Last year I posted here “A Letter to New Teachers,” which I was pleased to learn seems to have been passed around and possibly to have done a bit of good in spots.
It’s rather unlikely that a new teacher, or at least a teacher new to the profession, is going to find this place. Not Your Father’s School readers largely seem to be people already in the trenches, some new-ish, some (I am told) a bit more veteran. There’s far more aggregate wisdom reading this blog than its author can ever hope to amass.
But I’ve been thinking, as I do each year as I go about setting up the new teacher orientation at my school, about new teachers, and about teachers in general—not just our work but our place in the evolving cosmos of Not Our Father’s Schools. My thought for this year—I think I’ll stand by last year’s missive for the new folks—follows. I’d love to get some feedback on this. Please pass this on if it seems appropriate.
Earlier this summer I wrote a triad of posts responding to particular aspects of The Students Are Watching by Ted and Nancy Sizer—a series of meditations on the ways we teachers behave and the lessons our behavior offers to students. It’s a book for the ages, cutting through the breathless chatter about methodologies, change, and politics to the heart of what we do and who we are.
It occurred to me the other day that the book’s subtitle, “Schools and the Moral Contract,” might seem both pretty abstract and pretty intense to many readers—off-putting, in its way. What exactly is the “moral contract,” and why should an old-fashioned concept like “morality” be imposing itself on schools and teachers in some kind of absolute way? In an age of relativism, a terrible thing in the eyes of many, how dare these Old School authors from Harvard and Andover and a charter school named after an old dead white guy (progressive genius though he was) suggest that there is a moral contract?
One tendency these days is for schools to go for the easy answer here, and focus on the obvious and inarguable: the basics of sexual, fiscal, and behavioral morality, where it’s easy to make distinctions. We can draw a sharp line that sets off the kinds of bad behavior that earn headlines—abuse, drug sales, embezzlement, violent hazing. Certainly schools can’t countenance these, by staff or by students. We can impose “zero tolerance” policies for some kinds of misbehavior, freeing us from having to muck around too deeply in messy gray areas. We can’t allow bullying. Of course, in many jurisdictions we now have the cover of the law to act as a surrogate for “morality;” bullying in my state is not just immoral, at a certain level it’s criminal. So is smoking pot. It’s so much easier to call something wrong when we can tell teachers and kids they could go to jail for doing it.
There is, I think, an even deeper and more demanding moral contract, although putting it this ways feels a bit awkward and in the analysis it risks marching headlong into messy gray areas. But I’ll say it anyway: it’s not just about schools and the moral contract, it’s also about teachers and the moral contract. And the students are watching here, too.
You can tell me that teaching is just a job, and recount tales of incompetents relegated to the rubber rooms of urban districts. You can tell me about all the public school teachers proclaimed by demagogues to be overpaid freeloaders working only for their long summer breaks. But remember, I’m a hopeless Romantic, and I say, Nuts!
Good teachers—and I think that’s a vast majority, in all sectors—willingly subscribe to a moral contract that involves a rigorous personal discipline and a code of honor that’s practically monastic in its simplicity.
The first clause of this contract involves belief: belief in kids, a faith that must be virtually unshakable, capable of expanding and changing as new students offer new challenges and new lessons in the possibilities of the human spirit.
The second section involves doing the daily, gritty, unpredictable, often delightful, frequently unrewarded work of preparing, teaching, giving feedback, advising, mentoring, coaching, consoling, encouraging, and otherwise enacting that belief in kids. Teachers know that slacking is not just an abrogation, it is a failure to keep faith. Naturally, some mutuality is desirable here, and to be expected. In the best of circumstances this becomes an equal exchange of energy—and of deep learning—between students and teachers. (And in the increasingly less teacher-centered classrooms of our time, this is more and more likely to occur.)
The third article involves continuing to do whatever is required, deeply and personally, to stay excited about and invested in the work and to keep our skills sharp and up to date. Sometimes reflective, sometimes scholarly, sometimes creative, sometimes physical, this recharging is essential to good teaching, to building up the kind of energy required to do the work and keep the faith. And it’s not about vacations—it’s a strict regime, 365 days a year.
The fourth part of the teacher’s moral contract involves the teacher’s duty to the school—and the school’s responsibility to the teacher. The teacher does good work, works hard to understand and believe in and support the school’s mission and purpose, and in return the school does what it can to recognize and reward the teacher and to support the teacher’s pursuit of professional and personal growth toward a happy life and a satisfying career.
The “code” for the teacher is that kids—their needs, their interests—come first. As in the motto of the venerable Camp Dudley—“The other fellow first”—giving primacy to students is what we do. Our “me time” comes when their needs are met. My current boss likes to remind us that “School is for kids”—another elegantly concise way of stating the code.
So, there is my stab at a “moral contract” for teachers. It’s nowhere near as long as the contract you signed without reading last time you bought a mobile phone, and I don’t believe you need a lawyer to explain the gist of it.
Teaching is a deeply human activity, as we know (and as the Sizers, Parker Palmer and others have pointed out far more elegantly), and this contract is nothing more than a situation-specific version of the broader moral contract, or the Golden Rule, or whatever you wish to call it, that must guide all of our actions.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using this contract the way we tend to use real contracts, but I hope that in our hearts and minds as teachers we can find ways to express its provisions among ourselves, to share its principles freely and kindly with the less experienced folk among us, and present it as a complement to the principles the Sizers offer us in The Students Are Watching. Whether we’re new teachers or seasoned pros, we carry our personal moral contract in our hearts every day, wherever and whenever we are working with or for our students.
My guess is that most of us who went to college find ourselves day-dreaming every once in a while about some of the great courses we took. For me, my mind goes back to Peabody Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, listening to the great Joel Williamson’s musing about Southern history.
Joel was one of those incredibly captivating college professors. As a student in his class, you imagined yourself not in the lecture hall, but with a small group, sitting on his front porch, drinking sweet tea while he told these unbelievably interesting nuggets of Southern history that illuminated the region’s struggles with race and identity over the last three hundred years. The class was at his attention for the entire time he spoke. He joked with us, responded thoughtfully to questions we posed, and made us feel that he was personally invested in our learning. In my mind, his classroom was as good a college lecture course could get.
Thinking about my own personal affection for some of those lectures, I found the central question from last Thursday’s New York Times op-ed from University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson so interesting:
… Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?
Edmundson argues that it cannot be. For Edmundson, the immediacy of a classroom lecture hall can not be brought online because:
Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.
… I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.
A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.
I get where Edmundson is coming from in setting this model up as the ideal. I felt that way about Joel Williamson’s great Southern history course.
And yet, I struggle because this ideal is very much in conflict with what current research tells us about learning, and the ways that online education is creating new research-based ways for learning. It was at this point in the article that I realized my troubles with Mark Edmundson’s “The Trouble With Online Education.”
There is No “Education of the Very Best Sort”
For Edmundson to claim that there is an ideal classroom for learning in today’s world strikes me as misguided and a bit elitist. Brain-based research over the last twenty years has showed us that different learners respond better and worse to different types of teaching and learning pedagogical approaches. That is what works best for one student does not necessarily work best for the next student. To ignore this research and instead retreat to the classroom lecture model as a definitive ideal is not in keeping with today’s research and understanding of learning.
Moreover, some learning environments are simply not available to many learners. The type of learning that Edmundson sets as an ideal is inaccessible to most if only for reasons of finance and distance. If Edmundson’s intent was to “take-down” online education (and that does seem to be his intent), then he must at least acknowledge the very real challenges and obstacles that his ideal sets up.
Online Education Helps Create Personalization
Whereas Edmundson maintains the college lecture model as the ideal, online education has been pushing the envelope over the last ten years to create more and better personalized learning for students, giving students choice in instruction, format, time, learning needs, learning styles, and more. Students have greater choice and control over what and how they learn, and greater variety of course work from which to choose.
Edmundson gives high importance to the immediacy of the classroom. And yet, we know that there are many learners who do not function well in this environment (and not because of a lack of intellect). Some learners need more time for reflection in order to process and understand the content presented and the questions posed. Regularly, at the Online School for Girls, we see students who were the reticent “wallflowers” in face-to-face courses become the most vocal participants in online discussions. It was not that those students did not have anything to say in their face-to-face courses, it was that they needed time and space to articulate their thoughts. For these students, the online course space is ideal for helping them learn material more fully.
All Online Education Is Not The Same
Beyond that, and importantly, all online learning is not the same. Edmundson claims that:
Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.
The problem with this argument is that not all online education is as he describes. Online learning can be project-based; it can incorporate service learning; it can happen in real time; it can demand collaboration; it can have office hours; and, it can be personalized to the needs of particular students. This is not to say that online learning is always these things, but it can be these things. For Edumundson to not be aware of that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the field, and thus an inability to be a critic of it.
A Letter To Experienced Teachers
Dear Experienced Teacher:
We know it’s important to pay attention to and support the men and women joining our faculties for the first time, and we always have lots of good advice for them.
But sometimes we know that the experienced teachers in our midst are overlooked or taken for granted. We casually accept one another’s quiet, competent work and maybe even quiet struggles. It’s easy for school communities to grow almost too comfortable with colleagues whose daily behaviors are familiar and whose work (we assume) goes smoothly and attracts little notice.
Of course it’s not always that way for any of us, veteran or new, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are always things we can do to make our work more effective and our lives more satisfying. We have stayed with this profession, sometimes through thick and thin, because we believe in kids and love things about our work—and because we believe in the old promise and old premise that teachers can make the world a better place.
With summer waning and the coming year gradually transforming from an mental abstraction into a concrete set of tasks, challenges, and opportunities, I have been trying to riffle through the pages of my own career and remind myself of things I can do—that we all can do—to make the year go well. Here’s my short list:
Be a “furtherer.” The late, great David Mallery used this term to describe teachers and administrators who enthusiastically fall into the role of mentors and cheerleaders for others, inspiring and sometimes pushing other teachers forward because they see the potential not only in their students but in their colleagues. Most of us have a furtherer or two or three to thank for the teaching lives we live.
Also: Be sure to thank your own furtherers!
Lean into discomfort—especially with challenging kids. Live the meaning of this phrase we have heard in workshops for years. It matters a whole lot when we find ourselves dealing with the kid who annoys us, challenges us, disappoints us, puzzles us, or even frightens us. The harder we work to find out what makes such kids tick, the more we try to discover the virtues masked by childish or adolescent behaviors intended to distance us, and the better our chances of helping these kids grow into the best versions of themselves.
Be true to your school—and yourself. I hope that you are content with your school, its culture, its values, and its prospects. I hope that its leaders and their vision excite you, and that the mission of your school aligns elegantly with your personal sense of purpose (and I hope that you have a personal sense of purpose). But there are likely to be areas of non-alignment, and perhaps even friction. This is when you have to find the moral and intellectual generosity to figure out how to bridge those gaps in the name of supporting not just “the school” but your colleagues and above all your students. You don’t have to love every practice and policy, but you have to understand them enough to live with them and, where required, to enforce them.
Some institutional disagreement is necessary and healthy, and you should never back away from upholding a position you hold dearly. Be forthright, aboveboard, and work within whatever channels exist. If things reach a point where friction generates more heat than light in your life or your community, either 1) find a way to pursue your position more effectively, 2) consider that you might just be wrong or wrongheaded in the context of the school, or 3) understand that it might be time to consider a change of venue for your work. Falling into bitterness, underground politicking, backbiting, and passive-aggressive noncompliance won’t help your students—you know this—and it surely won’t help you. Be true to your school, and know thyself.
Embrace change. It’s upon us from every direction, and chances are that some of your administrators will return from break charged up about some new idea; I hope so. There’s no excuse for a teacher in 2012 to be living totally sheltered from the winds of educational change. Rather than wait anxiously for a buffeting breeze, it would make a great deal more sense to take some time to do your own investigation, by reading books, periodicals, blogs, joining Nings and elists, building PLNS, even by starting a Twitter account and following some of the smart inspirational tweeters out there. Pat Bassett’s May blog had some great suggestions for reading—and connecting.
Sure, not every great new idea is going to pan out as a silver bullet for your students’ learning, but a working teacher who wants to be considered a true professional has no defensible reason for not knowing what big ideas of our time are or for ignoring them. If you hear yourself saying, “But we tried something like that back in 1995 and it didn’t work out,” think about whether it really was “something like that” and why it “didn’t work out.” You’re older and wiser now; maybe you can make it work this time. Don’t hide out behind your anxiety—look around and see what you might do with new, better tools and new, more informed perspectives. It’s for the kids.
Lead up and down. The theme of the Summer 2012 Independent School magazine is “leading from the middle,” and the role of established teacher-leaders and “middle managers” and supervisors like class advisors, department leaders, and curriculum coordinators has never been more important. Use your excitement about new ideas to bring them both to those who serve with you or under your guidance but also to those who manage and lead you. Cultivate a strong, confident voice with which you can make your case for doing things differently, or perhaps even maintaining a truly effective practice. Age and experience give us wisdom, we are told, so seek to establish yourself as someone whose ideas and opinions matter.
For some teachers this doesn’t come easy; we got into this business to work with children and not because we necessarily felt confident or comfortable being a persuasive voice among adults. But times have changed, and gone are the old days when we could escape to our classrooms and create our professional worlds exclusively among kids. Teaching is no longer about each of us, ourselves, alone.
We need to be faculties characterized by a rich flow and exchange of ideas and opinions—and by mutual respect. We need to be faculties in which castes and layers, based on seniority, who teaches what, who lives in what dorm, or who has whose ear, are gone, gone, gone. In 1968, when I was a senior in high school and Peter Prescott was working on A World of Our Own, faculty room stratification, posturing, and politics hadn’t much changed since Owen Johnson’s Lawrenceville Stories more than a century ago (and at least those were funny). But it’s decades later, and we have to recognize that each of us has something valuable to learn about our craft and our calling from each of our colleagues, no matter how young and how “inexperienced.”
You experienced pros (another David Mallery-ism)—that is, we experienced pros—have to appreciate ourselves fully for what we have to offer, and we have to make a point of offering it. We’re doing good work, and it can be a very good life; happily we share today’s “world of our own” every so much more widely and joyfully than we did 45 years ago. We honor our profession, our schools, and our students by our determination to do our best, and we give full meaning to our lives by our resolution to keep making the kinds of difference that we idealized when came into this profession in the first place.
Savor the last weeks of summer, and have the best year ever—PG
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)