The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, January 21, 2005

I've read many thoughtful insights into how the general public perceive the attractions and detractions of teaching on the web in the past week.

Firstly, Light from an Empty Fridge analysed the new Teacher Training Agency advertisements, which seem to invite applicants to compare the torpor of an office job with a career in an industry where 'the people you work with don't need coffee to be buzzing in the morning', and ask whether your colleagues have 'made their minds up about everything already'. A thought provoking post in itself, in suggesting that this was the first TTA advertisement to address the real rewards fo the job, it also elicited some lovely varieties of response from commenters who disagreed.

Personally, I agree with this approach of seeing the sheer invigorating energy of undeveloped minds grappling with new concepts and bringing new perspectives to old subjects - it's exactly what I enjoy about my job.
(I don't merely say that because Fridgemagnet was nice about The Blackboard Jungle, either: students may appear to be set in their minds about everything and everyone, but this is a thinly constructed social veneer that they are desperate to lose for something deeper. It's a pleasure to be able to assist in asking someone to question the world about them. (Sometimes, listening to colleagues, you wonder if that's possibly the last time they ever will genuinely question things. (I digress into a jaded freefall of anti - teacher colleague cynicism. Enough.)))

The week's other, truly remarkable, piece of writing from a non-educator can be found at a consistently provokingly fresh blog, Outer Life, and consists of the most apposite rejection of the maxim that 'those who can, do; those who can't, teach' [forgetting the final line: those who can't teach, teach geography], weaving together startling anecdotal evidence to illustrate sharply how remembered learning progresses at a different pace than actual learning. It's so beautifully rendered that I cannot do the piece justice, and am forced to quote at length:
"When someone kills herself, the first question you ask is "why?" We need to explain to the inexplicable. Like everyone, I wondered why, but unlike everyone, I didn't know. Everyone else knew why she killed herself. She did it because of me.

I heard it in whispers in the corridors, I saw it in people pointing at me, glancing away when I turned towards them. Friends kept me informed, sharing the painful details as the story worsened, my involvement growing deeper by the day. I heard I was an unfeeling monster, a grading demon, gleefully puncturing my students' self-esteem with barbed comments and pointed suggestions. And after a few days absorbing this kind of talk, I started to feel it. I lost my appetite and clumps of my hair, my stomach bled and I often trembled. A dark cloud followed me wherever I went, blotting the sun from my life.

During those dark days, I reviewed the semester over and over again in my mind, trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I could have done differently. I reread my comments to her papers, wondering which one set her off. I interviewed my few remaining students, grasping for any insight into my pedagogical flaws.

All this taught me a lot about my teaching, and much of it wasn't good. I did not instil an interest in the subject, assuming the students would find it as interesting as I did. I was blinded by their inability to work at my level, failing to acknowledge many of the little improvements in their work. I connected only with the best students, incapable of seeing my class through the eyes of my poorer students. I took it personally when my students failed, and they knew it. I ignored their concerns, assuming I knew what was best. In short, I expected them to be just like me, and they weren't and would never be.

After a few weeks the news trickled out that her husband had left her a few days before the suicide and that she'd married him against the wishes of her parents and that they'd disowned her and so on, a troubled tale of a troubled young life having nothing to do with her classroom experiences. The whispering stopped, my appetite and most of my hair eventually returned, my stomach healed and my tremors steadied.

And I listened to what I'd learned, I changed my methods, I started to really teach, I began to appreciate how difficult it is, I discovered I have no talent for it and, as I saw myself flailing and ultimately failing at something I once thought I'd been good at, I began to loathe my weekly teaching sessions almost as much as my students did. I vowed to find something else to do with my life, thankful that I figured this out before I'd inflicted further damage.

And that is why the phrase "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" is so stupid, for in denying that teaching is doing it leads idiots like myself to think anyone who can do can teach without giving any thought to the reality that teaching is doing of a different sort."