As the state comes down harder and harder on schools, inspecting for “objectives posted on the wall” and “evidence of learning,” and my administrators, nervous and agitated, talk more and more about “achievement gap” and “data-driven decisionmaking,” I think about my favorite teachers from when I was in school a thousand years ago.
Mr. Scherer was my 5th grade teacher. We made weathervanes and ran around outside like windstorms. From him I learned that adults could be enthusiastic, that knowing stuff was cooler than not knowing it, that I had a point of view, that the world was a pretty interesting place and I had a right to explore it. Mr. Bibeau taught me chemistry in High School. He had decided that students would be better off if they could go at their own pace; he wrote and printed up a self-directed chemistry text (supposedly Addison Wesley later published it – I couldn’t find any trace of it). I still remember his mnemonic for Boyles Law.
I doubt that either one of them had objectives posted on the board. They were too busy teaching.
There are so many ways to be a great teacher. I suppose that if you are NOT a good teacher, the state’s and the school’s requirements might be useful. But actually, I think more and more about teaching as playing music. Some people are tone deaf and should just get out of the classroom. Most people get better with practice, and some should be left alone to be their brilliant selves. Plus there’s lots of kinds of music, and lots of ways to play it. Classical music requires very careful study and exacting performance. And some teachers do best if they plan out everything beforehand. I’m more of a jazz musician – I know my scales and chords really well, and I work by improvisation. When I go into school in the morning, I don’t really know what I’m going to do – it kind of depends on how the kids are acting, what materials I find that I need, and what my mood is. Does this sound like lazy, poor quality teaching? It’s not – it’s jazz. Actually I am regarded as a dynamite teacher, running on adrenaline and the love of my subject and my students. And they dig it. To quote Lee Konitz, fabulous alto sax man, “The best preparation is no preparation at all. And that takes a lot of preparation.”
I’m not advocating for everyone to use my method of teaching (it’s exhausting!). I am advocating for something beyond the new “one size fits all” approach to what makes an effective teacher. The more time I have to justify myself to the DESE, by filling out forms no one reads, filling folders with “evidence” no one will look at, and filling time with stupid meetings that accomplish nothing, the less time I have to teach, and the less enthusiasm I have to do so.
I love music. Just don’t make us all play the polka in C major.