July 18, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #10: What Do Teachers Know?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Esteemed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: What Teachers Know

Dear Bob:

Hey there! Thanks for covering that after school hall duty for me yesterday. I really needed to spend the time with that parent. I owe you one.

Earlier today I ran across an interesting old book: What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know. It's something of a critique of education, actually. As you can imagine, the authors pretty much think our 17 year olds don't know much and of course, it's our fault. They're not, by any means, entirely off base, but it stimulated my thinking (I know: very dangerous!), so I thought I'd come up with a list of what high school English teachers know. I'd appreciate it if you'd look it over when you have a minute and see what you think.

High School English Teachers Know:

* That centralized planning is utopian and foolish. It must, of necessity ignore human nature, so it is destined to fail before the ink is dry on the paper. For instance, "No Child Left Behind" mandates that every child in America be reading and writing and doing math on grade level by 2014. Any teacher could have told them how insane that idea is. People are born equal in the sight of God and under the Constitution, but not in intellect and ability. Some kids, no matter how many federal laws are enacted, will never be able to perform on grade level, at least in part because they have, for decades, been promoted based not on performance and acquisition of knowledge, but for social and political purposes.

* That virtually nobody asks or listens to teachers when formulating policies and mandates teachers will have to try to implement. This is so because they think teachers know nothing about education, or because they fear that they do. Perhaps both.

* That many mandates in how to best teach reading or writing are nothing more than fads dressed up in superficially impressive packaging, and that they will have to pretend to embrace them while doing what they know actually works until the people who staked their professional reputations on the latest fad have moved on to lay waste to greener fields, or until the next great fad promising to revolutionize education comes around.

* That human beings learn in 2011 exactly as they learned in 201 BC. Times change, but people don't. People learn through intellectual curiosity, paying attention, effective practice over time, and through teachers who know not only the material, but how to most effectively impart that material. This is why the Socratic Method still works beautifully. This is why those who study martial arts study the same techniques taught in the same way for millennia. Technology does not transform human nature and the way we learn, it merely makes some of the process of learning and teaching more convenient.

* That without a calm, disciplined classroom, little learning will take place.

* That students owe their teachers deference; respect is another matter and is earned—every day.

* That the best teachers are masters of detail. It is the little things—and the ability to pay attention to them--that truly make a difference in human affairs.

* That one of the most important things any teacher can teach is the ability to pay attention, to be fully in the instant. This is very difficult, and will be a life-long pursuit.

* That not everyone can be an effective teacher. In fact, good teachers know that exceptional teachers, like exceptional performers in every field of human endeavor, are rare. They also know that many people lauded as exceptional, aren't.

* That if everyone is above average, average has no meaning. That if everyone is special, no one is special.

* That self-esteem is meaningless and that self-respect is what truly matters. It is earned, through hard work, each and every day.

* That one of the most serious impediments to learning and the future of our nation is that most kids—and probably their parents—are not readers. Those who don't read, not only for learning and information, but simply for pleasure, tend to be deficient in spelling, writing, the ability to reason and speak, vocabulary, the ability to infer and to anticipate, and most importantly, they tend to be deficient in understanding human nature. Nothing but regular and broad reading can so significantly improve the human mind in every way. Nothing but regular reading directly translates into every other academic discipline and into life itself.

* That in very important ways, reading is the very process of education.

* That one of the most important things any teacher can teach is how to understand and interact with other human beings with honesty and sincerity. Education is really the process of understanding human nature.

* That the reason that we still teach Shakespeare 400 years after his death, the reason that his works are still so beloved and always will be, is that he understood human nature so well.

* That teachers should never overestimate a child's knowledge and hunger for more, and they should never underestimate their intellect and ability to learn.

* That education is a life-long process for which each individual is responsible. Twelve years of school merely turn one into a reasonably functional human being capable of more advanced learning and performance. Each individual's degree of attention and dedication to that process in those first twelve years will, in large part, dictate their success in life whether they continue to college or not.

* That when the bell rings, teachers must close their doors, focus their attention, put aside all other concerns and foolish fads, and teach as though nothing is more important than the lesson they have prepared that day.

* That during the school year, they must—if they wish to be truly effective teachers—make their students their first priority.

* That Lord Acton was right: those who will not learn from history truly are doomed to repeat it. We see this most tragically in school lunches and zero tolerance policies.

* That teacher's unions care little for teachers and less for students and their parents. They care only for money and power.

* That few people have less power to effect educational policy than those most intimately involved with it: teachers. What plumber or electrician would put up with this?

* That one of the most essential qualities that any teacher can have is an outrageous sense of humor and irony.

* That another of the most essential qualities any teacher can have is the understanding that teenagers will, upon occasion, act like teenagers, but that they cannot be allowed to behave rudely or stupidly.

* That when teenagers behave like teenagers, teachers must not take it personally.

* That another of the most essential qualities any teacher can have is a genuine love for their work and their students, a love that allows them to come to class every day smiling, happy and looking forward to their time together.

* That they must believe in the vital importance of what they do, and choose their curriculum and methods accordingly. If teachers believe it, and often remind their students how important what they do is, students will believe it too.

* That kids, like animals, know who really cares about them and who is just going through the motions.

* That high school football—and other sports--are entertaining, but have little to do with education.

* That some adults and school board members will see high school sports—particularly football—as education.

* That physical fitness is important, but life is a matter of assigning rational priorities. Sports should never substitute for academic disciplines or make it more difficult to master them.

* That all the best teachers—all than any teacher—can do is to provide the best educational opportunity their knowledge, abilities and assets provided by their school district make possible.

* That some students will choose to take little or no advantage of that educational opportunity.

* That their parents will let them.

* That the best teachers never lose sight of the fact that a large part of their job is convincing students that they are capable of so much more than they can imagine, and of showing them how, step by step, to accomplish it.

* That all of the best and most memorable learning takes place in the presence of smiles and laughter.

* That understanding and recognizing humor is a sure sign of higher level thinking and reasoning. It should be encouraged.

* That they must be determined to have fun in every class, every day, and that they must think of ways to encourage their students to come along for the ride.

* That one of the most important qualities any teacher can have is the ability to organize.

* That the fastest way to end any conversation is to say: "You know, what you just said has fascinating grammatical possibilities."

* That teachers must always take their work seriously, but never themselves.

* That good teachers not only can teach, they can do as well. The ability to do what they teach is, in fact, a large part of the foundation of their teaching abilities.

* That the parents of the kids they really need to meet will almost never come to open houses, and will almost never return letters, e-mails, or phone calls.

* That parents have far more influence on their children than any teacher can ever hope to have.

* That teachers can and should be their student's friends, but their responsible, adult friends who must always be expected to act as responsible adults. Teachers cannot be student's middle-aged homeys.

* That no teacher can ever know exactly how they have influenced their students. They must always act so as to influence them for the good.

Well, there you go. What do you think? I suppose this is sort of my philosophy of education. Remember how they used to always ask for your philosophy of education in college? Remember how we faked it, feeding back their ideas? Experience really is the best teacher. I know now that I didn't really have much of a clue back then. I suppose some might say I have less now! What do they know? They're only teachers!

Thanks again for covering for me. Let me know when I can reciprocate.


Mr. Fellow English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at July 18, 2011 11:07 PM

Very succinct.

Posted by: Jerry at July 19, 2011 06:24 AM

Very well written, but this will not be read by those who are running the schools these days: politicians, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats, administrators, and others who have spent little time in the classroom save for a photo opportunity.

Posted by: Guthrum at July 19, 2011 07:09 AM

You may be correct, Guthrum, but I have printed this article and well be taking it to a couple of administrators this morning. 40% of the employees of the Tucson Public School System never have contact with a child. It is the worst kind of 'empire building' and it came about because of the DOE mandated States follow certain guidelines or lose federal funding. Basically, 'less government means better education'. Ah, but that answer is WAY too easy!!!

Posted by: Carol at July 19, 2011 10:53 AM

Well done, Mike. An administrator or two will read your article, probably sigh in agreement, and then return to do the devil's work.


Posted by: Fred at July 19, 2011 01:48 PM