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What Do I Fix Next

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Every top teacher that I know can tell you what their Worst Thing is.

The good-bad teacher model that's constantly being used as a basis for policy proposals-- it's nuts. In that universe, teachers are good or bad. Put a bad teacher in a classroom, and education withers and dies as students fail to thrive. Put a great teacher (or an "effective teacher") in a classroom, and test scores fly upward and a thousand learning moments bloom. If you're a teacher, you're good or bad, and when you step into a classroom, your fruits reveal your nature.

But "good teacher" is not what you are; it's what you do. And every good teacher knows a list of things she needs to do better.

This is one of those killer Things They Don't Tell You In Ed School. You will not be able to do everything you know you need to. You will see all the things that need to be done-- and you will only be able to do some of them.

The prevailing reformster model of teaching is solid state, a set stasis. Get the teacher put together just so, then come spray on the Kragle and lock it into place.

However, on this planet, teaching is much more like juggling. You're tossing up a couple of balls and an apple and several eggs and a pair of hamsters and maybe a chainsaw, and not always with grace, but always with the knowledge that there are some bowling balls and waffles that you need to pick up and add. Oh, and you are riding a unicycle on a tightrope, carrying laser sharks.

Like all jobs that fit the juggling metaphor (I wouldn't pretend for a second that teaching is the only line of work that is like this), a key ingredient is reflection.

Think. Look. Listen. Weigh. Check your assumptions. Check your results.

When you don't reflect, it's easy to let things slip or slide. How long has that apple been lying on the floor instead of flying through the air? Am I using my bowling ball grip on a marshmallow? Am, I really not ready to add the ten tennis balls, or am I just slacking? And particularly at the end of the year, have I let my heart harden when it needs to stay open, ready, and willing?

Conditions in the classroom always change, because the school and the rules and the climate and the world and most of all the students always change. Have I made the right adjustments?

And that's the conscious Big Stuff. Any complicated high wire juggling extravaganza requires a million micro-adjustments in every second. That's why data-crunching analysis may have its place, but I also need the mental discipline to be reflective, mindful, present.

This is why I reject the data-driven test-centered model favored by some-- not because I have no interest in data and feedback, but because I'm operating on a baby seal for which I need precise and subtle instruments, and these folks are offering me a blunt ax.

If you ask me, "Are you a good teacher?" I don't really know how to answer. I can tell you if I think I did good work today, or this week, or this year. Oh, this year. The end of the year is brutal, a giant polished wall that reflects back all my miscues and mis-steps and missed opportunities and failures of the previous year. I can start sorting out the stuff that I must do better next year, the broad strokes and the fine touches. I have to figure out what to fix next.

I have been in the classroom for thirty-seven years, and there has never been a year when I didn't have a list if things to do better. I get many more objects in the air with far less wasted effort than I used to, but still-- still there is more to do better. Some of the challenges are brought to me-- shorter class periods, more days lost to testing, class size fluctuations-- and some I bring myself. But dammit-- I am doing the work better, and I will keep doing it better. I just have to figure out what to fix next.

I don't talk about this often because we mostly live in a meat and potatoes world, but in addition to being art and science, teaching is a spiritual pursuit as well-- you have to be in tune with yourself, your students, your surroundings, your content, your community, the ebb and flow of the day, the week, the year. You reflect and you grow, and if you don't keep growing, then you shrink and ossify and fail to do your best work. You reflect and you grow, and because you reflect and grow, you keep asking--

What do I fix next?

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Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher of secondary English for thirty-many years. He lives and works in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania where he plays ni a town band, works in community theater, and writes for the local paper.

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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016