Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dysfunctional Schools? Lousy Teachers? No! Hype and Hysteria Instead!

The film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird eliminated Scout’s first public school teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, in the interest of telling a complicated story in two hours. Miss Fisher receives only a passing reference when Scout acts out after her first half-day in Miss Fisher’s classroom; she fights Walter Cunningham in the school yard and later cries because Miss Fisher told her she should not read at home with her dad. Demonstrating the enviable parenting that Atticus provides, he comforts Scout while teaching her the meaning of the word compromise and promising not to inhibit her love of reading in spite of Miss Caroline’s admonitions.

Miss Fisher had a difficult half-day herself. She is the new first-grade teacher in Maycomb, and though she grew to maturity in Alabama, she comes from northern Alabama, a county that seceded from Alabama itself when Alabama seceded from the Union. Thus, Miss Caroline is already an “other,” someone different, an outsider to Maycomb and its ways.

For her first day as a first-year teacher, Miss Caroline painted her nails red, wore impractical high heels on her feet, and chose a bright red and white striped dress. She read a fantastic tale about cats and enjoyed it very much, unaware that her classroom full of children was less entertained. As Scout points out, Miss Caroline did not notice “that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.”

Miss Caroline had also planned a first lesson to teach the children to read. She wrote the alphabet on the board and asked if anyone knew what it was. Scout observes that all the children most likely knew because most of them were in the first grade for the second year, but Miss Fisher asks Scout in particular to answer her question. Scout reads the letters and some material from the local newspaper, upsetting Miss Caroline’s plans for the school year. She advises Scout to “tell … [her] father not to teach … [her] any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. … [that she’ll] take over from here and try to undo the damage.”

Most readers understand that Miss Fisher is wrong. Whether she is merely naïve and inexperienced or stern and controlling does not alter the fundamental error in her thinking. Scout’s ability to read is not damaging to anything except Miss Fisher’s lesson plans. An advanced student in any classroom requires specialized, individualized planning to further that student’s knowledge and understanding, and that’s tough for any teacher.

Consider how challenging it is for you to multi-task well for prolonged periods. Can you drive in heavy traffic while also making and taking phone calls without endangering yourself and others? Of course you can because you have done so, but evidence, both anecdotal and factual, exists to show that driving and telephoning is hazardous. A distracted driver is a road hazard.

Can you listen to a patient’s list of complaints while reading the on-screen chart and entering data without sacrificing something? No, you cannot. Eye contact is the first to go. Patients end up talking to space while the physician engages with the computer, glancing back and forth between the patient and the screen in a gesture to human interaction. Worse, physicians may not record an important symptom or clue because their brains are no better at processing information quickly and accurately than any other human.

But we ask teachers to multi-task effectively for several sustained hours every day. We ask them to be aware of who is present and who is not. We want them to read the room quickly, their eyes picking out potential hazards and acting immediately to insure the safety of everyone present. They need to be proficient with technologies of all kinds: SmartBoards, computers, sound equipment, video equipment, and more, but when and how they become proficient is almost an after-thought. One hour of training might be offered, but that training may occur weeks or even months before the teacher has an opportunity to use it. Schools do not often purchase expensive equipment for every classroom; teachers usually have to share, making the learning curve much longer.

Districts also buy new grade programs, online practice tests, and textbooks with little regard for how much support teachers need in order to master those and use them most effectively. In fact, sometimes teachers begin school years without a book in hand or must become proficient with software over a weekend.

Add to these expectations the need to know every student’s learning modality, learning style, home situation, reading levels, learning challenges, and motivators in order to design lessons that meet every student’s need, using complex sets of goals and objectives, brain-based research about learning, deep and broad content knowledge, and available resources. Indeed what we ask of teachers is exponentially greater than simple multi-tasking. No wonder the Miss Fishers of the profession need to categorize and generalize about students.

In reaction to increasing demands upon one person at the head of the class, teachers organized and asked for certain controls. In Chicago, 2012, for example, the striking teachers’ demands included a textbook for every student in every classroom on the first day of every school year. Who among you would define such a demand as greedy, irresponsible, or self-serving? Such a demand is in the best interest of children, not teachers alone. Such a demand has little to do with job security, a favorite indictment made by those who do not stand at the head of classrooms. Critics charge that teachers care more about their own jobs than for and about children. That charge is a lie.

Teachers also know that fewer students each hour throughout the school day foster excellence. Teachers can multi-task and individualize more effectively when there are fewer students to serve. They also know that fewer students enrolled each hour facilitate classroom management for without safety and respect, no child can learn easily.

The Gates Foundation and other non-educators influencing educational practice argue that a good teacher can manage and teach more students every hour; thus, their solutions begin and end with a good teacher in every room. They want excellence right out of the gate--a teacher with deep and broad content knowledge, plenty of heart and love for students of all kinds, and a large bag of tricks to deliver information in ways that appeal to students. They behave as if teachers do not want the same.

Teachers do, but teachers know that people grow into excellence and mastery. Mr. Gates was not as wise or polished at twenty-two. Life experience helped him become who he is. The best physician was not the best when he completed medical school, rotations, and residencies. He and she evolved and became the best. Indeed few individuals, including teachers, physicians, and CEOs, are masters of their craft without years of apprenticeship and experience.

Such perfection requires time. The seed does not grow into a ripe, nutritious fruit without time and optimal conditions. A teacher is not different. He and she need time to learn, reflect, plan, evaluate, and confer, and they need this time every day of every school year. A few minutes set aside for a planning period is insufficient. Longer days or protected days or fewer students and increased time to train are each and all good options--far better than plucking recent graduates from colleges and universities, giving them several weeks of training and a promise of retiring some of their college debt, then sending them into the worst-performing schools. Most of them leave as soon as they qualify for the bonus that will reduce their debt. Few of them are committed to teaching as a career; few of them stay long enough to become masters of their art and craft.

We need committed, career-minded apprentices who will return after a tough first day, a more difficult three-thousandth day, and a challenging seventeen-thousandth day. We need Miss Fishers who will let Scout read and excel while nurturing all those kids who have no money for lunch, those who will drop out to work the fields, only to return when the law requires. We need teachers who will help entire communities prosper, and we won’t get there unless critics stop believing they and they alone have the answers. They’re acting like Miss Fisher, and as I said above, we all recognize that Miss Fisher is wrong about undoing damage done to Scout.