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.

1 comment:

  1. Terry (Toronto, Canada)December 20, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    Hear, hear to teachers! This is an admirable piece, focussing on the challenges they face and the creative ways in which they deal with them daily.