Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Teaching - Essay from Newsletter 113

If they’ll let you


Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher from my hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, was this year’s teacher of the year.

My mom was his first grade teacher.

I love teaching more than anything else I do - and I love a lot of those other things too. I love coding, and cooking, and speaking at conferences - but mostly I love teaching.

Recently a college professor I follow shared the feedback he’d gotten from former students who valued how much he believed in them.

Somehow he’d helped them have the confidence to see themselves as being able to be a professional whatever.

Students might remember a particular lesson you communicate as a teacher but it’s more likely they take away a feeling that they can master material on their own. They get that they can now learn things they need to learn and seek out the resources and people they need to fill in the blanks.

My mom taught that to first and second graders for years.

I used to visit her in her classroom.

I’d be amazed at how she took kids that didn’t know how to read or write when they began and turn out a classroom of kids ready for third grade.

It took me years to see all the other things she taught them.

A tradition

I grew up surrounded by teachers.

My mom taught.

My dad taught.

For a while my dad taught teachers.

Even worse, for a while my dad taught my teachers.

My parents friends were mostly teachers.

And so, I suppose, it wasn’t much of a surprise when I became a teacher.

During college I taught Math during summers at Oberlin’s Upward Bound program and then after I graduated I started what I was sure would be my life long career as a high school math teacher.

I loved my first school - Newton North High School just outside of Boston. I was part of a large and engaged math department whose members cared deeply about math and the best ways to teach it and even more about the young minds they were teaching.

Massachusetts passed a property tax law and many of the most recently hired police, fire fighters, and teachers in Newton were let go.

My second experience brought me back to Cleveland to teach at a small department at a very small single-sex private school. The members of my department cared about all of the right things but for some reason in my second year at the school after the departure of one of our senior members, the school assigned the role of department chair to a history teacher.

Rachel, the other full-time math teacher, was a much older woman who was thirty years older than I. (and yet more than ten years younger than I am now)

She had five daughters - the youngest had just graduated from our school and the older four were each playing a stringed instrument in a different symphony.

She hated that everyone thought this history teacher should lead our efforts in Math. Our colleagues talked about how he was a Renaissance man and was very qualified. I was indignant - I spent my time living and breathing math and math education.

Rachel was beside herself but wouldn’t complain publicly because she feared for her job. Privately she sniff, “Renaissance man? I’m the mother of a string quartet.”

My dad listened to me complain and then told me, “The great thing about teaching, is that when you close the door of your classroom, you can teach the way you know is right.”

The future

Sunday I watched Maggie’s commencement ceremony for her Masters degree from the Penn School of Education.

She actually graduated last year.

It’s kind of nice. Her friends and family got to celebrate this achievement twice.

She’s the third generation on my side with an advanced degree. Her mom and dad, my mom and dad, my sister and brother - and now Maggie.

Education is like that.

Once you break in, you work so that your children can.

Sunday’s ceremony was for the students who had graduated last year or the year before but hadn’t had a ceremony due to COVID. I watched the long line of graduates of the School of Education enter Franklin Field and take their seats and I thought of the world they’ll be teaching in.

People with less training, education or experience than the History teacher who tried to tell math teachers what math teaching should be about, will be telling these teachers what they can and can’t teach.

When they close the doors to their classrooms, there may be district mandated cameras recording every word.

In general, good teachers don’t mind this. Let the parents see how much we put up with and how much it takes to teach their kids anything. Let the parents see their underprepared kid being taught anyway.

The summer before I began my PhD I hung out a lot at a coffee shop on Shaker Square. Russ told the story of his wife, an elementary school principal in the Cleveland public schools, breaking up a fight between two first graders. The next day she was having to defend herself against one of the parent’s complaints that she had beat up their child.

So let me go back to those cameras. I don’t want parents seeing other kids struggle. I don’t want to have teachers answer to edited snippets taken out of context. I don’t want to have parents question things they don’t understand.

When I used to train teachers, my goal was not to get them to teach like me.

I’m a really good teacher - but I’m a good teaching because my style fits with my personality and tendencies.

My goal was to get them to teach in the best way they could and many reached students in ways that I admired and admitted I could never do.

People with no subject matter expertise but a political agenda will be deciding which books can be used in the classroom. Math books are being banned in Florida - not for pedagogical reasons but because a person of color is featured in ways that make them uncomfortable.

Richard Feynman wrote about his time reviewing science text books for adoption in California. One series of books was highly ranked by his peers.

He realized immediately that none of his fellow committee members had opened the books and looked inside. If they had they would have seen what he saw. That all of the pages were blank with a note from the publisher explaining that production hadn’t been ready in time so they’d delivered books with the final cover bound around blank pages.

Or perhaps they had opened the book and found nothing politically objectionable.

I am so proud of Maggie’s achievement and love that she and her fellow graduates are entering the teaching profession. I hope that they won’t get pushed out by people who don’t want children led out of the darkness - you know - educated.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 113. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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