By MARK SONNEMANN
I fall a lot as a professional. I sometimes teach lessons that are real stinkers, I have been known to misread students or parents or teachers and complicate situations, and I could not begin to count the number of occasions where I have failed to implement a change or articulate a coherent vision.
In spite of all of this failure, I consider myself a good teacher and an effective administrator. I am a learner — I try to get better each day and to learn from the bumps and scrapes I get trying to do the work. Because I think it is crucially important work, I can be hard on myself. After all, the collateral damage for my mistakes is the emotional and intellectual growth and well-being of children — and such damage is anathema to teachers.
This process of attempting and failing is inherent to the process of learning and to the work of teaching. We, at some level, know that we cannot be perfect in the work that we do, and recognize that means some of our students will not grow in the ways and to the degree that is possible. This is the pebble in the shoe of every practitioner, and over time it can become crippling in terms of practice.
Because it is, I would argue, very easy to follow the script of the last few hundred years, and know that a reasonably large percentage of your class will be able to succeed, cope with, or otherwise tolerate this formula and form of teaching. In some circles, teachers are praised for their strict adherence to this traditional practice and parents and other professionals (with some sense of nostalgia, I think) will proclaim that such and such a teacher is preparing their students for the world. The triumph of the blackline master! (use of sarcasm font intentional in the previous sentence….)
It is much harder to accept that truly masterful teaching is like climbing Mount Everest, 8 times a day, everyday, for 200 or so days. So much of what is required in reaching every student is contextual and relational and time-consuming, and mentally challenging, and emotionally exhausting, that we cannot climb that mountain perfectly (or at all) every time. We have been given a task, or a test, as teachers that we cannot hope to ace.
But, as I have seen many, many times during my career, and far too many times in the last year alone, we cannot accept this truth as professionals, and this drives us to extravagant lengths, or squeezes the creativity and compassion right out of us. For most of us, the first instinct is to overwork. We believe that if we only spent more time preparing, if we came in on weekends, if we became even more involved in extra-curriculars, if we ran homework clubs or created online communities to support students, if we read more, if we learned the new tech, if — if — if, that we would be able to meet the needs. It is possible, if we were just smarter, and more efficient, and more targeted, to pass the test.
A second inclination is to grasp for instructional straws — to swallow whole and try and implement whatever is on the pedagogical agenda for the system in a given year. We think that there may be holes in our understanding of teaching, and if we can just plug in the latest methodology that we can get back on solid ground. I have written about this kind of ‘improvement’ elsewhere —
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankensteinmedium.com
and compared it to the pedagogical equivalent of Frankenstein. What tends to happen in this scenario is that teachers do not retain or properly contextualize the practices they are adopting- which creates incoherence or alternately, the older ‘new practices’ simply get swapped out for the new ‘new practice’. In other words some of us go looking for that ‘silver bullet’ — that resource or strategy that will make an instant and transformative difference in our practice. As if we only knew the tricks of studying and memorizing complex sets of information we would be able to cram for the test.
A third response is to withdraw into the nostalgic and traditional and familiar — to teach the way we were taught: rows, handouts, teacher at the front, textbooks, content, testing….. I can understand the appeal of this approach, even though I disagree with the pedagogy. It makes me wonder how many teachers have given up on their dream for what their class could be, and retreated into what they know. How potentially damaging is that choice to our psyche, our self-concept, our empathy and compassion as teachers (or our students)? What happens when we allow the test to define who we are as practitioners and people?
In my own practice, I have reached out to the world by blogging, getting involved in twitter chats and social media, and participating in online communities that share the same interests and concerns. At some level, I believe that someone I connect with will have the answers I seek, and that will allow me to bridge the gap between my current practice and the aspirations I hold for it. How many times have I reached out to a smarter friend in my life hoping they would be able to give me the tools I needed to pass a test?
I am not being critical here of any of these potential responses — I think they are a natural reaction to a challenge or roadblock. Can we go over, under, around, or even through the obstruction to be more effective and reach more students? This is, I think, what all of us want, no matter how we approach our pedagogy.
What I am calling into question is the simple fact that we continue, as educators, to judge ourselves against this impossible standard, pretend that it is achievable in the current environment, and accept the stress and damage that is inevitable as a result — both to ourselves and our students.
There is no test. What we do is not a test. And just as many of us think that students should not be chasing meaninglessly around after points, we should also consider the notion that the students themselves are not points — we should never count their achievement as part of some sort of professional exam we sit for. Doing so dehumanizes our students and demeans the work we engage in.
Tests are essentially an all or nothing proposition. They are the end of learning — they cut, weigh and measure us — they make us ‘countable’ as Arthur Chiaravalli describes in his excellent blog:
The maxim “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” (often misattributed to Peter Drucker) sums up the continued…teachersgoinggradeless.com
I chose a picture of superman at the beginning of this article because I think that many teachers feel that they have to be a superhero in order to ‘win’ or pass the test of teaching. This metaphor for the teacher, I think, is part of the reason why so many teachers leave the profession or become discouraged and disillusioned with the work. The superhero motif does not lift us up or celebrate our effort, it literally sets the weight of the world (or of a child) on our shoulders — and who can stand for long under that kind of strain? It also creates a dialectic based on conflict — what is a superhero without a supervillian? What purpose does this conflict serve? Does it help our students in any way?
Whether you are a gradeless teacher or not, whether your pedagogy is enhanced by technology, or rooted in text — whether you are project-based, or teaching to mastery — however you do what you do in the service of children and families, please remember that your role is to help each learner take the next steps they need to on their personal learning journey, and to my mind this requires exactly two things:
First, it means that you are open to a learning relationship with them. You recognize that you need to know and understand a learner in order to help them. It means that you believe that listening to the learner is important, because there is no relationship possible without communication or exchange. It means that you are honest with each other because there is trust in a relationship. It also means that you accept that growth in the relationship and on our journeys takes work — work that we can only do ourselves.
Second, it requires that we accept that learning and growth are complex and contextual and that we cannot always get it right for everyone. It means that we understand the importance of planning, and technology, and projects, and interventions, and feedback, and all the rest, but still acknowledge that even the most awesome class we can conceive will fall woefully flat depending on us, or the kids, or the weather!
When we accept these two ideas, we change our practice from a test to a process. We free ourselves to be more collaborative and less isolated. We allow ourselves to make mistakes, and we model for our students that learning isn’t quick, it isn’t easy, and sometimes it takes many, many attempts in different contexts to take the smallest, shortest step forward. We give, in other words, a human face and likeness to the profession, and we create a context in which there are no winners and losers, no heros and villians, no us and them — only learners, big and small, young and old, working on getting a little better each day, and knowing that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can drop a step, trip, or even fall down — and that is perfectly OK.
I am not your principal. But I am a principal, and I want you to know as this year pauses for Christmas, that you are in my thoughts. It is my fervent wish and hope that for all of you trapped writing the test, trapped being a superhero, that you realize that you more than suffice as you are, and that your connection and commitment to your students makes all the difference in the world. Believe in the process, in your students, in each other, and in yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.
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