Saturday, November 1, 2014

Don't Forget To Be Human

Not to get all martyred about it, but damn if I don't feel a little in the minority these days when it comes to education and the treatment of students in school. I say this as a former student myself turned teacher at the same high school I graduated from way, way back in '03 (that's pronounced ought-three, for those uncertain). I mean 2003, not 1903. I'm not ludicrously old, but wouldn't it be crazy if I were this--like-- 130 year old guy hopefully laying down some real truth for you to consider? No?

Well, anyway, I'm not 130 and I don't claim to have "real truth"--a real pleonasm if ever I heard one--but I do claim to see our schools as places in which humanity is now discouraged in the face of something far more insidious than simple rote learning. Schools are run now in a way that encourages corporate-styled efficiency (all the right data points that certainly sound good but add up to little in practice, certainly little relation to students' learning. e.g. the right numbers in certain programs to justify their existence, teachers being encouraged to no longer give Fs to students, attitudes of things like there being only one way for students to demonstrate that they have learned, a clear enunciation of "learning standards" before each class so students know precisely what is to be instructed to them (this being encouraged by studies I've read and think are particularly pseudo-scientific in nature, for example this study, which among other things claims to have a way to determine what stories students have written were better than others; as a fiction writer I find it particularly flawed to claim a handle on something so entirely subjective).

But more than that I object to the notion that the one lone job of a teacher is to be a dispenser of information, of all skills necessary to "make it" in the "real world." Certainly, as my own mother has never failed to remind me, those skills are necessary. Without them, students might be lost in their lives outside of organized education. I teach a thing called executive functioning -- which refers largely to those skills that ask you to take control of your own life and the business therein. Teaching it has been enormously helpful to me organizing my own day-to-day (and considering I not only work as a teacher in this program but also teach two sections of composition and usage for night school and am finishing up my own Masters of Art in Teaching (three classes, one in-person and two online), I can say fairly certainly these skills have made all of what I'm doing right now far more manageable, if not entirely possible).

That said, I still don't see myself as only some dispenser of information. I like to imagine that my students and I work well together because I don't treat them like widgets, like little robots in need of tinkering so that they suddenly, miraculously "get it." That's not who they are and that's not how they should be treated. But I get mixed messages from superiors all the time. "We need to showcase student growth" as if by doing the things I do with them pedagogically on a daily basis, they'll suddenly, miraculously be fixed and work correctly.

A teacher friend of mine recently noted there's a big difference between exercising authority and actually helping a person become educated. The former can be very neat and tidy, though arguably effective. The latter is a messy business filled with impossible-to-measure components. Students might not always "look" like they're on task, but that doesn't mean learning isn't being done. It's those same corporate affected appearances I noticed were integral to work at the various businesses I worked at before teaching. Real honestly is to be avoided in favor of the affectation of honesty. I must go through certain hoops and I will have done things the "right way." The cognitive dissonance that's so integral to this kind of thing and so society at large is astounding.

I'm no fool, though. I'm aware for a great many reasons we can afford to be completely honest about everything we do. What I do find frustrating and incongruous to a point of irreconcilability is the idea that I too must buy in to all this affectation. It's possible people don't see through it, but I doubt that. I think most people do see through the affectation that informs so much of our daily lives, certainly students do. And I see how it shuts down their level interest and their level of curiosity. They're used to arbitrary rules dictating their existence, life being reduced to "because I said so." That doesn't mean this is Best Practice, to use a favored term of the education reform era. Couple the notion of authoritarian dispensation of only one way of doing things with the idea we do let people do things they way they want to, and what you have is that always unacknowledged mutual exclusion that drips of cognitive dissonance. It's a problem of having too many people in the room who only agree with you -- arguably a big problem in today's corporate world that's trickled down to school districts, or perhaps always a problem with people seeking to be "leaders" and not considering the fact that their certainty is as much a flaw as it is an asset.

So, what I'm saying is I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether things are being done the right way in schools. But I do know that I get the sense we're sucking the life out of students with the pedagogical points of emphasis of the day. I get the sense that students feel like they're being lied to and so actively reject what we're trying to convey as educators. There's such a deep-seated lack of empathy that needs to be addressed. I understand you administrators of the world are under pressure from forces above you, as they most likely are as well, but continuing to march in lockstep with this belief system merely because it's what we've (in various "new" iterations) always done is not helping anyone. I think if you truly believe in education and students being lifelong learners, you'll see what I mean.