Homophonia and Parekbasiphobia

This is now a well-known story (and no hoax): Blogger Tim Torkildson was fired from his position at Nomen Global Language Center, Utah’s largest private English as a Second Language school, for posting a piece about homophones on the company’s website.

Homophones are words with like sounds and different meanings, such as where/wear, or/oar, and pair/pear. They may have the same spelling (for instance, rose/rose).

A post about homophones is entirely appropriate for the website of an ESL school. But Clarke Woodger, Nomen owner and boss, told the Salt Lake City Tribune that “people at this level of English … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.”

Well, and so what if they did? They are learning English, correct? They would soon learn what “homophones” actually were. In addition, they could learn the meaning of the prefix “homo-.” Part of the point of learning a language is learning what words and their parts actually mean–not staying stuck in what you think they mean.

If you avoid the very sounds of words because of their possible associations, you will end up in a verbal noose. But that’s only part of the story. Woodger’s greater concern–as reported to Torkildson and to the Salt Lake City Tribune–was that Torkildson was going off on too many tangents in his posts, and that he therefore couldn’t be trusted. This post on homophones–a wild digression, in Woodger’s view–was “the last straw.”

If we look at this story in terms of a fear of tangents and digressions (which I will call parekbasiphobia, as parekbasis is Greek for digression), then Woodger’s complaint is typical of a larger tendency in education.

Since my entry into public school teaching in 2005, I have seen widespread distrust of digressions. Teachers themselves understand the value of digressions–allowing a conversation to take an unexpected direction for the sake of larger understanding, or even for sheer fun. But policymakers and teacher trainers see it otherwise: to many of them, if you stray from the point for even a few seconds, you are wasting precious instructional time. You may be robbing children of the opportunity to meet the stated objective and thereby to achieve measurable progress.

One of the first “inservice trainings” I attended included a presentation about sticking to the point. “We want our lessons to go straight to the objective,” the presenter said, “not where our own imagination takes them. We want to be like this”–here she made a gesture of straight motion–“and not like this” (a gesture of a zigzag).

One of my greatest teachers, the poet John Hollander, showed us in lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar, what digressions could do. There was no imitating him–in no way could his teaching be a “model”–but I would not trade a single one of his lectures for something that stuck strictly to the point. For Hollander, the point itself was multifaceted; to understand it, one needed to take excursions into etymology, history, architecture, music, and more.

Now, how do I reconcile a defense of digression with my insistence that focus is essential for learning? On the surface, it seems that these two principles contradict each other, but they do not. There is a big difference between digression and all-out distraction. If one is attentive to the topic at hand, one can move this way and that within it. How and when one does so will depend largely on the situation. Not all digressions are helpful, but some may open up insights into the lesson’s central questions. You can miss the point by sticking too rigidly to the point.

By contrast, what doesn’t count as focus is a willful inattention to a lesson or topic–a preoccupation with one’s iPhone, or with the latest social gossip, or with the homework for the next class. Now, some would argue that such “distractions” should be made part of the lesson–that instead of battling them, teachers should welcome them and search for their inner meaning. On the whole, I disagree. There is a simple practice of setting aside one’s own immediate preoccupations for the sake of something else. If students (and teachers and schools) do not develop this discipline, they will be at the mercy of their urges and impulses.

But once the general focus is established, there’s room for a great deal of adventure. Just how much, and when–that’s a matter of judgment, and judgment is at the center of a teacher’s practice. Take away judgment, and you take it all away.

In fretting over Torkildson’s “tangents,” Woodger may seem ridiculous–but he represents a current of our time.

Why Do Teachers Stay?

We hear a lot about why teachers leave the profession. What makes them stay?

There are surveys and studies of this topic, but they focus on general tendencies and gloss over some important points. To understand what causes people to stay in the profession, you have to consider what teaching is, what the current teaching profession looks like, and how well the two match up.

Last week I received my professional teaching licenses in English Language Arts and English as a Second Language. (I had “initial” licenses up to this point.) This is no momentous event; the professional licenses aren’t effective until September, and I could have obtained them a few years ago if I had applied. Nonetheless, it felt like a crossing of some kind. I realized that I was in teaching for the long term, although I might take breaks now and then.

My story may seem atypical on the surface. I will tell it briefly in order to bring up two conditions that keep me in teaching at this point: substance and time. Teaching is an intellectual endeavor, among other things; a school that makes room for intellectual life will likely retain many teachers.

Before teaching in New York City public schools, I taught as a graduate student, as a Mellon Fellow, and in various other capacities. I came to public school teaching with a Ph.D. in Russian literature. I had already decided against an academic career (that is, at a college or university) and had worked in fields as diverse as counseling, publishing, and computer programming. In my own time, I had written stories, poems, and songs, translated poems from the Lithuanian, written computer programs, and played music alone and with others.

I was drawn to teaching because I had enjoyed it in the past and because it drew on my interests and experience. On a given school day I might be teaching my students to sing in harmony, leading a discussion of Antigone, explaining the logic of subordinating conjunctions, and speaking Spanish, Russian, and English. In this regard, I have not been disappointed. But the work was consuming and exhausting (with classroom control, paperwork, meetings, numerous mandates, and so forth), and the citywide curriculum, especially in ELA and ESL, had little to do with subject matter. There was inordinate emphasis on process (group work, creation of “graphic organizers,” use of technology, and so forth) and so-called reading strategies. No one cared what you taught (within reason), as long as you used these strategies and processes. This meant a degree of freedom on the one hand and skewed priorities on the other.

Wanting to write about this, and not having adequate time, I left teaching for two years. I wrote and published a book: Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Now I am back in the classroom, part-time, as a curriculum adviser and philosophy teacher. This spring I put together and co-taught a unit on the question “What is the good life?” in which students read Seneca, Chesterton, Plato, and Tolstoy. I have been shaping the philosophy curriculum as a whole and will be the philosophy teacher for the high school grades next year. I will still teach part-time but will add one day to my schedule.

There is much more to all of this, but I want to emphasize what a difference it makes to teach something interesting, to have time for my own work and projects, and to be reasonably well rested. All of this, for me, is worth the part-time salary, but it is not a viable option for many. (It’s difficult to support yourself on a part-time salary, and part-time positions are scarce.) It may not be viable for me over the long term. This leads to the larger question: how could we make teaching intellectually stimulating and physically sustainable? Such a change would attract people to the field and would likely keep them in it.

Let us look first at how schools could take the exhaustion (or at least a good part of it) out of teaching. First, principals and other leaders should distinguish the essential from the inessential. Do not come into classrooms with checklists of items that teachers must have on the wall and words you expect to hear uttered. Do not insist on pedagogical models that might not suit the lesson. Instead, focus on the subject matter, the students, and how the teacher is bringing them together.

Second, recognize that teachers cannot be and do everything. In many schools, teachers are expected, on top of their regular loads (which are already grueling) to teach electives, run evening and weekend events, call parents every day, and even go to students’ homes. In addition, they are supposed to participate in meeting after meeting: department meetings, grade-level meetings, “inquiry team” meetings, faculty meetings, and more. They are also supposed to be “lifelong learners” in the officially sanctioned sense of the term—attending professional development sessions, taking approved courses, and so on. As if that weren’t enough, they must collect “data” on their practice: lesson plans, student work, tests, conference notes, and videotapes. There’s too much crammed in here—too many activities, too many roles. In the meantime, many of the treasures of education get sent to the storage room.

What’s neglected here, besides health and sanity, is the quiet mulling over the subject and the lessons. Thinking about mathematics, thinking about literature—that’s a luxury, even a frivolity, in the current system. But if you want to attract teachers who are devoted to their subjects, then you have to make room for thinking about these subjects. Subject matter cannot be an afterthought; it cannot be relegated to the summer weeks.

In connection with that, a school needs a substantial, challenging, beautiful curriculum. The difference between teaching Plato’s Republic and teaching “reading strategies” is like the difference between taking people to see a superb  play and selling a fake theater ticket to “whatever.” Schools must not sell fake tickets to “whatever.” They must have a curriculum worth teaching and make room for teaching it.

This is only a fraction of the conditions that could keep a teacher in the field. Teachers often cite an orderly environment, parent involvement, supportive leadership, and more. I bring up curriculum, appropriate priorities, and time for thinking and mulling because they don’t get enough attention. Too many pundits enjoy postulating that if you just paid teachers enough or dangled bonuses before them, you could get the best ones into the classroom and keep them there. They forget that teachers don’t want to sell their souls—or, for that matter, their minds.