Thursday, October 9, 2014

Don't Be Afraid to Get Your Hands Dirty

Education is a messy business, and I'm not just talking about the paint smears and glue incidents. 

No. Education is messy in that it's hard to define. It's hard to know in any immediate sense if teaching has been successful. It's about gut instincts and intuitions, inspiration and leaps of faith. 

It can take many years for the effectiveness of a classroom experience to become clear. So many factors converge into the experience and success of one child, that assigning credit and blame becomes meaningless. 

That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They want "objective" measures of progress of students and quality of instruction. They invent new systems of testing, grading, and evaluation. They insist that we have to codify and measure by "objective" standards what we do in the classroom or it is not learning.

"They" are usually not teachers. Some of them mean well, others have an agenda to push.

But really, it comes down to discomfort with the squishy, emotional nature of learning. Research is so afraid of data that it is anecdotal or about how things feel. The longer I teach, the more that kind of data is the only kind I find meaningful.

Learning is an interaction between people--teachers and students, students and students, communities of learners. And people are emotionally motivated critters, not lab rats. A child's success in the classroom isn't about what textbook the teacher had, or what specific pedagogical approach she used. It's about relationships. When you find the right teacher for you, your learning skyrockets. And, with one who is wrong for you, the whole climb up the educational mountain just gets that much harder.

But no one wants to hear that "it's complicated." Or that what is successful in one place with one group of children and a certain teacher may fail miserably in another setting. But the truth is, it might.

Think back on your schooling. What do you remember fondly? Was it that your math teacher had the newest and greatest set of manipulatives you had ever seen? Was it that the lessons were available on a website for your later perusal? Did you even know what kind of educational philosophy your teachers espoused?

If so, you had a very different experience than me.

When I look back on the brightest spots in my education, they were all about relationships and connections. That long conversation with the elementary school librarian about why I found Little House on the Prairie books unsatisfying and why I might enjoy Louisa May Alcott more. The teacher who clipped poems out of a magazine to show me, telling me that the words reminded her of some I had written for her class. The one who listened when my heart was broken and I didn't want to tell my mother because I knew she never liked that boy anyway.

Good teachers aren't afraid to get their metaphorical hands dirty--they ask the tough questions, listen to the hard stories. They support and love their students. Sure, these teachers also taught me chemistry, algebra and literature. But you know what? I listened to them and learned well from them because they tried to know me as a person. Not because of how they taught, but because of how they made me feel.

I only hope I can do the same for my students.


  1. Do you mean to suggest that teachers can be something other than data-driven wage slaves? I am shocked, shocked to discover that there's more to teaching than high-stakes testing results.

    1. LOL. Careful, Jason. Your cynicism is showing. :-)