An article posted on the Times website yesterday was entitled:
I’ve been mistaken in life, (and on this blog) more often than I care to admit– yet I’m relatively certain society has a rough time understanding the value of a teacher.
I say “value” in the capitalist sense. Clearly teachers are valued in a philosophical context… like valuing unicorns or rainbows. The idea of loving them is so… wholesome. We love them during happy hour conversations and TED talks, in campaign speeches, and Hallmark movies. When Taylor Mali’s poetry slam “What Teachers Make” went viral… one couldn’t help wonder: “Who is the a-hole that would call out a teacher at a dinner party?”
Lauding teachers as valuable is surely a popular sentiment, but seems limited to banal platitudes found on coffee mugs and picture frames:
“TEACHERS SHAPE YOUNG MINDS!”
“TEACHERS BRING DREAMS TO LIFE!”
“IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THANK A TEACHER!”
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this struggle to define teacher value in his New Yorker article “Most Likely to Succeed.” The article compared pro-football and public education, through a phenomena coined the ‘Quarterback Problem.’
The name originated when football coaches discovered a quarterback’s college performance was often a poor indicator of success in the pros. Players were going from “superstardom” to “nothing” so quickly and so often, it left coaches perplexed. How could guys with so much potential fizzle almost overnight?
According to Gladwell’s article, education has a quarterback problem as well. Success in college or fluency in good pedagogy and technique does not a good teacher make. Teachers who look and sound suave; get in front of a group of six year olds and choke.
No wonder we limit expressions of teacher value to pastel colored slogans about “planting seeds, and watering fruit.”
Let’s be honest, we are exceptional at measuring good technique, knowledge, and skill. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, baby! Our society rocks it out with the data and measurements. We are information machines, but there is a problem with grasping the measuring stick too tight.
Helen Keller said:
“The best things in life can’t be seen or touched, but are felt with the heart.”
The best teachers are not merely saying and doing things backed by empirically based research, and ideologically sound platforms.
Good teachers are “Real” in their hearts.
Well thanks… THANKS for that.
W T H is “Real?”
Am I the Velveteen Rabbit?
Yesterday walking from Bouldin Creek Cafe back to her car, my friend Kris said:
“I love how with some people, even if we do inconsequential things together like eat dinner or hang out in silence, I feel better just being in their space.”
“Real Teachers” do this.
When a student is in the presence of a “Real Teacher” they feel a desire to be around that teacher, with few or no words being exchanged.
Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about this when he said:
“Who you are screams so loudly, I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”
“Real Teachers” communicate more with who they are, than they do with technique, lesson plans, or materials.
In a biography entitled “Last American Man,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes about Eustace Conway– a man who lives outside modern society in an entirely self-sustaining way. He survives completely off the natural world… think making your clothes from animal skins, and hunting your own food… rather than shopping at Whole Foods. The entire book is incredibly engaging, but the teacher in me loved Gilbert’s description of Eustace talking to high school students the most.
From the moment Eustace stepped onstage front of a large, loud group of teens… before he said one word… they quieted themselves. She watched astounded as his energy alone was enough to command total respect and attention. As he talked, they moved to the edges of their seats, when he was excited they were excited, and when he was somber, they grew serious. At the end they cheered, and begged for more time… burgeoning with questions and energy.
At the conclusion of the evening Gilbert asked Eustace:
“Hey about what happened tonight. Do you get that kind of response everywhere you speak?”
“From all age groups; from all backgrounds?”
I thought this over.
“So tell me specifically. Why do you think these particular teenagers were so hypnotized by you tonight?”
Eustace’s reply was so immediate, so uncompromising, and so coldly delivered that it sent a quick chill right through me.
“Because,” he said, “they recognized right away that I was a real person. And they’ve probably never met one before.”
One of my “Real Teachers” was Mr. Patten.
It was last class of the day– eighth period. I viewed it separate from the other seven periods– a reward for surviving the day. A dozen or so 13 year olds would file into his faded classroom– the only thing on one yellowing wall was a poster of the Gettysburg address and a clock– his desk was empty but for a grade book and briefcase. His lessons were as sparse as his classroom– there was little evidence of planning. No group activities. No projects. No interactive or interdisciplinary elements. No arts and crafts, books, or bulletin boards.
Instead he would pass out twenty page packets of dates and events to follow while he lectured. Indeed that’s what his classes were– all lecture. Our grades were entirely calculated from long, rigorous essay tests.
Singular modes of assessment, packets of rote information and lecture for consumption is a blasphemy in pedagogical circles. Advocates of “best practice” would have cringed.
That is– until they sat in on one of his classes.
When Mr. Patten lectured it was as if the whole world stopped. For forty minutes each day, I lost myself into past worlds… worlds he unlocked with tales of battle, heartache and struggle. He blew our tiny worlds open with those lectures… yet paradoxically it was not the lectures. I had plenty of teachers who lectured me to sleep.
Even in all my junior high naivety, I knew Mr. Patten was not like other adults. He didn’t talk at us, but to us. He was alive with an excitement that was natural and authentic. He was never afraid to be eccentric or odd. When he was angry, the sheer disappointment and darkness in his voice was enough to silence the most obstinate student.
His room was one of the few places in school I felt safe. The dangerous, judgmental, competitive culture of teenage strife was left outside– people I never talked to, and who never talked to me– magically became friends once we passed through his doors. He didn’t have rules explaining this on the wall. He did not explicitly state how we should treat each other. We just knew.
These explanations are vague, and they should be.
I cannot tell you what he did so you might understand how to replicate it. What he did has been repeated by hundreds of teachers unsuccessfully.
He retired a few years ago, and has a fan page on Facebook set up by two former students. When you read the wall posts it’s astounding what is repeated over and over in a myriad of ways:
“Mr Patten was the best teacher I ever had.”
During the orientation for new teachers in Stow, Ohio- 2005… the High School football coach entered the library to give us a welcome speech. His advice was some of the most formative in my career.
Let me tell you what kids will ALWAYS notice.
Kids have radar for things that are invisible.
They know when you love them. They know if you want to be there. They know when you love yourself. They know when you love your subject. You can’t fake kids. My best advice is to work on loving yourself. Kids learn a lot from teachers like that.”
The points in this post are not exhaustive. I do not mean to suggest a teacher that loves his or her students always equals a good teacher. I do not mean to suggest that if a child begins hating a subject, it’s the teacher’s fault. What I do mean to suggest… what I am confident to suggest, is that:
“What we teach is not separate from who we are.”
Teachers who understand this are the most “Real.”
Teachers who understand this do more than transmit ideas and build skills, they touch hearts, ignite fires, and heal wounds.
And no, there’s no assessment tool for that kind of value.