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Friday, January 18, 2013

Something's Missing

Last night I participated in a New School Leaders Seminar, sponsored by the Capital Region Principal Center Board.  Even though I am retired I still serve on the Board and participate in its activities.  This seminar is a way for veteran, experienced principals to talk to teachers who are either in a program for administrative certification or thinking of it.  I always enjoy this opportunity and am continually impressed with the enthusiasm of both sets of professionals.

I was part of the elementary school roundtable discussion along with two other experienced principals, whom I admire.  The prospective administrators directed the majority of their questions towards the APPR-the annual professional performance review that is now mandated in NYS.  It is a serious and important topic and presents a tremendous challenge to both principals and teachers.  When I reflect however on our conversation on this topic, I thought that if someone who was not in education happened to hear us and just picked up on the tone of the conversation, they could easily thing that we were discussing root canals.   I am sure it is no picnic to give a root canal and even less of one to receive one. 
After a while with this type of conversation, it occurred to me to say something radical to these prospective principals:  try to have some fun, enjoy what you do and above all enjoy the children.  When reflect on my years as principal and what I miss about the job, it is being surrounded with wonderful kids and being in a position to help them. 

I made it a point to try to go into the classroom not just as a visitor/observer but also to teach either alone or with the classroom teacher.  I must confess at risk of being thought of as a heretic, that teaching is also a lot of fun and adventurous.  Some of the best moments I had were when students would say things that I couldn’t plan and I had to process that on the spot and stretch to find a way to connect it to our learning.   It was almost as much fun to talk to the teacher afterward about what happened: what worked and what didn’t.  Over the years my appreciation for how challenging and difficult it was to provide quality instruction only grew.  I used to say that teaching was harder than hitting a baseball where if you are successful 30% of the time you doing great.  The difficulty of playing baseball however doesn’t make it any less fun in fact the challenge is a big part of the fun especially when your efforts results in more hits and a higher average. If you were to listen to the baseball players discuss hitting, I would bet that it wouldn’t sound like they were talking about root canal.

My friend and colleague who I think knows more about instruction that anyone is Dr. Barrie Bennett of the University of Toronto.  Barrie did his master’s thesis on the effect of teacher enthusiasm on student achievement and guess what –it has a positive effect on learning.   Barrie who knows the technical part of teaching better than anyone also knows and emphasizes the human element in teaching and lists humor as an important quality for a teacher to have.

My question is: Where has this part of teaching, the enjoyment and exciting part of it, gone?  Or maybe the better question would be:  why has this element been forgotten or never thought of as ever even existing?   The irony of this whole situation is that if you ask any teacher or even any policy maker about the teacher who had the greatest impact on them and why, their answers would point to the missing element-the human, humor, fun, and the enthusiastic part of the experience. 

 This should not be interpreted as implying that the human element overrides the technical part of teaching-it doesn’t and shouldn’t.  Teachers need to have both and children need to have teachers who have both.  I just wonder why our education system seems to be obsessed with the technical. 

One of the best teachers I ever worked with retired several years ago after over 40 years in the profession.  She was someone that even literally on her last day of her career  called me into her classroom as  I  walked by to tell me about something that happened in her room that excited her.  Of the all the teachers that I have ever known, she used to receive the most invitations to college graduations and it wasn’t just from the high achieving students.
If teachers were given the support for building their technical skills and also given a psychologically safe environment for practicing them (particularly not getting penalized for failing to teach according to a tightly defined rubric), they could keep their enthusiasm and passion while increasing their skills.   The whole idea of merit pay would become ridiculous because the intrinsic value of teaching would be what would keep the best teachers wanting to get better.  The teaching profession would attract people who wanted a career that not just allowed but supported creativity, risk taking, camaraderie, continuous growth and a moral purpose.   If teachers could be teachers, the way my friend Barrie envisions them, it would be a professional that people would be "banging on the doors" to get into. For that to happen what is now missing from the current discussion has to  be at the heart of it. 

It should be no surprise that teachers can and should be heroes to our children, but heroes even the greatest of them,  are first and foremost human.  Policy shouldn’t push humanity out of teaching.  If it does we will be depriving students of the type of people they need to inspire them and help them work and persist while at the same time discovering the joy of learning.  

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