Teacher: It’s not enough to ‘just’ teach anymore

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Here’s the story of how one teacher came to realize that what she did in the classroom for her students wasn’t enough. This was written by Hillary Greene, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She graduated from Brown University and completed the Shady Hill School Teacher Training at Tufts University. She is interested in teaching and teacher-education research. Connect @hillarylgreene on Twitter. You can read earlier post of hers here, “Why Teachers Feel So Alone.”

By Hillary Greene

Chatting with my teacher training adviser, Heather, was like visiting a favorite aunt for tea. Together, we reflected on her copious observation notes ranging from, “Discussion is just the right length,” to “You offer so many ‘ways in’ to the material for these students!” to my personal favorite: “Ignored Sebastian’s bug eating even as class erupted” (an early lesson).

Pretty soon, I would be on my own, away from the seeming utopia of my independent school training ground, and I realized how disoriented I might feel in a new place, especially since I planned to teach in a public school. Before I left the safety of Heather’s guidance, I needed to figure out my teacher identity. I needed to know who Ms. Greene was.

Big Sister Turns Activist

After more observation and discussion, we decided my identity as a teacher grew from my role as my family’s oldest sister and cousin. Knowing this guided me through my first year of teaching. When in doubt, I had familiar guidelines to follow. Would I say to my younger cousin what I’m saying to this student? Would I be disappointed in my sister if she gave me an essay like that one? If it wouldn’t work for my family, then it wouldn’t work in my classroom.

When I asked Heather to help me discover my teacher identity, I didn’t realize what a crucial question that was. I also didn’t understand that the question of who I would become as a teacher was far from resolved.

Three years later, I still feel like the big sister of my students, lovingly demanding their best learning each day. However, my original vision of myself left out an important element of teaching: all of the time spent outside of the classroom. My big sister identity might guide me in reacting strongly against pulling Joseph out of the drumming class he adores, just in order to complete extra math test preparation, but I needed another part of me to emerge to fight that battle. The big sister in me felt protective of students haphazardly accused of serious disciplinary offenses by an administration that lacked follow-through or fairness, but I needed to become more than a big sister to voice my concerns.

Right from the start, I was growing another dimension of my teaching persona. I was speaking up, reading about policy in my free time, writing a bit, and forming my own ideas.

I was becoming an activist.

 Speaking Up

Before I was aware of my emerging inner activist, my tensions felt unresolved. The big-sister part stepped up and took over. It would have been mature and valid to attempt to have philosophical discussions about test preparation with my department head, but I felt too intimidated and unwelcome. Instead, like a big sister, I shut my classroom door and told my students that we had to prepare for state tests and would do our best even though they and I would rather do other things with our time.

I acted as the big sister with two students who, while not on IEPs yet, read below grade level and struggled with things like social studies tests. When I realized that changes couldn’t be immediately implemented at the top level for students like this (it would take time to test them, draft IEPs, and get parental support), I shielded them as best I could by modifying their tests or talking them through their tests so they would feel successful. I treated them like family, sharing Saltines and my computer screen after school as we studied. There were certainly better avenues through which I could have advocated for them, yet the big sister took matters into her own hands.

And so I started to understand that my students needed a big sister in the classroom, but they needed an activist on their behalf outside of the classroom. And I needed one too.

 Teaching Isn’t Enough

I am convinced that we, as teachers, must be activists. While we all forge personal identities inside the classroom, the diversity of which our kids love and enjoy, we must conceive of ourselves as education activists too. We have, at the same time, front row seats to and lead roles in education today. We are school reform. If we make ourselves aware of policy, trends, and plans that occur outside of the classroom, then we can preserve our autonomy and ability to lead inside the classroom.

 Teacher Preparation

The future of this prospect lies within the quality of teacher preparation programs and the way teachers are educated in policy, which would impact both what teachers know and which people become attracted to the teaching profession.

My own prepared me for both facets of this job. With the help of Heather and others in an immersion experience, I learned the art of teaching and became my classroom’s big sister.

But outside of the practicum, I received a foundation for becoming an activist. In small seminars, we grappled in with issues of policy and the forces at play beyond classroom walls. One pivotal moment occurred as I completed field research in a popular charter school in Boston. I was at the school to research my own question of how different schools communicate expectations to students, both explicitly and implicitly, and this charter school, like many, emphasized college as the goal for every child. Another apprentice accompanied me for his own research, and we ended up arguing about the college message; while he supported it, I did not. I thought college was a fine plan, perhaps even for every child, but I thought the message was too simplistic and that it might teach students to think of their future as having just one possibility. Whether I still agree with my idea is one thing, but what I learned through this exchange is that thinking originally about the way teaching practice affects society is an important skill to have as a teacher.

When We Know Better…

It’s no longer enough as a teacher to “just” teach, and yet many teacher education programs neglect to inspire students to become activists for their students and their profession. In a profession that is dictated increasingly by private interests and non-educators, it is imperative now more than ever that a teacher not only learn how to accommodate a special education student but also have the tools to question who is evaluated for special education and who isn’t. It is urgent that a charter school teacher give an exceptional education to her students, but it is also necessary that she understand how the school is funded and what its role is in our educational system. I can teach my middle school social studies class about bystanders in the Holocaust, but if I’m just a bystander myself, what did I learn and what will my students learn from me?

Anyone who has taught knows what a challenging profession it is. But if we concentrate solely on our teaching, then other people will advocate for us, and we might not like what follows. Whatever part we play in the classroom, from big sister to coach to comedian and more, we need to become active beyond that sphere so that we can continue to play those other parts well.

In the fall of the school year, I make a bulletin board of basic information, and along the top of the board I post a dollop of Maya Angelou wisdom: “When you know better, you do better.” As teachers, we need to know what’s happening in our field so that we have the voice to advocate for our students and for ourselves.

When we teachers know better, we’ll do better.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | August 23, 2013