Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Beyond Standards

When I was taking graduate courses in education, I had a memorable interaction with one of my professors.  She was a relatively conservative type, didn't go in for what you might call out-of-the-box thinking.  She once remarked to the class that she thought teachers were paid "plenty".  But it was during a discussion on standards, and what they meant for instruction in the classroom.  It occurred to me that she had an overly narrow view of teaching, as she seemed to be presenting the state standards as the beginning and end of all classroom instruction.

I raised my hand to suggest that there must be things that teachers teach their students that don't fit within the narrow confines of the state-approved standards.  She asked me what those could possibly be.  Put on the spot, I offered a few ideas of the top of my head - cooperation, love of learning, personal growth.  Certainly there must be more to education than content standards.   Had I been more prepared, I might have quoted Dewey:
“The aim of education is to enable individuals to continue their education ... (and) the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth. Now this idea cannot be applied to all the members of a society except where intercourse of man with man is mutual, and except where there is adequate provision for the reconstruction of social habits and institutions by means of wide stimulation arising from equitably distributed interests. And this means a democratic society.”
However, I did not.  Flustered by her incomprehensible narrow-mindedness, I could only propose a hypothesis: there must be something we teach, something we ought to teach, beyond simple academic content.  I remember her words:

"If you aren't teaching the standards, you shouldn't be teaching."

Now in my 5th year of teaching -  Biology, Earth Science and Health at a continuation High School for at-risk students - her words haunt me.  Over the past half-decade I've seen a system in which classroom instruction, as monitored and mandated by principals, administrators and school boards, has been strictly defined by these narrow academic standards.  Teachers are then held accountable for student knowledge of these standards as evidenced by the results of yearly state testing mandates.  In theory, if a child has performed poorly on the state test, the teachers have not been doing their job in the classroom, and the principals haven't been holding their teachers accountable.

Of course, in practice, the system is incredibly flawed.  School performance tracks with poverty and population, itself an indication of a host of environmental factors that - more than any other factor - determine student success.  Transient students and ever-evolving life circumstances make the task of matching test scores to the performance of any specific teacher highly complex.  However the design of the state tests, and the fact that they involve hundreds of thousands of students yearly, spread across the entire socioeconomic spectrum, and the myriad ways in which the results can be gamed, make the scores little more useful than very general and vague reflections of any given neighborhood.

Yet the high-stakes nature of the testing regime - schools face intense pressure to demonstrate yearly progress - has meant an increasing shift in thinking among administrators and policy makers (most of whom have never taught in a classroom themselves) towards a narrow view of instructional content.  Standards have become the be-all-end-all of education, simple and reducible, testable and empirical.  If you aren't teaching a standard, you shouldn't be teaching.

Last year one of my third period Earth Science students was shot to death in front of her house, her baby boy surviving a bullet wound to his leg.  I was probably helping her learn the difference between convection and conduction.  I'm not sure if she ever completed any work.  Later in the year, I overheard another student - routinely obnoxious and defiant - recount to her friends how just a few years earlier she had been been gang raped by two neighborhood brothers.  She described in brutal detail how they had enticed her into their home with offers of drugs, and after she passed out she came to as they were assaulting her.  She described coming into and out of consciousness as the rape unfolded.  She was eventually expelled for fighting.  She was bright, and wanted to go to college.  But doing work was often the last thing on her mind. 

A local paper recently reported that our school had the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of drug abuse, according to an anonymous survey of the students.  Many regularly speak of family members' addiction, neglect, abuse, incarceration, or mental illness.  Last week one student told me of an aunt serving 13 years for killing her baby accidentally after she threw a bottle at its head and left to party with her friends.

Because our school is designed for credit recovery - we regularly have students who are 2-3 years behind in credits needed for graduation - we must tailor content to their extreme needs while keeping the content as rigorous as possible, balancing reality with academic optimism.  What this often means is that student work becomes a sort of shallow hoop through which they must jump in order to receive a diploma.  There simply isn't time for them to gain mastery, especially when it is all most of them can do to simply show up and not get into trouble.  The sad truth is that for many of these students, showing up to class, completing the bare minimum of work will at least earn them a diploma, and a sense that they will have something to show for the 13 years they put into an educational system which for them often feel more like a penitentiary than anything else.

While the standards are important, they certainly aren't all I am teaching. So, what is it I am teaching, exactly?

I try to smile a lot and joke around.  I never know what a student is going through at home, or what demons are lurking just beneath the dead look in his eyes.  I take lots of deep breaths and think about phrasing my words in the right way.  I've learned that if I say the wrong thing, I could send a kid into a reactionary rage, or put him off his work for another whole day - becoming just another adult who doesn't understand, who wants him to play a game he's tired of playing.

But if I say the right thing, I begin to make a difference in their life.  I know that I and the other teachers in the building are often the only kind faces they'll see that week.  If I can get them to smile, I remind them that there's hope.  If I can get them to see me not as the enemy, but as someone who they can count on to help, I become a pillar of support in their life.  Anyone can be dismissive of them, belittle them, or kick them out of class.  They've come to expect it.

I had a student last year, a tough white girl with an attitude, who walked into my class on her first day and asked me, "What the fuck do you want?"  After a lot of patience, and holding out hope that she would one day do anything at all in my class aside from sit and sneer, she began to change.  It took me a while, and she still hasn't stopped cussing, but at least she no longer cusses at me.  I would actually go so far as to say that she enjoys my class.  This year she showed up, said a warm hello, and got to work.  She's actually been one of the more productive students.

Then one day last week, she asked me if she could stab me with a thumbtack.  This is her idea of humor.  I told her no, but she could stab me with ten thumbtacks.  I had previously shown a video of a balloon being popped by one nail, yet easily withstanding the force of a bed of nails.  I imagined I could demonstrate this principal at my desk, with my palm.  Giddily, she lined up a grid of ten tacks.  I then slowly placed my palm over them.  Before I could say a word, she swung her arm down hard on my hand.  Pain screamed up my arm.  I turned my palm over and saw that almost every pin had been driven up to the hilt into my flesh.  I'm sure the first word out of my mouth was an expletive.  Followed by a question, "Why did you just do that?!!!!"  Her response was somewhat predictable: "You said I could!" 

After bandaging the bloody wound, I continued teaching.  No principal.  No call home.  What would that have done?  Would it have taught her that you shouldn't stab people with thumbtacks?  I doubt it.  It certainly would have made her even more angry and resentful.  Would it have taught her that there are consequences for her actions?  I think she knows that lesson well enough.  The problem is that she doesn't really care.

What lesson did I want her to learn from the experience? I wanted her to feel empathy for me, to feel remorse.  If she learns to more readily feel empathy, she might be able to access it quicker in the future, and thus be able to halt whatever terrible impulse she might be feeling. I knew that was a tall order.  But given the rapport that I had developed with her, it was the only real point of leverage I had.  If she respected me, if she considered me a thinking, feeling human with whom she needed to share the Earth, if she trusted me to believe in her, to never stop believing that she was a good person, capable of being a better person, then maybe, just maybe she might allow herself to be more empathetic in the future.

I spoke with her about it the following day.  Fortunately the damage was limited to a (rather cool looking) grid of red dots in my palm.  But I told her it wasn't OK, and that it had really hurt.  Really, it was a formality.  I think that any lesson that she learned from the incident went unspoken.  She had stupidly lashed out at me, pushing a joke way too far.  But I think she was probably testing me in a way.  People who feel like the world is their enemy have a knack for making it into one.  They don't feel loved, and so they're going to make damn sure that no one wants to love them.  In a funny way, the rapport I had built with her might have pushed her into feeling the need to hurt me, or at least comfortable enough to treat me as ruthlessly as she might another of her friends.

Who knows.  But, I kept treating her with the respect and love that I try to show all my students - even when they try to bite me.  Apparently, it frequently works.  The next day she was back to work, and I was still her teacher, helping her with her assignments again.

In education you learn that every student is different.  Each child has special needs.  When we teach to these needs we call it differentiated instruction.  Of course, in a class of 30+ students it can be difficult to identify and then meet all of them.  But you try. 

The needs are complex and varied - these are humans we are discussing.  Aside from basic academic competencies in reading, writing, speaking, math, etc., there are considerations of temperament and intelligence modalities (spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, reflective, etc.).  There are great variations in social and emotional skills.  There are the situational needs that arise because of events occurring outside the classroom. 

All of these needs tangle together in a blend unique to each student.  To teach effectively is to become a master at keeping countless plates spinning at once, both in lesson preparation as well as on-the-fly improvisation throughout the school day.  To do so is a skill that cannot be taught, but learned through experience.  Just as learning to ride a bike requires what feels at the time like keeping track of multiple tasks at once (steering, balancing, pedaling, looking ahead of you, holding on), learning to teach is likewise overwhelming.  And yet just like a riding a bike, the cacophony slowly blends into something not only manageable, but second nature.  The needs of the students become more easily targeted.

This process of human interaction is nuanced and as much art as science.  It is different for each educator, as each educator will bring his own unique personality, temperament, skill set, style and interest to the classroom.  And each educator will be able to meet the needs of his students in unique ways.  Some combinations of teacher and student will work better than others.  A baseline of good practices and pedagogy can be laid down, but educators will need to do what works best for them in pursuit of the needs of each child.

These needs will certainly not be met by assuming that the only things being taught in the classroom are standard academic content.  Educators teach patience, self-respect, respect for others, determination, humor, humility, confidence, compassion, courage, skepticism, open-mindedness, conviction, optimism, dependability, self-reliance, and much, much more.

Educators teach these things consciously and unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly.  They do so more on some days than others.  Some days they simply want to go through the motions, anything to make it through to the final bell.  Yet other days they radiate energy out to their students as if nuclear fusion was taking place in their hearts.  Together, with their students, they journey through the year.  Through good and through bad, they make a promise to each other that neither will give up on the other.  An in the end, what can be a better lesson than that?

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