitute teacher and as a substitute para-professional (teacher's assistant).  These many years in the schools, working with students of diverse backgrounds, have been a learning experience -- and also a humbling experience. 

Whatever successes I was able to glean for myself and my students did not come easily, except under the best of circumstances, which were short-lived for me and may elude most teachers.  But what I did learn, and rather quickly, is that what worked for me might not necessarily work for other teachers -- and vice versa.  And what worked with a particular subject, grade level and student group might not work with one that was different in one or more ways. Indeed, as teachers have repeatedly found, what worked in period 2 might not work in period 3, even though the factors mentioned above appeared to be basically the same.

As a high school teacher teacher, I have taught, usually, close to one hundred and fifty or more students (mostly regular-ed) each day, usually in at least two subjects. Too often, I have had curricula to teach that were far too broad, given the time available and the multiple and varied educational deficits the students generally have.

These deficits become clear if one cares to collect and
carefully check homework, ask and encourage questions to and from all students and get other kinds of feedback. But, as sincere teachers know, all of that takes a great deal of time and effort.  Most of the advocated shortcuts give a very superficial picture, at best.

Given all of this, I rarely found time to interact, closely, one-on-one, with any one student, during my class-periods, for more than a minute or two a day. This was because other students -- and the much maligned task of  traditional "teaching" itself, also needed attention.

The main exceptions to this were:

a) during small -group or individual tutoring, usually before or after school hours, with or without pay;

b) during silent reading and writing assignments, provided the more restive students in the class allowed the relative quiet needed for this, permitting me to circulate and quietly be of some help to individual students or to pairs. 

When I was "subbing" frequently in schools where teachers were kind enough to leave such assignments, I got to know some students rather well.  I learned much about them that was surprising, sobering and intriguing.

But if I were truly able to focus more on this individual interaction, I think I would have found yet more that would surprise me -- of individual strengths, weaknesses and varied human circumstances.

I have given this particular, individual history because it is all I truly have on which to base my understanding in these matters of formal teaching and learning in the schools. I am sure that the experiences of others will have been different. 

Nevertheless, I will now dare to use my own personal experience as the background for, or springboard to, a rather sweeping general statement, with which I think most teachers with some experience will agree:
Teaching and learning are difficult enough, again except in the best of circumstances. So it is best to let teachers and students find their particular ways.  

There is no harm in exposing them to ways that are different from the ones they use -- but one should exercise forbearance in this.  Impositions do far more harm than good. 

Again, what I say is based mostly on my particular personal experience teaching (mainly) the sciences in the New York City High Schools for the past 27 years.  Others may or may not agree with the generalization I made above.  That is all for the good.  I would like to hear from them.

Teaching and learning, formal and informal, constitute the active, participatory transmission and development of human culture.  This includes outlooks, values, languages formal and informal, skills of diverse kinds, disciplines and their organized knowledge, the wonder of exploration and questioning and the sincere and difficult search for non-trivial answers... 

As such, teaching and learning are far too vital, for our collective and individual survival, to be left to the mercies of fads, dogmas, zealots, careerists and yes-persons. 

There are no substitutes for the traditional virtues long recognized as needed to be students and teachers who are truly sincere and successful (in the humblest sense of that last word). These include, of course, sincerity, respect, attention and diligence on the part of both teacher and student. The teacher, even more than the student, needs to have an open mind and an open heart. 

This may sound utopian. But without these things, or at least without these things as guideposts, we lose our way and wander into the deserts of cynicism and cruelty.

But neither teachers nor students can succeed for long if the structures and resources needed for formal education are lacking or counterproductive -- or if the social fabric is torn beyond repair.

I have touched on these things earlier, for instance in the post:

On Social and Educational Pathologies
I should remark here that formal education, with all its strengths, is no substitute for the informal education that was traditionally obtained from the home and the community.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Social and Educational Pathologies

This was a comment I made in response to a perceptive article by Robert Reich (a former U.S. Secretary of Labor). That article can be found via the link at the end of this post. I have lightly edited my original comment and added the title.

On Social and Educational Pathologies
Thanks for making these points, Robert Reich. A word about the schools in poorer (or even not-so-poor) areas: as part of the war against workers in general, and public workers and public institutions in particular, the public schools and those who teach in them have been targeted.

The scapegoating of teachers is so widespread that the real problems in the schools, with causes both social and structural, are unaddressed and even unacknowledged.

Those who suffer from this are primarily the sincere students -- and, along with them, the sincere teachers. Fortunately, there are still many in these two categories -- but they are both endangered species.  The recent punitive "reforms" might finally make them extinct.

The schools have little control over the social pathologies that enter into the schools and doom them. This has to be addressed by the communities -- and that entails sustained, collective effort to stem and reverse the alienating social tides that have been generated, largely, by commercial forces over generations and whose destructive effects have been similar to that of hurricanes. This effort needs to be sincere, and yet humble, open-minded and open-hearted -- a genuine grassroots movement of recognition, healing and empowerment, rather than a "cure" imposed from "above".

This is not an easy task -- but one sees little talk about this beyond the occasional sermons in the local churches, and there appears to be no regional or national organized effort to speak of.

The schools do have some control over the structural problems afflicting K-12 education. These include, in the high schools, a long neglect of commonsense concerns about traditional things such as:

-- respect, civility and integrity;
-- warmth, nurturing and collegiality;
-- purpose and choice;
-- sequence;
-- focus;
-- time and pacing;
-- familiarization and  habituation;
-- feedback and correction;
-- diligence and perseverance;
-- success and the building of confidence;
-- reflection, questioning, exploration and application.

Unfortunately, the administrative layers in the school systems have been more preoccupied with toeing the line to keep their jobs and clamber up the ladders, focusing on surface appearance rather than on content and humanity. 

More and more time has been directed at mostly unnecessary supervision of teachers, dictating "methods" of teaching and at the same time demanding improved passing percentages and test results. From all of this, fraud, superficiality and outright cruelty -- to both students and teachers -- are becoming the norm.

This is not an atmosphere in which teaching and learning, both of which involve relaxed yet sustained attention -- and also, at times, playful creativity -- can survive, let alone flourish.  Basic honesty, empathy, responsiveness and independent thinking are becoming increasingly scarce.

Two clearly observable (and linked) symptoms of the educational pathologies that have been generated by all of this are:

(a) the obsession with testing;
(b) the micromanagement and punitive evaluation of teachers.

The well-financed attempts to privatize the public school systems and to attack teacher tenure are part of what threatens to further demolish whatever remains of value and integrity in K-12 education in this country.
The schools, already afflicted with multiple problems that are almost impossible to handle without collective recognition and effort, are being made into even more hellish places, with all that has heart, tradition and value forcibly extinguished.