Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Fear & Loathing in the Teachers’ Lounge

April 15, 2013


 An opinion piece in yesterday’s NYT reminded me of something:  after 40 years, talk of teacher education makes me want to scream.

  So I think I will.

 Full disclosure:  I was a “teacher educator”.  Before that, I was a teacher.

 It may not be any coincidence that I am now a recovering academic, writer and composer.  But that’s another essay.

 Jal Mehta, the opinionator of the NYT article, is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, in the arena of academia makes his voice much louder than mine.  In this case, I agree with him, and was happy to see his words in such a large forum.

 Here’s the quote that grabbed me:

            “…In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.”

  I remember when I first became a teacher.  I had visions of the Teachers’ Lounge, that mysterious and elite preserve, visions of  stimulating discussions about wide-ranging issues of the day, intellectual concepts discoursed upon, shared confessions of personal aspirations beyond the classroom.

 Instead, amidst the sticky, half-empty Dr. Pepper cans, and the lingering cigarette fumes, there lay a cloud of fatigue, frustration, and cynicism.  This wasn’t everyone of course, and the more awake of us learned which break times to avoid, those times when the hard-core, hard-boiled tended to gather and take over our dreary little retreat.

The turf was particularly disputed, of course, in schools where the only air conditioners were in the lounge or the front offices, leaving both students and teachers to sit listlessly in stifling, sweaty, South Texas classrooms.  Guerilla tactics were often used to secure floor fans.  There were days when my students and I were most synchronized in purpose watching huge bumblebees swoop loopily across the classroom.

 Ah, the good old days.

  But I digress.  As usual.

  Ever optimistic, I thought the answer lay in higher education, and I went back to school for my Masters’.  I worked as a graduate assistant for a professor who one day decided to treat me to coffee in the Faculty Club.

 Wow.  Faculty Club at a small but prestigious university.  Now that was surely where I would find the intellectual stimulation I so yearned for.  All those brilliant profs I’d admired while slouching in the anonymous center regions of crowded lecture halls – they would be there, wittily holding forth on all sorts of philosophical matters.

 The topic of the day turned out to be crabgrass.

And I was ejected (and my hosting prof chastised) for polluting the sacred grounds with a mere grad student.

 I have known some absolutely brilliant teachers.  One or two I taught with.  A few I had the privilege of preparing for their teaching careers.  Along the way, I swear to you, there were dozens of decent, hard-working craftsmen and –women.  The couple of weirdos and possible-pervs tended to stand out, but they were the minute minority.  I suspect the statistical breakdown is about the same in any group, and can be represented by the bell curve.

 So, here begins my rant for the day.  Teaching conditions – for most teachers – have greatly improved since I walked into my first classroom in the ‘70’s.  Air conditioning.  Telephones.

But – and Professor Mehta’s article reinforces me here – teaching is hard damn work, done in conditions that are still too often taxing, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. 

Not to mention that now, in addition to spending all those years acquiring mastery of academic disciplines, and the combined survival skills of psychiatry, diplomacy, long-distance running, mind-reading, sanitation, nurse and time management, now we seem to be trending toward the expectation that teachers should also come fully armed and prepared to blow away little Johnny, with cold, keen-eyed aim, if push comes to shove.  All in a day’s work.

Because little Johnny still can’t read, but he has easy access to automatic weapons. 

So where are our best and brightest?  Maybe they’re too smart to go for that crap.

 I tried, very hard, to push my teacher-education students, to get them to expand their imaginations, to breed curiosity into decent, well-meaning young (and not so young) people, who, for the most part, sincerely wanted to dedicate their lives to a helping profession.

But too many were themselves already products of a system that rewards plodders.  I used to tell my students, if you want your own students to learn, you have to model what it is to be a learner.  You have to constantly demonstrate curiosity about the world around you.

I also warned them: if you teach your students to question, the first thing they will question is… you. 

 That is the scary and exhilarating part of teaching.  For me it was the whole point: to pry open young minds, if only an inch at a time, to watch the thrilling and challenging spectacle of dormant minds sputtering or leaping into action.   It’s what kept me in the biz for 30 years.  It’s the only thing I miss.

Far easier to follow the curriculum guides and teach to the test. That’s what gets teachers rewarded these days.

Not hard to see why the best and brightest would be bright enough to flee from a career like that, where not only will they be overworked and poorly paid, but will be drowned in a sea of negative expectations and bureaucratic hamstringing from all sides.

 I loved teaching, loved prodding students out of their intellectual comfort zones, loved connecting with them, helping them understand complex concepts or develop the skills to work through problems in their lives.  My years at the college level in teacher education were the most enjoyable of a long career.   But my college students used to ask me, “don’t you ever think about going back into public school teaching?”

I (diplomatically) never answered them honestly back then, but my response hasn’t changed after many years out of the biz:  

 Hell, no.



As always, I invite my readers to visit my website  and my Youtube channel.

Can You Smell Me Now?

March 18, 2013

Unless I’m greatly mistaken, you can’t smell me, though at the moment I’m much more fragrant than I was after an hour of vigorous exercise earlier in the day.

Technology does not yet allow you olfactory access to random bloggers.

Does that matter?

Let’s put aside, for the moment, some of the creepier implications and talk about what we’re doing to the kids.  That’s the topic Pamela Paul raises in today’s NYT, in an opinion piece titled, “Reading, Writing and Video Games”.   Ms. Paul makes a point I agree with.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she agrees with me; I’ve been making the point since I was in grad school studying instructional technology and she was a kid playing video games.

And no, I’m not going to yield to the temptation to wax geezerly (geezerish?) about the good old days of growing up with no video games, although –  argh! –  it’s so darned hard to resist.


The point – and I salute Ms. Paul for making it – is that there is a large contingent of folks pushing ever harder to integrate computers into schools for ever younger kids.  The computer contingent holds the opinion that computer-based learning is both better (than more traditional kinds, one assumes) and downright necessary, even for kindergarteners.

As best I can tell, there are two groups pushing to raise a new generation of iTots.  The first is, of course, the computer /software/ technology industry (I’m talking to you, Bill Gates).  No big surprise there.  What do you expect them to say?

The second – and I have some compassion for this group – is the parents, who, having found something that actually keeps the kids engaged, pretty much have to hope like hell that it actually IS good for them, because the alternative is just too unthinkable.

In the opposing camp, we have the overwhelming majority of people who actually know something about learning – the teaching community – and an equally overwhelming body of research about child development.  The topic is not new.  The facts have not changed.

But let’s not bog down in facts for the moment.  Let’s get sensory.

Humans still have five senses.  In case you’ve forgotten, these are: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.   These faculties come in really, really handy for living in the actual world.

I know, I know, virtual reality, smell-o-vision, all these technologies with their splashy promises and truly astounding advances.  I’m as dazzled as the rest of you, really, I am.

But let me put this to you in human terms.  Circuitry is not chemistry.   Your computer screen doesn’t hear the collective heartbeats of other people around you.  The best simulations in the world can’t factor in the infinite range of stimuli we all encounter every day:  the way your hands feel, clasped around a cold glass on a hot afternoon; how, even though they stopped making Twinkies, and you stopped eating them after the age of 10, you can still taste that impossibly spongy cake with that so-called “crème” filling, just reading these words, so much so you can still smell the school cafeteria that sold that delicious crap.

Or what about the woman who steps into the elevator and fills the closed space with her perfume, so that the scent lingers on your sleeve all day long?  Will that scent haunt you all day, distracting you with amorous imaginings so that you blow the big presentation?  Or will it make you annoyed and sneezy?

I remember something I learned a long time ago.  In education classes we used to talk about poor kids who were raised in so-called “deprived” environments, but a wise professor pointed this out:  all natural environments are rich with sensory stimuli.   The only deprivation lies with kids whose adults don’t take the time to point out the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touchability of the real world around them.  If no one draws attention to those rich objects and inputs, children’s perceptions never get a chance to develop.  Their very intelligence is stunted by a lack of sensory stimulation.

And now we’re saying, “Oh, never mind, everything you need is on this little screen”?

Maybe one day soon there’ll be a scratch-and-sniff app for us bloggers.  Not only will you be able to smell me, but I can market my new perfume, a potent fragrance I’m concocting to capture the essence of what I’m feeling about all this.

I’m thinking of calling it “Appalled”.

Read Pamela Paul’s article HERE

As always, I invite you to visit my website and my YouTube channel.

Face time, NOT Facebook!

November 8, 2010

This weekend there was a lengthy article in the New York Times about an academic study that was recently done.  It turns out that many college students, even while living on campus, choose to “attend” their courses via the internet.

I’ve been saying for about 20 years now, to anyone who would listen that what we used to call “distance education” has some inherent flaws.  The thing is, it’s been astounding all along to me, the extent to which almost everyone has drunk the KoolAid about the total, perfect wonderfulness of computerized learning.

Stop the Madness!

Stop it, I say!

So, the study in question actually got around to comparing students who live on campus, who either show up physically in class, versus those who also attend class, but do so by sitting in their dorm rooms, watching on a screen.

Everyone was so very, very sure that there would be no difference in the performance of either group.  After all, the computer is beyond questioning, right?  All that convenience, that connectivity?


Turns out that people who actually show up in the physical classroom get better grades in the course.

I’m not even going to apologize for saying I told you so.

Now, I’m not talking here about those of you who are using the computer to get an education because you live far from a college campus, or because you are a working adult who can only fit in an education at odd hours.  To those people, I say, more power to you.  Computer-based education is clearly a decent alternative for those who have such constraints in their lives, and those who have the maturity and self-discipline to stick with it.

The reality is most 18-22 year olds haven’t yet arrived at this point.   Bless your hearts.  Note to 18-22 year olds here:  perpetual youth has become so worshiped in our society, I like to remind you of some of the qualities of maturity that are worth wanting to shoot for.

But I remember, years ago, when this sort of computer teaching & learning was just coming into vogue, one of the math professors on my campus dove in and started a calculus class on-line.

The drop-out rate was… 85%.

My point here is this, my young friends.  There is nothing like face to face interaction.  If I am teaching a course, I stand before you, challenged in every moment by your questions, your attention, your eyes, your body language.  If I am experienced, I know immediately, without anything other than non-verbal feedback, whether I’ve made my point, or just confused you.

The real human contact was always the whole thrill of teaching to me (and I was a professor of instructional technology, so I do know both sides of this.)  Sure there are benefits to computer based learning, for both students and teachers, and I know professors who are excellent in using technology – not to mention the fact that a girlfriend of mine was able to accompany me on an extended vacation once because she could continue teaching her class no matter what country she was in!

But oh, my young friends, the glories of human contact are still the best thing going!  Even in a formal setting, between teacher and student, incredible things can happen.  There is an amazing energy that happens in a setting that is created for, and driven by, curiosity and the thirst for knowledge.

And you don’t have to tell me that the classroom isn’t always like that, that sometimes, maybe too often, the classroom is presided over by bored or reluctant or uninspiring profs, and filled with students who are likewise, all dozing or texting or otherwise zoning out.

But that just shows the reality of how the group creates energy.

So here’s my little manifesto for today: go forth into the world! Put your pants on and plant yourself in that seminar seat, and give your prof a shot at opening new doors.  If he or she isn’t quite lighting things up enough, YOU be the spark.  Bring your full force of curiosity, wonder, enthusiasm, into the room.  You could mutter and complain and slouch out silently, but you can also stir the pot with a positive love of learning.  It can’t help but be infectious, in ways that will never, ever happen while you “participate” from your bedroom, all alone in the e-void.

Really, can you picture the great Socrates telling his young students, “no biggie, guys, you can just phone it in”?

%d bloggers like this: