15 July 2014

The Myth of Super Teacher!

There was a time in my life when I thought I wasn’t a good teacher, and I would never be good enough. I was taught that if you thought you were good then it meant you were bad. Now, of course, I don’t feel that way. In fact, I can look back on my Waldorf years and see that I was a good teacher because I was trying and caring. I was invested in the job: mind, body and soul - and, yes, it took a toll.

I feel the idea of being “good enough” is something that we teachers have to struggle with on an constant basis. The reason why we are struggling with being “good enough” is because teachers are often seen as NOT being “good enough”. In other words, when there is a problem, regardless of origin, teachers are expected to “fix it” and if we are unable to, then we are considered part of the problem.

I’ll be the one to take full responsibility for my actions and like most of my peers, I know we are the first ones to think about how we can make any situation we come across - work. We are also the ones who will most likely be hard on ourselves for not figuring out a student or curriculum dilemma. Most teachers are damn hard workers, so I resent it when we are seen as “not good enough”.

Enter: The Myth of the Super Teacher. When I watched Roxanna Elden’s humorous speech, I was excited that she really nabbed what I feel to be an important issue facing teachers today. But I wanted to elaborate on this idea because her speech was mostly targeted to new teachers.

To watch, go here: http://vimeo.com/43565010

Teaching and learning is a relationship. We seem to forget this when we hammer teachers with clever ideas on how to make students behave. Relationship advice, as we know, varies greatly, depends on the situation and the other person. If a student refuses to cooperate or learn, then what are we supposed to do? Students have to be willing to learn and engage. I get frustrated when teachers are asked to do MORE when the students can get away with doing LESS.

What’s worst is we look like bad teachers because we are seen as “unable to handle it”. We’re not good enough. This was how I was perceived at Trembling Trees. And it's crushing to give it your all and be told you're not doing enough or your best.

Obviously, most students can be worked with, but what I want to break is, this myth that the teacher is “not doing enough” (aka automatically at fault) and can work mind-blowing miracles on a student-by-class basis.

I mean, Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, has announced his brilliant new plan to put “good” teachers into low-performing schools! Here is the myth of the super teacher in pressure-cooker action. He’s kidding, right? Instead of looking at the reasons behind why certain schools are "low-performing" (aka low-income), he's assuming SUPER teacher can swoop on in and save the day.

Teachers need support. The expectation that we can always be better (this is really put on us), use our free time to do more work (which we already do) and give, give, give (we do, we do, we do) has got to stop. These days our most experienced teachers have 1-2 years when 20 years ago it was about 15 years. This is not a good sign. Enter the great exodus of teachers in these United States.

We can be superheroes because, frankly, that is why many of us got into the profession. We wanted to do good. We wanted to help students. We are already naturally martyrs and saints. Stop telling us “the skies the limit,” because most of us are already reaching as high as we can and with meager pay. The teaching profession is in a dysfunctional relationship with society and society keeps saying, “You’re not good enough.” I resent teachers being the scapegoat for society’s ills.

There is a great economical divide not only in the US, but throughout the world. In other words, we have big problems we need to solve. The issue of education is extremely related to haves and have nots. It’s time to think about how we can raise each other up rather than putting one another down. I think we will find it more effective for the education of our children, and our human kind.

17 June 2014

The Three Ingredients to Successful Learning

Jon McClelland, Harvard Psychologist, has stated that the three ingredients to successful learning are: wanting to learn, knowing how to learn, and having a chance to learn.

Sometimes you don’t even realize that you want to learn something until you have stumbled upon it. I was visiting my old college roommate Nadya when I saw her and her friend Sheree crocheting together.

“Oh,” I gushed. “I’d love to learn.”

“Sheree taught me,” Nadya said.

“Could you teach me too?” I asked Sheree.


I think Jon McClelland summation of the three successful components of learning is accurate and concise. If I had walked into Nadya’s room and never asked, I would not have learned to crochet. The desire or will to learn has to be present in the individual.

Secondly, I needed a teacher to teach me the basics, someone who possessed the knowledge and the ability to communicate. In this case, it was Sheree who was perfect because she adapted to my left-handedness which presented a tricky situation.

And lastly, the opportunity needed to be there. Luckily, there was an extra crochet hook and plenty of yarn to help get me started. Having the chance to learn means having the tools (or the imagination) to get the job done.

When I was six or seven, my mother made me play the piano. I had no desire to learn, but she said it would be good for me and invested in one. Next, she found a teacher who taught me how to sit, place my fingers on the keyboard and how to read music. It took a long time for me to appreciate what I was learning, but since I had to practice, I eventually became proficient at playing the piano. I dare say I even started to enjoy it. I remember on Christmas morning I snuck downstairs while everyone was asleep, opened the keyboard lid and started to play Christmas carols. It seemed rude, but I giggled as it got the job done - everyone woke up!

Unfortunately, we moved from Hawaii during the middle of my sixth grade year to the middle of nowhere, Barstow California or let’s just call it what it really was - the Mojave Desert. Here I had the piano and the desire, but no one to teach me and advance my work. So as a consequence, I stopped playing. If I was meant to be a pianist perhaps I would have pestered my mom relentlessly or taught myself, but as a child I needed the discipline and push that a teacher provides.

What is interesting is how I didn’t have the desire, but at a young age desire can still be taught. “Knowing how” and “having the chance” on the other hand, derive from outside the person. Having a chance to learn means you have to have the materials and in this case, a piano, but I didn’t have the knowledge which as McClelland states is one of the three components to successful learning. The learner is dependent on external factors. And given the fact that we learn by doing and watching (or reading) this makes sense. Learning is a relationship.

 * I originally wrote this as part of my entrance essay for SIT's TESOL or teaching English as a Foreign Language program in Bangkok. Thank you Steve, Bella, and Lyn for being fantastic instructors.

03 March 2014

Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face?

Some believe the backbone of the US was founded on public education, but that democratic ideal is now being threatened. As the US public educational system struggles to stay relevant, corporations like Pearson, and billionaires such as Bill Gates push for the privatization of public schools.

But are they right? Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face? What are the problems? Many educators, including myself, recognize that public schools are worth saving, and the problems are not what they first seem to be.

In the simplest terms, public or state education is free, and private education, think parochial schools, are not. Most public schools are funded by property taxes. Yet, as we know, some neighborhoods, states and counties are wealthier than others - creating an inequality of funds and monies.

Another interesting problem free education faces is no one wants to pay more property taxes. Yet costs of materials, like the cost of living, have risen, and government programs that were implemented in the past to help level student inequality have been eliminated.

There has also been a sharp increase of charter schools in America as part of the “solution” to “failing” public schools. Unfortunately, these independent schools have also diverted much of the funds that would have gone into public schools.

As a result of less funding, public classrooms, class size, curriculum, students and teachers have been, and continue to be, deeply affected. In fact, public schools are closing. Meanwhile, wealthy and privileged children are enjoying a higher quality education that does not include reduced spending on building maintenance, equipment, or program cuts like music, art and geography that public school peers are experiencing.

School vouchers were introduced as a remedy to this public school problem, and it’s a highly controversial system that essentially allows parents to choose any school, public or private with government monies.

The biggest proponents of school vouchers believe in the “free market of education” and trust competition between schools will force failing schools to work harder or die out completely, and reward good schools. Pro-voucher advocates, in addition, feel private schools will become more diverse places, and strengthen educational quality. In essence, vouchers are all about promoting school choice. 

But a problem to consider is private schools can reject students.  By their distinctiveness, they are selective. What made public school a great equalizer was, children with disabilities, learning challenges, or those from poor economic conditions were still able to go to a school. But even with a voucher, there can still be a financial deficit for lower income families to overcome. Vouchers are not free tickets; they are coupons for a specific amount of money to be applied to their school of choice.

Another concern is what competition will foster for our children and our schools. What privatization of public education truly creates is a “survival of the fittest” climate, and a “race to the top” as Obama calls it. Consequently, free and public education for all becomes education for the privilege, few and select who can play the game and who can compete. As Diane Ravitch, an education historian, astutely points out, there will be winners and losers in the competitive market of education.

For me, this analogy comes to mind. Let’s pretend we’ve really trashed and ruined a city, so we decide to move to somewhere else. Vouchers and privatization are in theory, moving to another city, and leaving the mess behind. Instead of figuring out a way to save public education, we're hoping a corporate model will be our savior. Unfortunately though, corporations can be corrupt and with no one to answer to.

In the world of learning, I don’t want winners and losers, I want the guarantee that every child can go to school and receive a quality education. Vouchers and privatization feel like a good answer, but there are too many families and children who will pay the consequences for our inability to keep education free.

References and further Reading:







21 January 2014

To Compliment or Criticize Students?

Did you know that teachers are inadequately trained to praise their students? Yes, in this Atlantic article, schools are failing to teach teachers how to classroom manage and praise students.

I was lucky. I had an excellent mentor who watched me and told me to “soften up,” as I was unbelievably stressed out during my first few months as a Waldorf teacher. In fact, I received so much criticism that I was crumbling before my very eyes. Although the collapsing did continue, I learned to give praise and to be more “motherly.”  This is something that helped me immensely in connecting with my first graders, and still is how I teach to this day.

But what I found interesting is schools themselves are not trained to give praise to teachers, so why would they teach teachers to do something they don’t even do? That is to say, I don’t think the current US teacher-evaluation system that is being pushed into place has anything to do with praise. Instead, I’m fairly certain it has to do with accountability and teachers’ abilities to get their students to pass standardized tests.

Back when I taught in the US, I thought it was biting that we told the kids they had to “play nice,” or “don’t say bad things about someone” when the adults were having a gossip bashing fest behind closed car doors and cell phone calls. But irony and contractions fill our educational beliefs and systems (and so many other disciplines if truth be told).

Now consider the article, Tough Teachers Get Good Results. But I thought we were supposed to give our students more praise? Which is it? Are we playing softball or hardball with our students? I suppose it depends on who you talk to. Personally, I was never the kind of student who responded to “tough talk,” or being called an “idiot” as the article mentions. I would have cried, become bitter, and shut down, as I did when I was yelled at for my handwriting not being legible enough.

The author’s argument for “tough teachers” might be better served in an after school sports program or ROTC. I participated in high school theatre and had a teacher who arguably was considered “tough as rusty nails,” and I definitely feel like we all performed better because of her. But at the end of the school day, I don’t believe in a “one size fits all” philosophy in education.

Instead, I believe in common sense. I believe teachers should know their students. A perceptive teacher will know when to push, when to pull back, and who needs a gentle pat. A good teacher will know her students, and I don’t think creating a fearful and stressful atmosphere is helpful in the long run.

In fact, I think there are a lot of scarred students and adults out there who think their “tough talk” teachers were just “assholes” and jerks. I think a lot of people have been turned off by education, book learnin’ and schools because of a teacher who felt they needed to be hard to get proper results.

This idea reminds me of the old schoolmarm who screamed and threatened her students to get them to do their work the way she wanted it to be done- or the classic Catholic school model of strict nuns in starchier habits keeping students in line with their God-fearing ways and hellfire punishment. You might think I’m being extreme, but then again, there are countless stories like these that have given teachers a very bad name.

Look, I know this is the kind of story (the tough teachers article) is the kind Hollywood movies are made of, a tough music teacher who made everyone work harder and how they became amazing, but to make the leaping jump to now we know that “tough love teaching works” seems poorly conceived – especially in light of the high stakes testing that is robbing the educational system of any integrity and well, education.

And for every study and experiment that can be made FOR tough teaching, there are equal amounts of studies and research AGAINST this kind of teaching. Malcolm Gladwell commonly cites examples in his books of schools that work, and I don’t remember once reading about how stress and fear created something other than stress and fear.

Seth Godin has written a manifesto called Stop Stealing Dreams: What is school for? and I know you will be less likely to read it, (hell, I’m still in the middle of it) so I’ve included a zinger of a TEDx talk he did on his book.

And for the record, if I haven't made myself clear enough, I'm siding with the revolution, and the ones who want to change education for the better, not go back and make it “tougher,” “meaner” and “grittier” to “show how much we care.”