computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A good teacher

A bit unstructured – but I’m going to throw this out there while it’s still a little rough.

Been listening to Erling Roland from the University of Stavanger’s Centre for behavioural research , hired in for our last PD day before summer.

Mr. Roland’s recipe for a good teacher is fairly simple: organization and an ability to see individual pupils. He claims a solid research basis for these claims. Students do better with organized teachers who notice them.

What’s my problem? Well, I’m a very disorganized person and I’m no good at seeing people. Now what? There seem to be four options:

1. Accept that I am not the right person, do the moral thing and look for another job.

2. Accept that I am not the right person and humbly try to change.

3. Ignore all this and carry on as usual.

4. Reject this ‘recipe for a good teacher’ despite its empirical basis.

Let’s look at 2. and 4. (1 and 3 just seem too wimpy). Why would I think that I have anything to offer my pupils anyway? What does an unempathic, messy person have to give? Well, I’m good at learning things, so not only do I know a lot, but I have a lot to say about how anyone else can get to know a lot as well.

So, if I can learn things, why can’t I also learn to be a good teacher? It’s true that much of one’s personality is stable as an adult, but specific behaviours can be learned. This is one of the attractive things about being a teacher, actually: the job offers almost unlimited potential for personal growth. It takes a deal of humility, of course, to think like this, but I have got to the point where I can’t imagine going into the classroom without seeing it as an arena for my learning as well as the pupils’. I have a deal with myself. When I stop thinking this way, I will start looking for another job.

What about point 4 above? Mr. Roland praised a colleague of mine who had his pupils rise and stand silently by their desks when he entered the room and again at the end of class. There is good evidence that such clear structure around the school day (and around who is in charge) helps pupils learn better. There is also some time and stress to be saved by simply insisting on a certain way of doing things.

There is a danger here, however. I remember waking up every school day when I was a teenager and feeling nauseous. Because I had to go to school. Stand, sit, ask to go to the bathroom, not use the hallway (or my locker) except during breaks, etc. etc. The whole institution seemed geared to getting us to toe the line, behave and conform. No-one was interested in us learning anything, just in us sitting in our desks and doing what we were told. It’s no wonder I didn’t learn anything there. I’m congenitally unable to learn anything while sitting down anyway, and I felt the rigid structure of our school day was fundamentally disrespectful to the pupils. Feeling constantly insulted made it hard to learn anything.

A predictable routine can help create security, and a tone of respect for the teacher and the institution is important to establish, but I’m worried about an overly formal and rigid atmosphere being inconducive to learning. The trouble with empirical evidence for learning is that learning is hard to measure. The easiest thing to measure is rote memorization, so unfortunately, much of the research on what helps learning is actually research on what helps rote memorization.

It’s easy to believe that a rigid, military-style school atmosphere is a good atmosphere for learning facts by heart. It’s harder to believe that it is a good atmosphere for nurturing things like creativity, critical thinking and personal growth – and that’s what I’m interested in.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

End of year assessment

Here we go again. State exams are piling up on my desk, demanding my attention and once again this year I’m not ready. Grades for my own students are not set and I have a backlog of work to mark and portfolios to evaluate.

Why do I let this happen year after year? Well, I could always be more organised, but that’s not the only answer. I have such a backlog partly because I get talked into pushing deadlines a week, and then another week, and then two more days…and then…and then there are always a surprising number of students who have been sick or have had supplementary exams or who knows what. And then there are still gaping holes in my assessment overview. So I make deals, push deadlines some more. I send notes home and beg my administrator for permission to submit grades a few days late (oops, forgot that one this year).

Why on earth am I so soft? Because I know that if I just set a deadline and let it sit, I’ll have a ton of work that is not submitted. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to secure a good basis for evaluation. The teacher’s traditional weapon of lowering the grade for missing work is not available, and I must admit I agree with the current fashion in education administration on that one. I could just be content to set grades based on what little I already have from work throughout the year, but such grades are often unfair and no good reflection of the pupil’s real achievement. I could refuse to give grades when pupils don’t submit everything, but this has such serious consequences for the kids that I know I would come under severe pressure to set grades anyway. I could be strict and make a note on each pupil’s disciplinary record every time they do not submit something on time. I probably should do this, I know. They don’t like this and are likely to improve with this kind of threat hanging over them. But I don’t like this. This kind of police regime in the classroom is what made me hate school so much when I was a teenager. Education through threats and negative sanctions. School becomes about doing what is demanded of you, toeing the line, instead of being about learning. My job is supposed to be about helping people learn, not about threatening them to behave. I hate what I become when I start using negative sanctions to control pupil behaviour, and I must admit I’m no good at it.

So there I am, back at the central paradox of learning in the context of an institution full of people who do not want to be there. People who have to learn what is demanded of them, not what they want to.

Luckily, I seem to find myself surrounded by colleagues who also see some of the challenges here. There was lots of good discussion yesterday about the challenges of formal assessment. It’s good to feel that I don’t have to solve all of this on my own. Collective solutions will demand that we think very differently about how we 'do school', but maybe that can be a good thing...