Proponent of Teacher Obsolescence Theory Becomes Obsolete

Renart_illuminationExbox, SD—Nicole Intendo, professor of education at Avante University, received notice on Wednesday that she would no longer be needed in the classroom. Instead of taking her classes, students would spend the the time playing video games.

Intendo works relentlessly to propagate the theory that traditional classroom teaching (narrowly defined) has become obsolete in the wake of educational technologies. According to sources, Avante University has enthusiastically decided to apply her ideas.

“That is insulting, preposterous, and un-research-based,” said Intendo. “Research has shown that classroom teachers in kindergarten through high school have become relics of the past. But in college and graduate school, it’s an entirely different matter. We need to shape the wants of aspiring professionals. Too many young people enter our education program with fantasies of standing in front of the room and presenting something fascinating about a subject. We have to combat their outdated sense of purpose.”

According to Intendo, research has shown that all aspiring teachers are essentially “industrial and hierarchical” in motivation. They want to teach the students something they don’t already know.  Video games, by contrast, are entirely interactive; you can’t get through the game unless you are actively playing. Therefore, says Intendo, it is essential that she disseminate the research as often and as widely as possible—through classroom lectures, TED talks, radio interviews, and pocket-size bullet points—so that the American public at large will be exposed to the facts.

“If I lose my position,” she said, fighting back tears, “there will still be kids in Boston or Dallas who have to sit and listen to a teacher talk about how to solve an algebraic equation or how a sonnet is structured or how World War II came about. Why should they have to suffer through that? All that information is on Wikipedia. What they really need is a screen, keyboard, and challenge, all tailored to them. It’s so obvious, once you look at the research—but it takes me about two years to get this across to any given student.”

Asked how teachers could possibly be evaluated accurately in a class driven by video games, Intendo pointed at a bar chart on the wall. “Teachers are all-important,” she said. “Everything they do impacts a student’s future outcomes. See that graph? It shows a teacher’s direct effect on future earnings, down to the dollar. This is why they have to accept their new roles and step out of the way.”

Intendo’s students have questioned her conclusions. “I think she’s comparing apples to Apples,” said one, who requested anonymity. “I enjoy video games, but they don’t belong everywhere. I’m taking a great class on Chaucer and Cervantes right now. Is there a video game for this?” He quoted from the text:

This Chauntecleer his winges gan to bete,
As man that coude his tresoun nat espye,
So was he ravissed with his flaterye.

“What are we supposed to do—play a game where we’re the rooster trying not to be killed by the fox?” he taunted. “Oh, and maybe sprinkle in some word challenges, like ‘ravissed’ and ‘Chauntecleer’?  I’d rather take the course, thanks, and play my favorite games in my own time.”

“My favorite high school classes had teachers who actually taught us stuff,” said another. “In music theory class, the teacher taught us harmony and counterpoint.  She made it really interesting, with examples from different kinds of music. She got us to notice things. Then for homework she had us do exercises and compose pieces. That’s the kind of teacher I hoped to be.”

“That just proves my point,” said Intendo. “As you can see from these comments, new teachers imagine themselves at the front of the room. They have some favorite teacher who set the example for them in that way. But they have to get weaned off their own experiences and start looking at data. They absolutely need me for that.”

Intendo, who gave a TEDTalk about the future of education, believes that education professors, when they lecture, should do so in the style of a TEDTalk. “I don’t lecture all the time,” she said, “but when I do, I practice every move in advance, so that I project total confidence. I make my multimedia effects really grabbing. I keep the ideas simple so the students have a takeaway. I bring emotions into the picture. I even share a little about myself. My point is not to fill their heads with useless information but to convey the most essential data in about 20 minutes.” The rest of the time, she said, was devoted to “turn-and-talk” activities, where students would come to a “scholarly consensus” about what had been said. At the end of the lesson, they would fill out a two-column chart with the headings “I used to think” and “But now I know.”

“My classes are revolutionary, if I may say so myself,” she said. “It occurred to me the other day that I am changing the face of teaching and learning. I have to keep this up. If Avante gets its way, we will slide right back into the status quo.”

Learning to Govern Oneself

What is Teacher book cover test3Happy New Year (of several kinds) to all!

For the past two days i have been in Dallas, where I spoke at the Education Forum at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (and participated in panel discussions, plenary discussions, a seminar, and more). This year’s Education Forum celebrated the 30th  year of the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, as well as the publication of the Dallas Institute’s wonderful book What Is a Teacher? Remembering the Soul Of Education Through Classic Literature, to which I contributed a chapter. I have just begun reading the other chapters, with great enjoyment. I met many people at the Forum and recognized many others from the Summer Institute and various Dallas Institute events. In addition, I had a chance to work through some ideas that have been on my mind and that I plan to carry into the school year.

This year, in my Ethics and Political Philosophy courses (for tenth and eleventh grade, respectively), I will bring up (and return to) the idea that education prepares a person for self-government. Self-government is not the same as “self-regulation” (a concept that Elizabeth Weil takes apart, with partial success, in a recent essay in The New Republic; more about that another time). Rather, it involves drawing on one’s knowledge and understanding to make numerous choices and decisions. None of us can escape being governed in some ways by others–our political leaders, our bosses, our teachers, and, in childhood, our parents–yet we can come to understand the terms of these arrangements (and question them intelligently).

The difficulty is this: self-government involves what seems its opposite: laying aside our own urges and immediate judgments in order to learn or consider something foreign to us. It may seem unrewarding, at first, to make one’s way through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but that treatise opens up rich ideas about intellectual liberty itself. Similarly, it takes great patience to listen to another person in the classroom, be it the teacher, a classmate, or even a musical recording–yet such listening can be a way of adding to one’s resources and treasures.

So, we will be discussing the idea if self-government (intermittently) while reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and many others. It’s a tricky and paradoxical concept–but it plays a role in many texts and has a great deal to do with education.

The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl

In his prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1950, William Faulkner spoke of a pervasive fear that was taking hold of writers and reducing them to mediocrity: a fear of being blown up in nuclear war. Consumed by this, writers were forgetting “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only things worth writing about. He continued:

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

We live today not under the immediate threat of nuclear war, but under other threats: in particular, the threat of spiritual and intellectual sprawl. Our intentions, desires, efforts, loves, treasures have no special time and place; they get spread out throughout the day and night and year. Supposedly, the more we get done (no matter what the time), the better. It is as though there were no more seasons. It is common to answer a work-related email at 11 p.m., work through the weekends, and take vacation only sporadically. People even find satisfaction in this; if they make themselves available around the clock, they not only receive kudos but expect some kind of reciprocation. If they are available all the time, then so are others, or so it seems for a while.

In this sprawl of unending availability and accessibility, it’s difficult to make anything matter. Things get flattened because they’re “always there”—and when you look around, they seem to be nowhere. With respect to the classroom, there’s an adage that students don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this notion false—they need a store of working knowledge to make sense of texts and concepts—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a poem (or even the conjugation of a verb), I am taking time with it and giving it a place in my mind. I “produce” something—ultimately, the recitation of the poem, and a greater understanding of it—but I hold something as well.

Today we are caught up in production without treasuring and holding.

To stop treasuring things is to stop grieving them, to take up residence in a lamentation sprawl. You can’t grieve what you have never missed. This is why Faulkner says of the writer, “Until he [commits himself to the old verities], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

What does it take to gather oneself up from this sprawl, in education and in life? How does one honor the “old verities”? This may take, among other things, a willingness to set certain activities and roles apart from others, certain times and seasons apart from others, certain works, certain people apart from others. Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish:

In Chicago: Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me. It refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.

“Doing your duty” is not the same as caving in to every demand that comes your way, or pursuing any particular work without pause. It is different from that; it involves refraining from work just as it involves working; it involves refraining from giving to others just as it involves giving. It involves giving dignity to things.

What does it mean to “do one’s duty” in education? It means to devote oneself, in a structured way, to things that matter—and having the courage to say that they matter. A curriculum should not just consist of “complex” texts; who cares how complex a text is, if it has no beauty or importance? No, a school should dare to teach what is beautiful and important, even if there is disagreement over the selections, and even if the selections change over time.

Beyond that, “doing one’s duty” involves a sense of humanity. In the classroom, we approach the “old verities” obliquely, through the subject matter—but we also encounter them directly, in subtle ways. It takes courage to show interest in a subject when others do not; it takes honor to make good judgments about the direction of a discussion. In all of these things we are fallible; that’s where compassion and pity come into play. The “old verities” surround and fill us all the time; we need only be alert to them.

The greatest threat to the “old verities” is a crass version of utilitarianism: an insistent focus on short-term results that can be assessed quickly by an outsider. Results are important (sometimes immensely so), but it matters what they are and what they mean. One must continually choose from an array of actions, each carrying possible results. These choices hold everything; in their absence, without a sense of conscience, soul, or something worth holding up, one ends up without choices, as they all seem more or less on a level, without height, texture, or abyss.


I made a few edits and revisions to this piece long after posting it.

A Different Way of Being with Others

Lately I have seen slews of articles about the need to teach “social-emotional” and so-called “non-cognitive” skills in school. According to many educators and theorists, schools should emphasize teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, communication, and all sorts of other social things. These arguments (or the ones I have seen) evade an essential point: that schools should give students a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

Many schools respond by making more room for social interaction. But such social interaction has the same pitfalls as regular teen interaction, unless it is elevated in some way—that is, founded on something compelling, such as a work of literature or a piece of music. In that case, the students come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions.

I dimly remember my eighth-grade English class, at a school I entered that year. Aside from a year in the Netherlands (when I was in sixth grade), it was the first time I was happy in school. We read The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie, and much more. Through the discussions, I came to know my classmates, and they me, in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial. There was still peer pressure and ostracism. Still, regular social life took second or third place to this other way of associating, which allowed strong friendships to form.

Some insist that group work in the classroom achieves the same end: it gives students a structure for their socializing. But group work often degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on. Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone). I have said this many times before, but it still needs to be said. Group work in itself has no inherent good. I know the sinking feeling of being asked to “turn and talk,” or to pick up my things and go join a group to fill out some chart. Why not stay put and think for a few minutes? Why not discuss a question in full forum?

Proponents of group work often assume that the students are better off without the teacher. If  a teacher leads a discussion, that’s fine, they say, but it’s even better if the students take charge. I am not at all opposed to student-led discussion; rather, I find that it requires long-term preparation. A teacher, having perspective on a subject, can draw out ideas that students might not recognize as worthy. She can help raise the level of the dialogue. Once they have seen this happen (many times), they understand what it is. It has little or nothing to do with “Accountable Talk” or other formulaic kinds of discussion. It has a great deal to do with listening closely (to the comments and the subject matter) and giving the ideas honor, direction, and perspective.

What about the idea of the school as a “team”? Well, teamwork has its place, but again, it is not transcendent or even good in itself. Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. The solitary and communal aspects of learning are closely related; they find their shape through the endeavor itself. Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

There is no denying the social aspect of schools. If coming together in a building and a room were not important, then there would be little need for schools in the first place. One could rely on computerized instruction, tutoring, and other services. Still, schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Teaching, Reserve, and Listening

When you go into teaching, you confront yourself. You see your own weaknesses and subject yourself to others’ judgment. You have to adjust your actions, moment to moment, and yet stay strong. To do any of this well, you need a sturdy place in your life where you do not need to prove or explain yourself. You must keep a good portion of your life in reserve.

Of course, this need varies from person to person. There are teachers who live for their work, year in, year out. They seem content, even though they do little outside of school. Others plunge into their work for a few years and then move on to something else. Still others try from the start to protect their lives, with varying degrees of success. A few stay detached all along; they have no difficulty putting their work aside at the end of the day, or even before.

No matter what a teacher’s relation to her work, she will be asked to do more and more. Teachers are expected not only to plan and deliver lessons, but also to document every aspect of their work, take part in community and professional activities, attend numerous meetings, gather and analyze “data,” perform other assigned duties, shift duties unexpectedly, and be available after hours. These numerous tasks crowd out the basic responsibility of a teacher: namely, to teach well and then go home.

What does it mean to teach well? It takes many different forms, but it consists of bringing student and subject matter closer together. This carries three basic risks: the risk of failure (where the student doesn’t understand or doesn’t take interest in the subject), the risk of success (where the student doesn’t need you any more—temporarily or permanently), and the risk of ambiguity (where it isn’t entirely clear whether you have succeeded or failed). All three can be painful; it takes strength to contend with them.

Where does this strength come from? Not out of exhaustion or out of a hectic day. Not out of “turn-and-talk” activities or the Common Core Standards. To face the daily failures, successes, and ambiguities of teaching, one needs intellect and humanity—that is, a full life. Some may find this in literature, some in religion. Some may have it  in their families. Some may find it when carving wood. This is where “going home” comes in; a teacher must have a separate existence, not just a rushed break now and then.

You don’t show your full humanity in the classroom, but it is there nonetheless. Within a single lesson you may have clumsiness and grace, patience and impatience, accuracy and error, alertness and abstraction, and more and more; these combinations and permutations affect how things go. Of course, they don’t fully control the course of events; the subject matter has its own ways, and students bring a great deal of their own. Nonetheless, there’s motion along a precipice. There’s a sense of fate and flexibility at once; you bring your knowledge and character to the table (and can’t change them once you’re there) but still adjust to the company and room.

This sounds exhausting, someone might say. Why would someone put herself on the line, day after day? Well, it’s a joyous undertaking, if it doesn’t break you. That takes us back to the beginning: a teacher must have a stronghold. Yet a stronghold isn’t enough. A teacher must also have the students’ basic attention.

Today it is more or less assumed that a teacher must fight for attention—that she must employ all sorts of “strategies” to get the students to listen, even at the outset of the lesson. But what if it could be assumed? What if our society understood it not only as a courtesy, but also as a foundation for learning and creativity?

A student who listens (and who doesn’t disrupt class) is building intellectual patience and flexibility. The teacher, for her own part, has room to introduce complex topics without rushing to quick conclusions. In addition, she has room to listen to the students and draw out their ideas.

Such listening also allows teachers and students their flaws and strengths. A lesson should not be sloppy—but an imperfection need not tip the room into chaos. To listen to another is to allow for foibles, both in the speaker and in oneself.

In listening there is an underlying dignity. I listen to you because you don’t have to prove yourself worthy, nor do I. Listening, like all attention, is imperfect; we rarely take in fully what we hear. We often don’t have time or energy to listen to others—so those places of listening, such as the classroom, need honor and protection.

My most exhausting days of teaching (since I began in the public schools in 2005) were not the longest days, or the days with the most work, but rather the days when I couldn’t finish a sentence because of the interruptions. The breaking of the sentences left me, well, not quite broken, but more like a creaky house, where every step causes a plank to groan.

It takes years to build listening. It starts in the cradle, when we first listen to stories and start noticing their patterns and rhythms. Later we learn to listen to things that (unfortunately) don’t have much of a lilt. Listening isn’t always beneficial; sometimes one has to stop listening, for one’s own good and that of others. There are rants and bad songs that I really don’t need in my mind—but there are also things that surprise me (in both directions).

Students will challenge authority, no matter what, but there’s more for them to challenge if they know what the lesson holds. The most serious challenges come from students who have been listening; these challenges enrich the lesson and the course.

How great it would be if teachers and students could assume a certain level of listening, instead of having to earn it.  What calm and liveliness this would bring to the work. The teacher’s separate life would have inherent protection, since the classroom, being intact, would have its beginning and end.

Note: I temporarily deleted this post and then restored it (with two minor edits). I apologize for any confusion.

School Shocked by Non-Team-Playing Résumé

Lanham, MD—Last Saturday, nearly all of the teachers at Fernwood High school bustled around the building making photocopies, preparing lessons, or interviewing prospective teachers. One applicant’s résumé quickly became the subject of gossip and tweets.

“Not a team player,” read the first item in the “Skills” section of Rebecca Seule’s résumé.

“I don’t see why anyone would list that,” commented Bruce Klop, a social studies teacher. “Obviously we want team players, so she must not want to be hired.”

“Either that, or she’s biting her thumb at us,” added English teacher Ophelia Obida. “It’s bad form, in any case.”

The principal, Ariane Waarom, suspected there was more to the story. “No one would just do that on a lark,” she insisted. “She must have some unusual purpose.” She decided to give Seule a call, just to find out what she had in mind. “At the very least, it’ll prepare us against future onslaughts,” she told herself.

When asked why she had put such unreasonable words on her résumé, Ms. Seule had a lot to say.

“Not everything is a team,” she began.  “I love working with my colleagues. I go to them with an idea, or they come to me. Sometimes this leads to some kind of collaboration or other outcome, but it doesn’t have to. Most of the time, I just enjoy hearing what they’re doing with their classes.”

“Well, I think that counts as teamwork,” Principal Waarom ventured.

“But it’s not. You see, teams pursue concrete goals together. Each member’s role contributes to the whole in a somewhat predictable way. Take a sports team. Let’s start with the simplest kind, or rather, the most complicated kind: the duo. In doubles tennis, the two members of the team know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They know who’s good with the long volleys and who’s good up at the net. They may work out strategies together, but they will also react instinctively to what comes at them. Still, they have one fairly simple goal: to beat the other team. A brilliant drop shot isn’t worth much, if their joint effort doesn’t hold up. Conversely, they may lack brilliant drop shots altogether yet win the game because they work well together. Bottom line: they’ve got to win repeatedly to be considered a good team.”

“That sounds an awful lot like what we’re trying to do here at Fernwood—win repeatedly,” Waarom replied. “In fact, I might bring up your analogy at a team development meeting.”

“You’re welcome to do so, but the analogy breaks down,” said Seule. “Yes, teachers have a common goal, which is to ‘win’ in some sense of the word. The problem—and this applies to many areas of education—lies in taking a part and pretending it’s the whole.”

“How would that not be the whole?” queried Waarom, intrigued.

“Well, for one thing, each subject has its particularities. Yes, we’re all trying to help our students advance intellectually, but this plays out in such different ways that we often don’t know or understand what others are doing. Let’s say a math teacher decides to teach students about the cosecant through this formula: ‘cos(θ) ∙ sin(θ) ∙ tan(θ) ∙ csc(θ) = sin(θ).’ Well, you can get students to figure out that csc(θ) is the reciprocal of sin(θ). But that’s not all. From there, they can figure out that cos(θ) ∙ tan(θ) = sin(θ), which of course makes sense. That in turn leads to the calculation that tan(θ) = sin(θ) / cos(θ). The more of these manipulations they do, the more they grasp out the trigonometric functions and their relations—all of them inherent in a right triangle. You can’t really convey this to teachers who don’t know trigonometry. Nor can they convey to you the complexity of a Donne poem you’ve never read.Of course, you could take time to read and think about the poem, or about the trigonometric functions. That’s a great thing to do, in fact. But that would be for your edification, not for the success of the team.”


“Edification. Similar to education, but based on a different metaphor.”

“I know what it is,” snapped Waarom, slightly piqued; “I’m just not sure it has a place in this picture. Scratch that,” she added. “It has a place. I’m just not sure it changes anything. You could still work as a team within the math department to find the best way of teaching those trigonometric functions. Don ‘t tell me some approaches aren’t better than others.”

“Sure, they are. But often you arrive at a good lesson by toying with the trigonometric functions in your head, not by conferring with a team.”

“Wouldn’t you want to share your findings with the team?” pressed Waarom.

“I wouldn’t mind doing so. But each teacher would still have to walk alone with these trig problems—and that’s not all.”

Waarom was getting urgent emails on the computer and throbs and flashes on her iPhone. “I’m sorry I can’t talk all day,” she said with genuine regret, “but is there some final takeaway here?”

“Only one thing: that education is only partly about the pursuit of goals. It’s also about the contemplation of interesting things. You cannot contemplate as a team. As a class, perhaps, or as a faculty. As an assembly or other gathering, perhaps. But not as a team.”

There was a knock on the door; someone had a complaint about a broken copier machine. “I have to go,” Waarom told Seule, “but I’d like to bring you in for an interview. I’ll transfer you over to the secretary.”

For the rest of the day, the principal thought about how the word “team” was overused. She brought it up at the next faculty meeting; many teachers heartily agreed. The school then decided not to call itself a team any more. Word leaked to the district; the superintendent announced that all schools had to rewrite their mission statements to exclude the word “team.” (He revered Fernwood for its test scores and reasoned that if the Fernwood team had abandoned the word ‘team,’ other schools should do the same.)

Panic set in across the district. They needed to call themselves something, soon. What would it be, if not a team?

No one thought of “school.” Instead, a well-paid consultant drafted spiffy mission statements that described schools as “success hubs.”

Now the challenge lay in finding résumés with “Success Hub Facilitator” in the “Skills” section. The task proved trivial; within fifteen minutes, they were streaming in.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece long after posting it.

Teaching the Underground

undergroundOne aspect of teaching that rarely gets discussed (on blogs and in education news) is the intellectual and ethical challenge of taking students through a complex work like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I find myself turning lessons in my mind, asking myself what to bring out, what questions to ask, what background to provide, what comparisons to draw. This would be the case with just about any lesson—but with Notes from Underground it’s particularly important, as the work is easy to misunderstand in one way or another. Once the basic understanding is there, it’s possible to appreciate the work’s paradox and play on the one hand and its serious moral questions on the other.

Its narrator and protagonist, the “Underground Man,” lives alone in a dingy Petersburg apartment, from which he does not emerge. He writes and writes, in some sense baring his starkest truths, in some sense fooling the reader. He rails against the formulas that others embrace, formulas for a perfect society or even a reasonable one. No perfection, no happiness, he insists, matters as much to man as his own free will—and for that reason he will knock down any structure and deny any equation, even if in doing so he only harms himself. The Underground Man seems to rebel against formulas and final answers, yet he clings to his own formula, a formula of negation. In the second part, we learn how he landed there; we learn something about his life and actions before his retreat. (I won’t reveal what he tells—but it isn’t comforting.)

A reader of Notes from Underground can easily fall into one of two traps. One error is to judge him without any kind of compassion or identification—to say, “I’m not like that; that man is messed up” and be done with it. The other is to identify with him completely—to see him as a reflection of the hidden self. While this error is a bit more fruitful than the first, it’s still an error, if the reader does not recognize the Underground Man’s responsibility for his condition. To grasp the Underground Man, one must bring both compassion and judgment, both identification and distance. The proportions are difficult to determine (and will vary from person to person and from reading to reading), but both elements need to be there, if the work is to come through. (Other elements need to be there as well; one needs to be able to hear his tones, jokes, allusions, and much more.)

Isn’t that one of our ethical challenges in general—to determine the right mixture of judgment and compassion? Too much judgment without compassion, and you write the person (or work) off. Too much compassion (if that’s the word—I’m not quite satisfied) without judgment, and you neglect the person’s free will and choices. Yet there is no perfect ratio; it shifts from moment to moment and from situation to situation. Nor can it be calculated; one must find it through experience, teachers, and instinct.

From what I have seen, it is more common for students to write the Underground Man off than to see themselves in him. This is partly because introspection gets short shrift today. These kids have been brought up to think in terms of success and achievement, not in terms of understanding human nature. That’s an oversimplification, though; many do understand something of the Underground Man; many do see aspects of themselves, and a few have even found a combination of judgment and compassion. In any case, both extremes have dangers.

The first time I read Notes from Underground, at age eighteen, I couldn’t separate myself from him (until part 2). I thought I was him—and was horrified. Years later, I approached him from a distance and found him very funny. In between, I have had mixtures of responses. Today I see a great deal of the Underground Man in myself but understand, also, how important the differences are. I am not advocating “text-to-self connections”—but Dostoevsky clearly wants us to ask who this Underground Man is and how he might reflect us.

There’s a lot at stake in reading Notes from Underground properly, yet there is no “proper” reading. There is only alertness and avoidance of pitfalls. Or, rather, there’s much more, but it can’t be taught directly, just as one can’t be taught to understand another person.

These are the thoughts that occupy a good deal of my day, when I’m not scrambling to get things done. It matters to teach this work well; that, in turn, is not just a question of bringing out key themes, devices, etc., but involves careful reading, a good understanding of the students, an understanding (when possible) of the original Russian, and a strong ethical and aesthetic sense. It involves a great responsibility: you have to be a good guide to take students into the underground and out again. In short, it requires a good chunk of all that I have and am—including the ability to put myself aside as we focus on the work.

I wish policymakers (of various kinds) had an inkling of this aspect of teaching. It seems completely forgotten, except in nooks of the education world. It’s as though “content” didn’t demand one’s soul, intellect, and conscience, as though you could teach it “effectively” without vitality. No wonder so much work gets piled on teachers; few realize that to teach well, one must be willing to leave the busyness behind, to take a long walk, attend a concert*, or read a book slowly, in order to be shaken into life, the life inside and outside of books, the jumbled, mistake-ridden life that, even at its most perplexing, has room for courage and grace.

*Concert: On Friday I attended the Wingdale Community Singers’ record release show for their new album, Night Sleep Death. A gorgeous performance. The title(-ish) song brings together two Walt Whitman poems, A Clear Midnight” and “O Living Always–Always Dying.”

Professionalism Without Protection: The Danielson Framework

The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in New York City and many other districts, states that a teacher at the “proficient” level “volunteers to participate in school and district projects, making a substantial contribution.” A teacher at the “distinguished” level (the highest) does all of this but also “assumes a leadership role in a major school or district project.” I have criticized the Framework for its extreme emphasis on student initiative in the classroom; here I will take up the problem of professional responsibilities. When “volunteering” is mandatory and when everyone is supposed to be a “leader,” something has gone off kilter, and teachers have little or no protection of their own lives.

It is not enough to take on an official duty, according to the Framework. The explanatory text states that teachers “are keenly alert to the needs of their students and step in on their behalf when needed”—recognizing signs of abuse, locating a winter coat for the child, and suggesting outside programs and activities. Such teachers “never forget that schools are not institutions run for the convenience of the adults who work in them; instead, the purpose of schools is to educate students. These educators care deeply for the well-being of their students and mobilize whatever resources are necessary for them to be successful.” In the following paragraph, it says that “educators are advocates for their students, particularly those whom the educational establishment has traditionally underserved.” (I object to the latter part of the sentence–but that’s a separate matter.)

In other words, a teacher must be willing to serve the students—especially the disadvantaged ones—from morning to night but is not allowed any “conveniences” for herself. In this sense, the Danielson Framework tries to have it both ways. It wants teachers to give everything (I have only quoted a fraction of the expected duties) but does not accord them privacy, dignity, or reprieve. To go beyond the call of duty is the call of duty. If you have a breakdown or fall ill, the system will march on, and you will be brushed off as yet another who couldn’t quite live up to the impossible.

Perhaps I exaggerate. The Danielson Framework makes some allowances for teachers’ personal lives (this, again, is from the explanatory part of the framework, not the rubric):

At certain times in one’s life, family demands are such that teachers have little space capacity to devote to school and district affairs. Attending to young children or to a parent with a disability can require enormous amounts of time and commitment. Some teachers let it be known that although they must leave school right at the end of the contract day, they can make their contribution through work they do at home, whether it is finding resources on the Internet for a team-teaching project or establishing the roster for students to volunteer at the soup kitchen.

So, even a teacher who “must” leave at the end of the day should compensate by doing something from home (beyond lesson planning and grading), something that shows that she’s still at the students’ service, even though her own life has overwhelming demands. Of course, only those with socially acceptable outside demands (illness, a child) will be counted in this. What if you are going through a difficult period and wish to keep it to yourself? What if you have made a wonderful new friend with whom you are spending time? What if you are working on a project that you don’t wish to announce to the world? Or what if you have family troubles that are no one else’s business? None of this counts, as it is invisible. In addition, putting extra thought into your lesson doesn’t count–a soup-kitchen roster, apparently, matters more than a few evening hours with Kierkegaard.

Now, many teachers do take joy in doing extra things for their students—and this dedication enhances the life of the school. In my first few years of teaching, I directed English language learners in performances of plays and musicals. At other times I given homework help over the phone, offered an elective, or taught Saturday classes; most recently, I have held philosophy roundtables for parents. I have written extensively on education; in the summers, I serve on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. I took on these extra duties (some directly pertinent to school, some not) because I had the desire and the room. But teachers also need removal from school—not because of any blatant hardship or crisis, necessarily, but because they need some time to think, work on a project, take care of their health, or deal with some other aspect of their lives. This does not make them inferior as teachers. To the contrary: it sets an example for the students, who can learn from such examples how to maintain good boundaries–that is, how to protect the different domains of their lives and respect the domains of others. It will also teach or remind them that there is such a thing as an end to the day.

Instead of a “give everything, demand nothing” model, I propose two alternatives. A school may state up front that it expects extra commitment from the teachers (who may decide whether or not to teach at that school). In return, it should offer teachers the utmost respect and protection: quiet time for thought and planning, additional compensation, a school-wide discipline code (that is enforced), appreciation of the teachers and what they do, sane priorities, and intellectual substance. The school should be a place where a teacher would choose to lead an intellectual life.

Or else a school might make the extra professional activities entirely optional—passing no judgment on teachers who focus primarily on teaching their classes. In that case, the schools would not be obligated to offer teachers a nurturing environment, nor would teachers be expected to live for school. The school might still have excellent activities and resources, in addition to its regular offerings—but these would come from the teachers’ voluntary efforts and would not be taken for granted.

Teachers should be recognized for the extra things they do—but those should be extra offerings, not requirements, unless the school has made the arrangement clear (and offers something in return). To teach well, and to attain true professionalism, you need to honor your own life–without apology or explanation, and without having to submit your soul for scrutiny.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece since its initial posting.

Teacher Reprimanded for Assigning Book

Genomsnitt, MN—A high school English teacher faces public scolding and possible dismissal for assigning a book to her students, Superintendent Harry Billiard announced on Friday. “Let this be a warning to all,” he said. “To assign a book is impositional. The kids aren’t there yet. Plus, how do you know they’ll like the book?” Billiard explained that the specific book (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf) wasn’t the issue; the problem lay in assigning any book at all.

According to anonymous sources, the teacher had assumed presumptuously that a literature course should feature works of literature. Moreover, she had fickly concluded that, since the current Common Core standards emphasize the importance of reading complex texts, she should actually include them in her curriculum.

“Students should read them, yes, but that doesn’t mean teachers should assign them,” explained Billiard. “Students should be empowered to make their own choices. Then, if they don’t, the teacher will be held accountable for the situation.” Students are expected to read at least twenty complex texts, of their own free will, over the course of the year. If they fail to do so, it means the teacher has neglected to incorporate best practices—in particular, the software.

“What software?” asked the teacher, who requested anonymity for the time being, knowing that her picture would be plastered over the papers within the next 24 hours. “I didn’t know there was software for my course on modernism, and I’m not sure I’d want any.”

“There isn’t software for modernism yet, that’s right,” Billiard responded. “But there’s software for the skills that students would be using when reading something modernist like, um, who’s a good modernist writer? I’m drawing a blank right now.”

If the teacher had been doing her job, she would have had the students practice their skills during class time with the aid of the software, which would provide a variety of short texts geared to their interests. After they passed a multiple-choice test at a given level, the software would recommend further reading on the basis of their preferences and performance. “That way, you’re letting them get creative,” said Billiard. “They have some ownership of the books they read. It isn’t just some teacher telling them ‘you’ve got to read this,’ when it’s got nothing to do with where they are.”

“I’m kind of glad we did start to read To the Lighthouse,” countered Jeremy Pembek, a senior. “When the father says ‘it won’t be fine,’ it’s like everything crashes down on me, because I know that voice. I wanted to read more in class, so we could discuss it.”

“You can’t take Jeremy seriously, or at least you can’t let him distract you from best practices,” commented Hilda Moran, a literacy coach who had started to observe the literature classes at the school. “He’s obviously from an educated family, so he’ll read books like this on his own. It’s the other kids we’ve got to worry about. That’s why we’ll be installing the software next week.”

“I’m glad we’re ditching that book,” concurred Betty Neznam, Jeremy’s classmate. “I totally could not relate to it. I didn’t even get past the first sentence. ‘Up with the lark?’ Who talks like that? Why are they making us read this stuff? I mean, I’ve got more important things to do. I’m down with skills, though. I know I need skills.”

If the renegade teacher complies with the mandates, uses the software in every lesson, and abandons all discussion of literature, there will be no further disciplinary actions taken against her, Billiard said. “We’re about goodwill here. We recognize that teachers can change. But she’s got to start doing what works.”

Testing official Vance Verveen noted that, according to readability formulas, To the Lighthouse scored well above the post-college-graduate level. “We’re all for challenge,” he said, “but this was beyond the pale. You can see for yourself,” he added, displaying an interface on a screen and pasting in the novel’s second paragraph. “You see that the Flesch-Kincaid grade level—which is research-based, mind you—comes to 26.7. Twenty-six point seven! And we’ve got kids three years behind grade level. Granted, it’s an honors class, and those kids are more advanced, but still, they’ve got to be made to feel successful. That’s what our tests are for. I wouldn’t feel successful if someone made me read that.”

To feel successful, according to Verveen, students should take daily multiple-choice tests at their current level, which gradually increases as they practice the requisite skills. “You’ve got to let them know that they’re good at what they know how to do,” he said. “That’s the ultimate message. Then you coax them into doing just a little more, and a little more. Little steps toward big gains,” he said, patting his pocket. “Little steps.”

The Precipice of Teaching

On a good day, when I go before one of my classes and give a presentation, students pelt me with pertinent questions. At least one of them stumps me. In some cases, I am missing a piece of information; in others, I knew the answer (or various answers) once but have forgotten. In others still, I haven’t considered the matter before—or find that the question topples everything I was saying, or at least a good chunk of it. Finding myself stumped is one of the best parts of teaching; for the students, much depends on how I handle it. Being able to say “I don’t know”—but also being able to hold my own—tells the students that adulthood is not just a realm of rules and answers, nor is education.

I could give examples galore, but I generally refrain from describing my classroom experience on this blog. I want to keep confidentiality, for one thing; for another, I don’t see this blog as a diary. I would not keep a public diary; it would be superficial. But closing off that option opens up others. I will look today at the precipice of teaching and how many of the educational fads aim to sand it out of existence.

You go before your students with the knowledge and understanding you have at a given time—what you have learned until now, what you have thought about, and what you can pull together for the moment and in the moment. You offer something to them and then start up discussion. They learn from you what it means to pull thoughts and knowledge together into something coherent. They look for missing pieces, contradictions, pitfalls in what you have said—and that’s exactly what they should be doing.

But teachers are under great pressure to abstain from direct teaching altogether—or to teach generic skills, which rarely provoke such questions; or to “individualize” instruction so that each student is working at his or her own pace; or to teach from a script, so as to preclude uncertainty or error. I will take a look at three of these tendencies. I have discussed them at length in other blogs and articles but not specifically in relation to the “precipice.”

According to proponents of “student-centered education,” a teacher should not do much talking. Instead, she should get the students talking as soon as possible—in groups, in pairs, in whole-class discussion—and refrain from passing judgment on what they say. She should not present herself as an authority figure, as someone who knows a subject; instead, she should indicate through every gesture that she and the students are learning together. Or else, if she does give a presentation, it should be very brief and should touch on the points that the students absolutely need to know before they begin their own work. Lecturing verges on crime, since it encourages passivity.

Now, that is nonsense on many levels—but I will address the question of lecturing. I wouldn’t dream of lecturing to high school students for the entire period, day after day. They need dialogue. But a twenty-minute presentation, at the start of a unit or topic, strikes me as entirely appropriate. If the students learn how to listen to me, and how to assemble and question what I am saying, then they will also be better prepared to listen to the books they are reading and to themselves. If they never have to listen to a teacher very long, then they never find the edges of what she is saying. Both they and the teacher drown in a bog of patness, where nothing gets challenged and nothing seems controversial. Even if the students debate questions, they respond to snippets, not ideas; they wield sticks, not dodecahedra.

Next, we have instruction that focuses on skills. Instead of leading a discussion of the nature of folly in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, a teacher might announce that the point of the lesson is to relate details to the whole—and might then read a passage, identify a detail, and show how it relates to the text’s overall meaning. Students would then practice doing this on their own, either with the same text or with a variety of texts. This approach has numerous problems and limitations; first of all, you miss out on a great deal if you do not discuss the actual substance of the work. You flatten it if you treat it as a means to a skill. (Of course one should encourage students relate details to the whole–but it’s another matter to subordinate the text to this.) When it comes to precipice, there just isn’t any. Unless a student challenges your own “modeling” of the skill, there isn’t much at stake in what you are teaching. It can’t go very wrong, precisely because it can’t go very right.

I’ll skip over individualized learning, since the problems there are similar to those discussed above, and proceed to the last one, scripted instruction, which doesn’t get much publicity lately but has some diehard devotees.

Proponents of scripted curricula argue that these programs have proven results—so if you use a different curriculum and can’t show equal or better results, you are shortchanging your kids. I have entered many regrettable arguments over this (regrettable because they go nowhere) but will point out, first of all, that results have meaning only in relation to a goal. If you want students to learn what Plato and Aristotle had to say, that’s different from wanting them to show progress on standardized tests of reading comprehension. The two goals may not always be at odds, but at times they might well be. “Results” in the abstract mean nothing. You must explain what you are trying to do. Part of what I want to do is introduce my students to intellectual life. Can I do this through a script? Possibly, if the script is of high intellectual quality. I could take, for instance, a lecture by a scholar, work and think through it, adapt for my class, and present it with full credit to its author. But even there, I would stay open to the risks of posing and answering questions. If the script forbade such departures, or if it reflected poor thinking about the subject, I would not teach from it, period. I would rather leave teaching than subject myself or my students to such a thing. The safety here is of a deadly sort.

Some may say that a script minimizes the damage that comes from faulty instruction–and that it’s better to say things right than to use your own mind and get it all wrong. Well, if things are that bad, if my own knowledge is so poor that my lessons would mislead students, then I would want to gain competence or go do something else. To me, there is no point in pursuing a profession in which I cannot use my mind to the fullest. Give me a routine day job, with limited hours, so that I can then do what I want in my own time. If I am to work as a teacher, putting most of my life into it, then I should be able to create my own lessons. There should be room for that much joy.

Students look to a teacher not only for what they have to learn right now, but for what lies ahead, in the subject and in their lives. Consciously or not, they take cues from a teacher’s manner. If a teacher can go to those places of uncertainty, grapple with difficult questions, admit to error, or give a fuller and richer explanation than the initial one, then they start to sense that life does not get all packaged up as soon as they reach a certain age. They grasp that you don’t just learn a subject and set it aside. It keeps following you around and pestering you; it makes you turn around and say, “what, what, what?” and then it holds up something you’ve never seen before, something that makes you drop your hands and stand still for a little while.