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The Tantalizing Vagueness of Teaching

Posted: 2010-07-11

This essay, which speaks to today's issues of teacher excellence, was published in the July/August issue of Learning Magazine in 1986. So oldtimers say, "Yes we've been through this before," using the "been there" putdown as an excuse for their current silence. Read on: you'll see I complained about them then, just as I complain about them now.

These silent ones--who have nothing to lose but their consultant money--refuse to acknowledge that teacher professionalism is under greater peril than ever before.

I condemn their silence.

I was once enrolled in a whoop-de-doop NYU program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, wherein participants were tested for a tolerance for ambiguity. My score went off the chart, which means that although I can't remember how to multiply fractions, I'm very likely to be able to "out wait" the most recalcitrant of students. For thirty years I've wondered why this "skill" never comes up in discussions of teacher excellence.

NOTE: The one thing that's way out of whack since this article was written is the pay of sports figures. The minimum wage for a major league baseball player, for example, is $400,000. With one hundred million in the news for a basketball celebrity, there seems to be no maximum.

from Learning Magazine



In 1916, Robert Frost wrote his friend and fellow poet Louis Untermeyer that a poem "begins as a lump in the throat." Frost also noted that a poem is "at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness." I feel the same way about teaching.



That's why I become uncomfortable and even irate when committee-persons insist that a good teacher's performance can be charted and graphed, and then rewarded accordingly.



If someone appears in my doorway and says, "I'm going to examine your anticipatory sets," I wonder if I have the right to make one phone call first. Teachers have been polite too long to managerial types, fellow with bulging briefcases of checklists with terms like praise as positive reinforcer, demonstration of mastery, time on task, and other slimy slugs of that ilk.



We are teachers. Teachers. Teachers. We traffic in words and ideas and feelings and hopes, not in goods or systems, not even in five-tiered career ladders. I hear the blizzard of words spewed forth about teacher competency and I want to ask, "Why me?"



Do we see such high-level scrutiny of other professions--of doctors, for example? After all, their collegial cover-ups are notorious--and life-threatening. Yet I can't pick up my morning newspaper and find out what my surgeon's operating mortality rate is. Nor do I know what percentage of his diagnoses are correct. Would the AMA sponsor the idea of box scores for doctors' performances--or merit pay?



But if teachers can prove they are competent, say our education managers, society will pay them accordingly. Hah. American values simply aren't skewed that way. Sports figures might easily get $500,000--or $5,000,000--to hit around a little white ball. But teachers can't command much--mainly because we don't have any special skills that are observable. What we do looks fairly easy; most people feel they could do the teaching part, though they acknowledge that putting up with the kids all day might be a bit difficult. Our real skills, of course, are secret. Nobody ever knows when we hit a home run or a grand slam, and that's why we can never be paid what we're worth.



It doesn't take the perception of a parsnip to realize that teachers didn't enter the calling to get rich. Yet these education managers persist in ignoring--and even eliminating--the very qualities that did lead us into the fold. They talk a lot about skills, for example, but don't mention a sense of humor or a tolerance for ambiguity or an enjoyment of children.



Behaviorists have long insisted that they can deliver the carefully delineated subskills of learning. Now they are marketing a similar package for teaching. Some administrators label this move to standardize teaching as a clarion call for excellence. A lot of us veteran teachers see it as an ultimately catastrophic worship of systems at the expense of people.



I am particularly bothered by the growing popularity of teacher evaluation forms that are supposed to be objective, systematic, impersonal. Such forms tell no more about essential teacher qualities than do a box of jujubes. The time is past due for teachers to stand up and say, "No! Your checklists and timetables tun counter to what goes on in a vital, stimulating, nurturing classroom." The time is past due for the professors of education to step down from their ivory towers and to become involved in what's happening in the schools. If they form one more committee or draft one more recommendation, let it be on the importance of human relations in the classroom. Let them form a task force to protect teachers. . . and children.



The education managers who hand out competency tests and who write up official classroom observations make a critical mistake. They insist that prospective teachers should prove what they know. But we veteran teachers realize that the hard part of being a teacher has nothing to do with facts. Yes, teachers need to know where the apostrophes should land, but more important, they need to be nurturing human beings. They must be optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibilities of the children in their care. They must be flexible and able to bounce back after sixty-three defeats--ready and even eager to try again.



I'm not much interested in seeing how a teacher carefully structures her lesson so that the kids stick to the objectives and the bell always rings in the right place--just after she makes her summary and gives the prelude for what will come tomorrow. I want to find out if that teacher is tough and loving and clever and flexible. I want to be sure she's more nurturing than a halibut.... What does she do when a kid vomits (all over those neat lesson plans)? Or an indignant parent rushes in denouncing the homework? Or the worst troublemaker breaks his arm and needs special help? Or the movie projector bulb burns out, and the replacements have to come from Taiwan? Or somebody spots a cockroach under her desk?



A teacher's talents for dealing with crises aren't easily revealed on an evaluation report or rewarded on a salary schedule. And neither are those special moments that a teacher savors. So don't yield to the number crunchers--even when they dangle a golden carrot in front of you. Remember that the most wonderful joys of teaching happen in the blink of an eye and are often unplanned and unexpected. You can miss their importance and lose their sustenance if your eyes are glassily fixed on the objective you promised your principal you'd deliver that day. When you maintain a sharp eye and the ability to jump off the assigned task, the rewards are many--when a child discovers a well-turned phrase; or a mother phones and says, "Our whole family enjoyed the homework. Please send more"; or the shiest child in the room announces she wants to be the narrator in the class play; or the class bully smiles quietly over a poem. Our joy is in the daily practice of our craft, not in the year-end test scores or the paycheck. When outside experts ignore this, then we must stop and remind ourselves. We must talk, not of time on task but of the tantalizing vagueness and the lumps in the throat, the poetry and true purpose of our calling.

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