Thursday, December 20, 2012

Excavating the Heroic Work of Teachers

My Communications 11/12 students and I are pondering the differences between a hero and a celebrity.  They identified selflessness as a heroic trait immediately, and selfishness in a celebrity.  They said that heroes are humble, since they are focused outward on their cause, rather than “showboating.”   Heroes, they said, do something rather than simply be something.

The trouble with heroes, I am beginning to realize, is that their work is too often unnoticed against the “showboating” of self-promoters.  When I polled my students, 100% had heard of the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton; a handful had heard of Rick Hansen, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela.  In the deluge of new media, heroes, it seems, need media specialists to get their word out. 

It is certainly true that teachers need someone to tell their stories.  Their heroic work is increasingly buried beneath the voices of those who “become something” by writing books, speaking, or joining the growing bureaucracy of education.  These voices, of course, call for change and zealously expound upon their theories to solve all problems.  By and large, their answer is this:  teachers are “old school” and need to embrace new methods, new technologies, 21st century tools and attitudes.  Most teachers would agree that change is needed, although they might quibble about what needs to change.  However, they are too busy trying to develop their practice to talk about it.  After all, while we freely spend money for politicians, researchers and administrators to debate change, teachers still have 30 very diverse children in a small classroom and in my district, at least, with little or no technology; they are still expected to teach prescribed learning outcomes and prepare students to successfully complete provincial exams.  And they must mark, make calls home, and prepare any “new school” lessons in small bits of time during the day or, more commonly, in the evening and on weekends.   They have neither the time nor the inclination – they are usually of a humble heroic mindset – to showboat.   They are too busy doing something.

But, oh, the amazing work that is lost in the noise for change.  Consider the teacher next door to me.  In one of her blocks, Debbie Keenleyside teaches a group of our neediest grade 8 students for 80 minutes each day, students who struggle with reading, writing, and the “schoolish” things necessary in our current system – sitting in a desk, waiting to speak, completing (even starting) required tasks, working with others, civil behaviour.   Her goal is to accelerate the progress of these students so they can have success in high school.  It is a daunting – a Herculean – task.

A few days ago, Debbie came into my classroom to ask if they were bothering us with the hammering.  We all quieted to listen; you could indeed hear a steady tap, tap, tap through the walls, but only when we were silent.  I was curious, of course.  What were they doing?

It turns out they were excavating bodies.  They were studying Pompeii and Debbie immersed them in that world – showing them clips from the BBC documentary “Pompeii’s Last Day” and then recreating the eruption of Vesuvius in their classroom.  She brought in buckets of dirt to make a lava mud flow; students blew up balloon “bodies” that they buried and then popped to show decomposition.  Next, they became archeologists, pouring plaster into the mud to reveal the remains.  Debbie had mixed in bits of tile and coins (she flattened pennies to make them seem ancient).  On the day she checked in with me, students were busy with hammers, carefully excavating their bodies and finding the debris of this lost civilization. 

If you aren't a teacher, you might not think about how much additional work this entails – get dirt, hammer pennies, buy balloons, tiles, plaster – and what bravery to move these students out of desks and into groups to work with mud and hammers.   She doesn't use any of the latest buzzwords – inquiry, problem-based learning, authentic tasks – to describe her work.  She simply looks at the students before her and tries hard to make their hearts sing with learning, their eyes shine with aha moments, their minds grow as they experience, connect, build – and to hear them say, “That was amazing.  What will we learn tomorrow?”

How I wish we would focus our attention on those who work so selflessly!  How I hope we will take care not to bury our heroes beneath the demands for change while nothing changes to support teachers in classrooms.  How I worry that without this support - and indeed with diminishing support in times of accelerating challenges - even our most heroic teachers will find it too hard to continue to fight to ensure that each child learns beautifully.  Because it is, after all, the daily extraordinary effort of teachers like Debbie that will change the world.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

When will we shut up and listen?

My return to the classroom continues to be difficult.  I knew it would be, of course, but it’s easy to romanticize the past, to remember the marvelous lessons, the spectacular successes, the laughter, the joy.  What you forget is the day-to-day grind of teaching, the daily effort to support, challenge, engage thirty adolescents, to not only keep the peace between them, but to help them find ways to think and work together productively.  You forget the isolation from other adults.  You pass them in the hall.  You snatch a few minutes of conversation at the photocopier.

 'Punch' cartoon, 1894
Every once in a while I remember my former life as a district coordinator.  Mostly I remember the meetings organized to “fix” education – or more specifically, to fix teachers.  I have been, myself, guilty of such hubris. A few days ago, I was reading an article about the Victorians – about the upper class women who worked with the poor, setting aside their embroidery and drawing lessons to visit the less fortunate once a week to lecture them about virtue.  Virtue, of course, is much easier when you have a full belly, when you aren't working night and day, when you haven’t been beaten, degraded, demeaned daily.  It struck me that there are similarities to the endless “professional development” for teachers.  It is true that we ought to improve our practice, implement more varied approaches, connect with student passions, differentiate, individualize, personalize, integrate, innovate, inspire.  But it so much easier to consider when you are not teaching, when your fine ideas are not shredded by the apathy of teenagers, when your attention is not constantly syphoned off to attend to the student throwing a paper airplane, the girl close to tears in the corner, the child who interrupts incessantly with questions, when you have a nice office, long hours to meet and think, and resources to purchase what you need when you need it.  

It isn't that I think we should not make every effort to improve practice, so that each child every day has a full, rich learning experience.  But I have learned that preaching about it won’t help.  Recently I listened to Ernesto Sirolli speak about the causes for the failure of western aid in Africa, and it seemed to me to apply both to the Victorian ladies and our approach to professional development.  He talks about his own failure as an NGO, of the two trillion dollars of aid to Africa over the last many years from developed countries that was not only not helpful, but did damage.   He tells of how often NGOs sweep in to “fix” things, but fail to ask the locals if it will work or to engage them in the projects they are passionate about  – and so failure is inevitable.  If asked, I'm sure the Victorian poor would have preferred to speak about working conditions than virtue.  Teachers, every time I ask, say they need time:  time to think, to plan, to organize, to collaborate.  Instead,  millions of dollars are spent on endless projects and the next new thing.  I begin to worry: have our "good works" as zealous educators (and I have been one) caused more damage than good?

If we really want to help, Sirolli says, we need to set aside our imperialist, colonialist, missionary and patronizing or paternalistic approaches.  We must become, instead, servants to local passion.   And to do that, we must first shut up.  We should never come to a community we want to help, he says, with any ideas.  If we give someone an idea, and they don’t want to do it – how does it help, he asks.  Instead, we listen, not in public meetings, but person to person to find out what is needed.  When they tell us their idea, we help to make it happen. It isn't surprising, when you think about it, that Sirolli's "shut up and listen" approach has been wildly successful.

I wonder what would happen if education leaders shut up and listened, really listened, to teachers.   I wonder what would happen if they found out what teachers need, what they are passionate about – and then moved heaven and earth to make it happen.  I'm not entirely sure, but I'm pretty sure, that the transformation that all our missionary zeal has been unable to effect would occur at last.  After all, it is through the daily hard, hard work of teachers that our children have the best chance to learn. Who better to listen to, then, than teachers?  Surely it's time we stop giving them ideas they don't want.