Friday, May 24, 2013

All teachers are not created equal

I am sure that many of you have viewed the cell phone footage of Jeff Bliss, a sophomore student who lectures his social studies teacher about how to teach while being kicked out of the classroom.  Most of my students have seen it.  I’ve seen it.  I saw it when it first was posted on a social networking site a recently, and then I felt compelled to watch it again today.  

And here’s the interesting part: my reaction the 2nd time around was much different.
Upon the first viewing, I agreed with the young man who felt so frustrated with his learning experience.  We all have had teachers who seem to just provide us with packets and busy work, who rarely get out of their chairs and who seem to just show up at 7AM to leave by 3PM every day.  A teacher who does the bare minimum and simply does what the state standards requires.  Nothing more.  I felt sorry for the kids, to have that scenario be their experience when history is such a fascinating and valuable subject.  I am sure there are many Jeff Bliss’s out there in the world, who are disappointed with how they are being forced to learn.    

On top of that, I felt sorry for the teacher.  I felt like I wanted to reach out to her, to ask her to try and remember why she entered the profession in the first place.  I wanted to ask her to find that passion that she may have once had for learning.  For teaching.  For the subject.  For the kids.  I felt as though she was created; She may have been strapped with too many high stakes tests that require her to “get through” enough content that might appear on a state standardized test, therefore not feeling able to dedicate sufficient time to project based instruction.  I honestly can attest that I do not know one single person who has decided to enter this profession because they want an “easy” job; to sit up at their desk while the students essentially teach themselves with packets (with the original worksheet being from 15+ years ago).  

And then something happened yesterday that caused me to go back and watch the viral video.  I overheard a few of my sophomore students joke about how they left midway through a school assembly the day prior.  On Wednesday, our history department worked tirelessly to bring Vietnam veterans into our school before Memorial Day, to share their experiences and display artifacts from their service with our kids.  The sophomores miss every single one of their classes from 2nd period to 12th period that day; it’s dedicated to students learning from these living historians who are sharing their stories that will not appear in textbooks.  Did I mention that the guest speakers, veterans, have to use a sick day or call off of work (ie – lose a day’s pay) to be here for the presentation? 
So needless to say, it’s quite an undertaking to coordinate this event.  After the morning session, students were led out to the commons for lunch.  And that's where the disappointing decision making happened.  From some accounts, at least half of the sophomore student body left.  They left school grounds, to go to a friend’s house to swim in the pool, and skipped the second session of the presentation.  According to some, it was wildly obvious how many students had flown the coop when the second session started and half of the auditorium was empty.

When my kids came in to my class that morning and I overheard them talking about how some of their classmates had chosen to leave, I did my best to contain myself.  How dare they.  How dare they disrespect our country’s soldier’s who have survived warfare.  How dare they disrespect the teacher’s who worked tirelessly to coordinate this event.  I highly doubt those individuals who took time out of their lives to share their experiences overseas will ever wish to return.  Their behavior makes not only their entire school look bad to the community, but I fear they tarnished the reputation of teens everywhere.  

So when I was in the right state of mind, I told those kids how I was disappointed in them.  I informed them that they are in charge of their own educational experience, and if they felt they had the right to leave an event like yesterday, then they needed to be aware of the message they were sending.  The message that I receive as a teacher from them the students is that they didn’t want to be taught with people who have experienced the events they study in their textbooks, that this unique opportunity was not valued and we can’t trust them to make good decisions.  I recalled saying, “So you didn’t WANT to be there?  Guess what, YOU and your poor decisions are exactly why teachers resort to making packets and letting you sit in your seats for the entire class period.  Forget having freedom to direct your own learning – you just demonstrated that you can’t handle that.  Congratulations.  You are to blame for good teachers like Mr J to question whether he should do anything like this ever again.”

That’s why I went back to the Jeff Bliss recording.  Because that teacher may have not only been shaped by state mandated testing, but she could have also been shaped years and years of kids being disrespectful and lazy and unmotivated and uncreative. She may have been held back from projects and experiences like our Veteran’s assembly because the administration was worried that kids might do exactly what they did here.  She may have had too many experiences with students that have caused her to lose her ambition to try something new.  All teachers, regardless of how seasoned they may be, will try new things in the classroom and sometimes, the end product is amazing. 
And sometimes, it blows up in your face.  You go home, lick your wounds, reflect on what went wrong and see if you can figure out how to make it right.  It might take a few years to try it again, but most teachers do.  They take that risk because that’s what it takes to touch kids’ hearts.

So here’s what I beg teachers like her, teachers who feel that what they do does not make a difference, teachers who have lost that excitement for teaching.  Please don’t give up.  Please do not stop being passionate and curious.  What I love about my job is that I get to be the first person to introduce students to new concepts and ideas that they have never heard of before.  Now more than ever, we need teachers to get back to that thinking.  We need to remember what it’s like taking kids from not knowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding.  Keep trying.  The next year’s class might be better!  Or they might be worse, but you won’t know until you give them a shot.  They are just kids, anyway.  They make mistakes (hopefully) a lot more often than we do.  And in my mind, a mistake is an learning opportunity – failure is not the end, it’s the beginning of the lesson.

For the record, I had numerous students approach me to tell me that the Veteran's assembly was so interesting and they wished they could do things like this more often.   So Mr J, you may not have been able to reach the entire sophomore body, but you still sparked the interest and curiosity in some.  Those are the kids you need to remember.  Those are the kids who value what you do.