Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things

This blog has been slow lately for two reasons: first, I have been unusually busy with school; second, I am in the midst of my happiest teaching year yet. Why is it going so well, and what does this say about the possibilities in the teaching profession?

First, I teach at a wonderful school–but this kind of thing can happen at many schools, under the right conditions. These include curriculum, which I’ll bring up later.

Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Reading the students’ work is a delight (as it was last year).

These great conditions come at a cost: the half-time salary. If I were teaching full-time, I would have more classes, more assigned duties, and less room for the intellectual and creative work. I would also be better off financially. Weighing the two options, I would rather have less money and more intellectual space—but it’s sad that I have to choose. Teaching should be treated as a thinking field. Teachers’ schedules should not be crammed and hectic, nor should every moment of the day be programmed.

That leads to another point: about collaboration. I have written on many occasions about our misconception of the term. In many districts around the country, there is something of a group work mandate for students and teachers alike. It is presumed that students and teachers should spend a great deal of time in small groups, working with others on a task. In reality, the best collaboration involves substantial independent work and thought. For example, when an editor and author work together, rarely do they sit down together at a table and revise a piece. Rather, the editor provides some suggestions, and the author thinks about them, determines which ones to accept, finds alternatives for the others, and revises the work. When scientists work together on a project, it often happens that each one works alone on a substantial branch of it. They come together for the intersections of their work.

This year, I have great collaboration without the group work. I attend very few meetings, since they do not fall within my official schedule. However, I am frequently in touch with colleagues and am alert to their work We have discussed many ways to join efforts. Also, I am the faculty adviser for the school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE—and have the honor of working with two outstanding editors-in-chief (both juniors) and a large and dedicated editorial board (sophomores, juniors, and seniors). This, too, involves a great deal of independent work and just a few meetings. The meetings are all the more fruitful because there’s so much  to bring to them.

This suggests to me that “collaboration” should be reconceived. It is essential to education and most fields, but it should involve and not drive out solitary thought. The practice of thinking alone should have honor, not stigma. (That’s the subject of my book, Republic of Noise.) I would go even farther: a certain kind of solitary thought inspires collaboration, and vice versa. If you strike the right relation between the two, you allow for an abundance of ideas and accomplishments.

The other difference from last year is that I am doing more things of my own outside of school. I don’t have enough time for substantial writing (I would need to take some time off again from teaching in order to write my next book). Nor do I have enough time for books that I choose to read; I already have so much to read for my teaching. On the other hand, I have been giving talks, participating in projects, and taking some classes. All of this feeds my teaching but is distinct from it; it is not “professional development,” but rather the development of something internal.

The moral of this, if such there be, is that teachers need room for their own lives and interests, even if they devote most of their time to school. Schools and policymakers should recognize that those outside pursuits enrich lives and translate into better teaching. Studying a language out of interest is much more important than attending some professional development workshop on how to scaffold a complex text. In truth, if you are studying a language, you are probably developing insights on “scaffolding” that no workshop could give you.

That leads to the final point. Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

I recognize that what makes me thrive is not what will make every teacher thrive. Yet most teachers would agree, I think, that the work should be less frazzling, with a focus on the intellect, imagination, and spirit. In addition, most would agree that a teacher’s intellectual and spiritual life affects that of the students. Lifting the quality of life for teachers–“life” in the rich sense of the word–serves not only the teachers themselves, but the students, the school, and the endeavor.

Clearly it would be expensive to do some of the things I recommend here. But some of it could be done at no extra cost—by turning our attention toward interesting things and defending them against encroachments. It is not that simple, and yet it is.

Belonging and Apartness in Intellectual Pursuit

Last Friday, Annie Murphy Paul wrote about how learners need a sense of intellectual belonging—how, if they feel excluded by (or inferior to) their peers and role models, their learning may be constricted. I would like to propose a complementary truth: that students also need room and strength to be apart. Just how apartness and belonging should be combined in education, I do not know; I doubt that there is a perfect formula. But both have an important place, and one can fortify the other.

Much depends, of course, on what one means by “belonging.” One kind of belonging might stimulate learning; the other might limit it. It is necessary, for instance, to belong to the work itself. You are more closely joined to your music if you practice it, and to a book if you read it. But that is not only essential kind of belonging. Any member of an educational institution should be treated as a true member. If a student is admitted to a college, then as far as the college is concerned, that student belongs there. It is not right to admit a word to the sentence and then put it in parentheses—especially if that word is a person, and the sentence is a school.

In addition, teachers and students should show appropriate collegiality. If, for instance, students meet in a study group, they should announce the time and location so that all those interested may attend. If faculty have traditions of doing certain things together, then they should make sure that all are invited.

But here the matter gets tricky. It is possible for a group to become cloying—for students and faculty to spend too much time together and consult each other on minute things. There can even be too much niceness, leaving no room for healthy friction. Or else the disagreements and antagonisms come up in gossip, where rumors rise up and jagged shadows rule.

To find yourself in an intellectual (or artistic) endeavor, you need to resist the immediate collegial pull. The person who goes to the library or spends time working on a theorem may have a stronger sense of belonging (to the field itself) than those who take their meals together, attend events together, and consult each other on every mental step. Far from depending on the latest whisper, she sets her mind on sturdier things.

To speak your mind without fear, you cannot be drowning in acceptance; you must know disapproval, even rejection. Those who expect the sympathetic nods of colleagues will be thrown off when their colleagues are not nodding or smiling; they will ask themselves “what did I do wrong?” (often a deadly question). Good ideas are not consistently popular; anyone with an independent mind will fall out of favor with the group at some point. There is no shame in this; it may be a sign that the person is finding his way.

Moreover, people are not always nice. Sometimes you end up in a class with a snarly professor and grade-grubbing classmates. Or you might find yourself in a setting where nothing is blatantly wrong, but something feels amiss—where you don’t feel exactly at ease, even though no one is rejecting you. What do you do? Go look for a more cordial place? You may find something amiss there, too. It’s good to learn to hold your own in such situations; they will come and go.

What about those you admire? Should they be within your reach? Annie Murphy Paul suggests that it can be damaging to choose role models whose accomplishments are far beyond yours. Choose people closer to your range, she advises. I am not at all sure of this. One can lose oneself in the work of an intensely admired person. For a stretch of time, comparisons disappear. When they reappear, so do ideas and yearnings. The student knows what to strive for, or grasps a part of it.

Yet certain kinds of belonging do make a difference in learning. It is painful to be ignored or rejected by peers and teachers. There are places where one feels in one’s element and thrives on account of this. Yet anyone who wishes to enter a field should prepare for a bit of loneliness in it—not too much, of course, but a bit. I do mean loneliness, not just aloneness or solitude. Comfort and company are not always present, nor would things be better if they were.

How does one find the right combination of apartness and collegiality? One knows it when one finds it, but it can also shift. As much as a person longs for an intellectual home, “intellectual home” is a contradiction in terms. Intellect requires some homesickness, some conception of absent things. It also needs conversation, rapport, encouragement—but not to the point where their absence seems a calamity. The loss of a friend is sad, sometimes terribly so; the loss of approval or applause, just part of one’s work.

Note: I made a minor edit for clarity.

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.