1 New Lesson on Caring Teachers

From the minute the bearded man in the black suit and ponytail took the stage, all eyes of the choir were on him. He was the conductor, so that’s to be expected. What’s to be hoped for, but not always expected is the change in students’ eyes and smiles in the brief seconds as he prepared them to begin their two pieces.

Last night, at a school spring music concert here in the Czech Republic, I admit to being unaware of where we were in the program at least 70% of the time. I clapped when we all clapped, I chuckled when we all chuckled. Otherwise, I was going through the motions.

That was what struck me about the change in these young singers when their teacher took the stage. The look they gave him and the overall shift in composure when he was interacting with them signaled that this is a good teacher.

I’ve worked with teachers and students all over the world, and it’s never struck me as clearly as it did last night that the look I saw was universal. More finely put, it was a visual manifestation of a caring relation in action. When thinking about the ethic of care in the past, my focus has been turned to the one caring and the cared for. I’m worried about whether those I care for recognize it as care. I’m not ever concerned with what it looks like on the outside.

I realized last night night, when people are engaged in a caring relation, those on the outside can see it. It draws us in. I don’t play an instrument, and it’s been more than a decade since I tried to sing anything other than along with whatever music is streaming on my computer. Still, I wanted to be in this teacher’s class. I wanted him to teach my one-day children. If I were leading a school, I’d have considered slipping him my card.

Yes he knew his content and how to help students access it. Each piece in the concert evidenced this. But, only when I saw him interact with the students was I able to say, “This is a good teacher.”

Now I’m thinking back to demo lessons and interviews. Was content and technical proficiency really what mattered in selecting new faculty members? Partially, yes. A math teacher who’s no good with numbers and great with kids doesn’t sound like a good hire. A candidate who is proficient and great with kids, though, this strikes me as someone to be considered more closely.

I’ve always thought demo lessons a strange activity. When considering an entire group of students’ learning, watching a stranger teach them for 15 minutes isn’t going to give me much on their overall approach or effectiveness. Those teachers who end that 15 minutes and no longer feel like strangers to that classroom — those are the ones to keep around.

Friends who argue with me time and again when I attack their data-driven instruction as anti-humanist are equally flummoxed by me when I hold to the claim that you “just know” a good teacher when you see them. For our next bout, though, I’ll have a new line of reasoning ready. It turns on the old axiom, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I know a good teacher because, like the conductor last night, the caring is clear in their teaching.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Whether in formal evaluative observations or when peers sit in on a class, ask for feedback on where visitors saw evidence of the ethic of care in action and how they came to that conclusion.
  • When checking references on a potential new hire, ask “And how did you know they cared for students?” It’s likely to throw the conversation in a different direction. Good, it’s about time.
  • At the end of a project or unit of study, ask students to reflect on where they saw evidence of your caring for them. Be prepared for some tough love from students you have a difficult time reaching and those you think you’ve got a great connection with. Most importantly, be open to that feedback and considering how you might shift your practice in the future.

The Forever Teacher

A regulation MLB baseball sits on my desk in a plexiglass cube. It is accompanied by a ticket stub from the game of its provinence – May 12, 2001 Reds vs. Astros, Cinergy Field, Aisle 105, Row 10, Seat 2.

I wasn’t at the game. I didn’t catch the ball, nor was it tossed to me by one of the players during batting practice.

The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

The ball has a signature on it. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at it – Scooter Gennett #11. The S in Scooter is fashioned to look like a lightning bolt. The rest of the text is in the cursive of a young hand.

Scooter was 11 at the time. He’s 25 now and playing pro ball for the Milwaukee Brewers. When he handed me the cube at the end of my first year of teaching, he was just finishing 8th grade. The ball means something to me because it meant something to him and he handed it to me, I’ve always believed, to fill the space between us when our year as teacher and student ended and he headed off to his last four years before being a professional baseball player.

This ball has made 5 moves across as many states, and it lives near the box of things I’ll grab on my way out of the house in the event of a fire.

Scooter, or Ryan as I insisted on calling him, gives me the tremendous gift of knowing where he is and what he’s up to by way of being in the public spotlight.

This past weekend, I got to share a couple of meals with former students while I was in Philadelphia for ISTE. A recent education grad, an employee of the city, another college grad on his way to a pottery studio to make his art, a film-turned-communication major, and a neurobiology major who might want to be an engineer or a dentist.

We sat at these meals and I shared as briefly as possible what I’ve been up to since we’d last met. Then, I got to find out who they’d become in these newest versions of themselves. They are beautiful. They are tremendous. They give me hope for the People we will become – together.

I don’t know what it was like to teach students with whom I couldn’t connect after they’d left my classroom. I find it difficult to imagine a world where I don’t get to see status updates of their growings and mistakes, their discoveries and setbacks. Simply saying goodbye at the end of 180 days is a foreign idea.

I’d be able to find Ryan, sorry – Scooter – with a google search no matter what. To be able to shoot out a message when I’m coming to town and be able to sit down and hear about their lives first-hand, though, that is an affordance of the modern world.

What’s more, it speaks to the communities I hope schools will be. More than once, I’ve said to parting students, “Let me know what you need, and I’ll do my best to help you out. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.” I’ve meant it every time.

Perhaps that’s a part of the new contract that’s written between teachers and students rather than districts and unions. The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

Yes, to those who read these words and worry about boundaries, perhaps this approach invites difficult conversations about what I can’t do to help students. It’s true. When I think about those students I’ve lost or the world has lost after I’m no longer their teacher, though, I’d much rather have the difficult conversation than grieve a life that might have been.

Much is made of the importance of lifelong learners. This weekend, and this baseball sitting on my desk, make me wonder if we’re not missing a chance to think about lifelong teachers.

Things I Know 309 of 365: Practice should be guided by relationships

We believe that ‘humanity of scale’ and the ‘primacy of relationships’ should not only inform the design of our schools but should also influence our public sector services.

– Human Scale Education Movement

Earlier in the semester, as I was working on my argument for collaboration as a key principle in the design of my theory of learning, Chris MacIntosh hit me up with a link to this wonderful paper from Human Scale Education in the UK.

I hadn’t the time to delve too deeply into the people at HSE as I was writing the paper, but I’ve since gone back, and I’ve got to say, I am really digging the work they do.

In the paper, HSE Director James Wetz frames his argument around the following themes:

  1. The need to see schooling as more than just an educational project but one which integrates the education and the care of our children on their journey from early childhood to young adulthood.
  2. The need for our schools to have an explicit theoretical framework, based in relationships, that informs policy and practice.
  3. The need to make the task of creating emotional and social capital in our schools a key educational process.

Certainly, these theories aren’t new. The relational aspect of education was appreciated by everyone from John Dewey to Ivan Illich. What struck me as contemporarily important about Wetz’s work was the practical applications. He writes about interviewing Linda Nathan at the Boston Arts Academy and Ann Cook at Urban Academy in New York as people putting these theories into practice.

The paper is a brief 11 pages, and well worth reading. Also worth looking after is HSE’s first free school opening in Dorset in 2013.

Things I Know 183 of 365: It’s entirely possible I’ve never thought of what circle you’re in

Will the circle be unbroken?

– Ada R. Habershon

My junior year of college, Katy and I were in an argument. I didn’t know it at the time. The details remain a bit sketchy, even now. I do remember a discussion of being best friends and what it meant to me compared to what it meant to her. The values we each put on the idea of best friends versus friends differed.

I’d honestly never considered how those terms might have differing meanings in my life. I certainly had paid no mind to the idea that these terms might hold deep and abiding meaning to someone else. I learned a lot from that argument. I felt parts of how I see the world shift by the end of it.

Luke and I have known one another since I was in eighth grade. We have never lived in the same town. He is one of the people I know I can call who, if need be, will have his flight booked before we hang up. Our interactions, our social networking, take place with remarkable inconsistency.

Last week, Google threw its hat into the social networking ring with the release of Google+. Each day, I’ve been receiving e-mails notifying me of my addition to this or that person’s circles. It’s restarted the 21st century game of categorizing those I know into lists or groups or circles.

“This person is connected to you,” says the site, “wouldn’t you like to cement for us exactly how y’all know each other?” (I imagine Google+ to speak to me with a folksy southern twang.)

More than a few of the conversations feeding through my Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts have centered around how people were organizing their circles. They wanted to import contact groups from their Gmail accounts or replicate their lists from Facebook. Now, they needed to come up with a whole new version of how they were connected. Some, I’d imagine, even split-screened their monitors to make sure the connections were the same across platforms. I’d hate for Katy and me to be best friends in Illinois, but only friends in Philadelphia.

I’ll admit to currently having a dozen circles in my account.

The whole thing began to feel like an empty version of that argument with Katy 10 years ago.

I see the meaning of grouping those to whom I am connected online. Putting all the names in one place at one time makes the collective that much more daunting. It has value on the site, but that value isn’t something I carry around with me in life. When I get the chance to share a meal with Bud, I don’t think to myself, “Bud lives in my friend circle as well as my PLN circle, I will restrict conversation accordingly.”

The best moments are when those circles break, when the people with whom I’ve forged relationships exist in the ever-shifting cloud of relativity, when how I know you isn’t a categorical imperative.

Things I Know 134 of 365: I will maintain an “Angle of Repose”

Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.

– Wallace Stegner

They’re tearing down Wallace Stegner’s studio.

I’m not certain how I feel about it.

I first read Stegner’s Angle of Repose the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of undergrad. My cousin suggested it to me as we browsed the tables at a used book sale.

When I got around to reading Repose, Stegner had a difficult road ahead of him. My cousin also recommended Ann Rice’s vampire books, which had left me nonplussed.

From the first pages, Stegner had me hooked. He introduced me to a protagonist and narrative structure the likes of which I’d never before experienced. An author was presenting me with a story about an author dictating to tape a book about his fictitious grandmother’s life. Stegner bent what I took to be the rules of narrative even further by using the text of authentic primary source documents in Repose as the letters of his protagonist’s fictitious grandmother.

The pleasure I took in Repose and how it shaped my thinking about narrative structure and the blending of fact and fiction in storytelling added to the sting I felt when I read the new owners of Stegner’s home planned to demolish his studio.

Surely, some literary magic must live within those walls. This is the same magic I believed in when I visited Mark Twain’s boyhood home as a child or Ernest Hemingway’s home on Key West. Writers are connected to the places in which they write.

The budding minimalist within me argues against such sentimentality. Stegner left us his writings. While his studio grants us a superficial connection to his writings, the actual space has nothing to do with my enjoyment of his words.

I didn’t know about Stegner’s studio until I read about its demolition. This didn’t keep my brain from flashing to thoughts of “Oh, that’s so sad,” as I was reading.

Place should mean less to me in a world where much of my communication happens in a digital cloud rooted in no geography in particular.

With some of my friendships and professional collaborations existing exclusively online, I’m trying understand the hold location still has on my sense of self.

When I meet new people, it’s my time growing up in Illinois, teaching in Florida and now Philadelphia that I share before my blog URL, twitter name or slideshare page.

If you’re reading this, though, and we ever meet in person, we’ll likely talk about something I’ve posted before we ever talk about teaching eighth graders to write in Sarasota, FL.

Stegner’s studio exists in the place between. While reading Repose, I never considered the text’s place of conception. Now that I know that place is to be destroyed, I want it to remain. It’s destruction will make certain what is already true – that I’ll never read another word produced within its walls.

I suppose that’s the importance of place. I don’t want any space – physical or virtual – to be destroyed. The loss of any place I count as part of my identity would mean I could never go back nor could that place ever further shape who I am.

And yet, if those places were destroyed tomorrow, I’d still carry with me all I’ve gained from them that makes me who I am.

When Stegner’s studio is gone, the world will still possess an Angle of Repose.

Things I Know 26 of 365: I need to know my teachers

No more teachers’ dirty looks.

– Alice Cooper, “School’s Out”

“Do you like your facilitator?” one of my kids asked the other day about the facilitator of my grad class.

I paused.

“I don’t know her.”

I truly don’t.

This course has featured no welcome e-mail, no bio on BlackBoard. Nothing.

In the course chat, I learned a little about her church, but not much about her.

Were it not for the tacit trust I put in the university’s hiring processes, I might worry she’s a pimply-faced high school sophomore who fits his grading in between Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

I don’t know her enough to like her.

I’ll never know her the way I would were we to share physical space. I’ll never know the color of her hair. I realize the strangeness of that statement, but it’s nothing to the strangeness of the not knowing.

Her face looks like as she gives a class time to ponder a question will forever be a mystery to me.

Does she pronounce my name with a drawl? Would she appreciate my humor? I’ll never know if she’s someone who stands the entire class or leans against a wall or desk.

I’ll never know.

These things I’d like to know.

If I’m to like her, these things help me decide.

If I’m to respect her, I need to know her.

She is responsible for facilitating my learning around curricula and learning, yet I can tell you not one thing about her pedagogy.

I imagine these weeks we’re together in this course to be similar to the early days of an arranged marriage. Contrastingly, though, we both have designs on an annulment.

It’s easier to dislike her if she exists as this disembodied set of deadlines and dropboxes.

My own little Milgram experiment.

A key piece of learning from my grad program has been my understanding of my drive to connect my learning to relationships.

My mathematical matriculation through AP Calculus was due solely to the care and academic craftsmanship of Mr. Curry.

I’ve yet to feel that care or craftsmanship in my courses.

This is not whining.

This is me attempting to understand why my otherwise voracious appetite for learning, understanding and creating meaning absolutely vanishes in these courses.

In no small part, I need to know my instructor as much as I need to know my content.

Things I Know 19 of 365: I don’t like to disappoint

I’m not angry. I’m disappointed.

– My Mom (and probably yours)

I disappointed someone today.

The details of the situation aren’t important.

Just know that I let down someone whose esteem I value greatly.

I managed to do it early in the day, too. So, I got to wear it in my stomach and between my shoulder blades for the rest of the day.

I made a mistake, was called on it, owned it and apologized.

My apology was accepted and the day moved on.

The disappointment, that look, is still sitting next to me on the couch right now.

I know I’ll get over it. I know my apology was accepted.

For now, though, we’re sitting here on the couch, disappointment and I.

Here’s what I’ve decided to do.

I’ve decided to learn in this moment.

Rather, re-learn.

To many of my students, my esteem means something. They care what I think. They want me to be proud. Moreover, they don’t want to disappoint me.

That’s not what I re-learned.

What I re-learned was the importance of honoring that rapport, of honoring the role my esteem may hold in their lives.

I can never use it as a weapon or take it for granted or use the fear of losing that esteem a motivator in the classroom.

They will disappoint me.

I will tell them it’s happened.

I will not hold it over their heads.

This was modeled for me today.

I’m fortunate to have such teachers.