Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dear teachers, you need to do a better job of teaching our kids. Sincerely, non-teachers.

In Matt Walsh’s blog post, entitled “Dear parents, you need to control your kids.  Sincerely, non-parents,” he describes a mother in a grocery store who is dealing with a toddler in a tantrum.  The mom was “sticking to her guns” and refusing to buy the shrieking toddler a sugary breakfast cereal.  A fellow shopper said loudly to Walsh, “Man, some people need to learn how to control their f**king kids.”  Walsh, a father of twins, unsurprisingly disagreed:  as he put it, people calculate in this simple equation – misbehaving child equals bad parent.  “I’m no math major,” he writes, “but that calculus makes no sense. A kid going berserk at a grocery store doesn’t indicate the quality of his parents, any more than a guy getting pneumonia after he spends six hours naked in the snow indicates the quality of his doctor. Grocery stores are designed to send children into crying fits. All of the sugary food, the bright packaging, the toys, the candy — it’s a minefield.”

His post is a response to the critical bystander:  “Parenting,” he says, “is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about, but the hardest thing in the world to do.”  Not quite, I would argue.  Teaching, I think, is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about, but the hardest thing in the world to do.  People – and whole systems – use this metric:  under-performing students equals bad teacher.  They don’t take into consideration that the environment – in schools, in our current culture, and, in many cases, in homes as well – are designed to ensure failure.

First, we don’t just have two or three children, but up to thirty.  We don’t get to watch and learn and understand our children over time, but have them dropped in our lives for a five or ten months.

We spend six hours with them, with occasional forays out – in a single room.

We are expected, in the grade 6/7 class I currently teach, for example, in a ten month span, to use phrases from the newly reduced BC curriculum, to get them to understand that language and literature help us find meaning and joy, to respond to and create multiple types of texts; to think critically and creatively, and connect with others; to use language with increasing artistry and precision; to use multiple strategies to develop, construct, and apply mathematical understanding through problem solving; to inductively and deductively reason and use logic to explore, make connections, predict, analyze, generalize, and make conclusions; to assess and compare the significance of people, places, events, and developments over time and place and from different perspectives; to ask questions and corroborate inferences about the content and origins of multiple sources.  That’s just a fraction of the list for Socials Studies, Math and English.  Add Science, PE, Health, French, Fine Arts.

And I won’t even begin to list the variety of needs of each individual child, their unique challenges, their varying capacities to meet complex learning outcomes or to sit in hard plastic chairs crammed in a single room with many others.  Like the aisles in a grocery store, it’s a recipe for tantrums.

What’s more, it’s even more problematic than it was even thirty years ago and not only because all children, no matter how many learning challenges they have, are now integrated into the small space:  children are used to a fast-paced, high-colour, individualized world.  Most children in Canadian communities have a vast assortment of toys, yards or parks to play in, after-school clubs and activities to choose from.  At the very least, you would have to look for a long time to find a child who didn't have TV with a gazillion channels and a stack of video-games for fast-paced, action-packed, just-right entertainment.  School, on the other hand, is slow.  We are not even close, in our district, to having the capacity to personalize learning with technology. Learning comes from books, photocopied sheets, teacher lessons, videos.  Students are always waiting for others or waiting for help while others move ahead, slotted into schedules that are never quite right for everyone.

And in addition (as though there are not sufficient difficulties), children today are raised to different norms than they were when the notion of universal education was conceived: mindless obedience to adults is no longer instilled in children.  And while this is a positive change in many ways, it isn't helpful if you are a sole adult in charge of 30 children for a day in a small room.  Everything a teacher asks is contested over and over.  The pace, already slow, begins to crawl.

It takes the smallest imagination to agree that teaching must be hard.  But you can’t go a moment without criticism.  Walsh identifies two types of people who criticize parents whose children throw tantrums in public. First are the non-parents, whom he can forgive.  As he says, they don’t know what they are talking about. The second, he says, are the parents with grown children who judge other parents.  I think all parents have had a mother-in-law or grandmother or “friendly” neighbour who reminds us that all of her children were sleeping through the night at three months and potty trained by the time they were 18 months old. Particularly galling, Walsh notes, are parents who state that their kids weren't attached to electronics like kids nowadays. Of course – given there were no electronics! Children, I often hear, listened to teachers back in the day. Yes. But now they don’t. And it isn't because we no longer have the magical qualities of those long-ago teaching wonders. (Anyone remember the strap? Does anyone remember what happened at home if you got in trouble with the teacher way back in those days? Now it’s the teacher who is more likely to be in trouble for not providing a sufficiently interesting and adequately adapted program and thus provoking the child to swear and throw chairs.)

A good swath of the public who criticize teachers are not teachers. One can hardly blame them for being better armchair teachers, yelling at the coach.  There is, of course, much more at stake than a Stanley Cup – it’s their own child or grandchild or neighbours’ children.  So much rides on our winning in schools.

But I’ve been thinking lately about educators who criticize teachers. Perhaps they are retired or are now university professors or district staff or principals or professional development “gurus.” When they were teaching, students listened, of course; they had routines that worked and every one of the students learned to think critically, to express themselves creatively, and to explore their passions. Having left the classroom myself for several years, I know that part of the problem is the kindness of memory. The daily grind mists over and the highlights stand out. We forget our numerous failures; we remember the wonderful moments, the big successes, the challenges that ended gloriously.

Perhaps most galling, though, are the classroom teachers with “good kids” who judge and advise teachers with challenging classes. They are in an affluent neighbourhood with parents who hire tutors, provide their students with healthy lunches, regular bedtimes, after-school care, who have read to them since infancy. Their students blog and tweet and create YouTube videos that everyone admires; the children work independently and thoughtfully and care about learning; the teachers share their strategies for this success. But these children have not spent most of their lives in ministry care, have never spent days without food, have not seen their parents going in and out of treatment for addictions; they have not missed hundreds of days of school.  The advice, always well-meant, fuels only an overwhelming sense of inadequacy or teeth-gnashing frustration that produces nothing positive.  Indeed, advice is perhaps the least helpful thing that can be offered.  Books, volunteer hours, coats, food, and toys might at least be of use.

Why do educators criticize each other (and truly, “advice” is always criticism) when they know they have the hardest job in the world? Happily - and horribly - I stand in a position to answer the question.  As a district learning coordinator, I have been such a person, an educator who criticized teachers, if not directly, then at least indirectly by bringing my workshops to a school I didn't know to teachers whose practice I didn't adequately honour. It’s not that I’m a bad person or even an arrogant one: indeed, I’m an appallingly passionate educator hoping to do my best to ensure success for each child.  I thought my best was to showcase “best practice” and to connect communities through common ideas and the latest research.

Five years out of the classroom convinced me that it wasn't helpful at all.  Back inside the classroom now, I keep asking: what will really help me?  I don’t know.  I know what won’t help:  yet another new strategy or a different program or a “new” approach to literacy.

I’m pretty sure we are on the edge of a revolution in education.  We simply cannot sustain schools in their current form.  How they should look next, I’m not sure.

But I do know this: teachers are not the problem. Teacher training is not the answer. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that answers are not the answer. As Peter Block says, "People want answers, tools, things they can use tomorrow: if you feed that appetite nothing will change tomorrow.” We keep seeking to “fix” rather than transform. Our world and our goals have changed so dramatically since universal education was designed that we need to rethink, but not by simply providing a series of new “answers.”  And although it feels good to be “doing something,” there is too much at stake to continually spend our time, energy and resources to follow yet another new trend.  We need, instead, to start with questions.  As Peter Block says, “Questions bring us together; answers drive us apart – everyone has an opinion."  Indeed.

The trouble with teaching is that everyone has an opinion and no one is willing to “shut up and listen” to use Ernesto Sirolli’s phrase:  people keep reorganizing the deck chairs around us.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if, instead, we committed to working together, everyone who has a stake in education (and surely that’s all of us), to ask questions - not questions that point fingers at individuals and how to fix them, but that point, rather, to a way for us to create a sustainable system before we sink.


  1. Wow Shelley, good to see you are as insightful as ever. You almost make me want to come out of retirement and help with the challenge. Just for the record though, I always found our workshops, hints on "best practice" and other support most welcome when I was in the classroom. You were one of the people who made me see my students with new eyes and realize the futility of wishing for "the class I used to have 30 years ago" or the "class of my dreams" but to deal with the realities of the class I had. Thanks for your dedication to teaching and to children. From Jennifer Davidson

  2. Woops that should be your workshops not "our"!

  3. We would love to have you come out of retirement, Jennifer:) Thanks so very much for your kind words.

  4. This is wonderfully put. Thank you for sharing your perspective. We need more understanding and the right questions may just get us there.

  5. A very good article. We need to spend less time criticizing teachers for "no success with their students" and more time supporting them in the work they are trying to do. Things have changed. Teacher's need more support in the classroom. One teacher per class cannot be all things to all students. We hear talk of eliminating all EAs from the classroom. This would be a huge step backwards and many "not quite designated" kids would fall between the cracks. Its already happening.