Why Teaching in the United States is Exhausting

Lower secondary (middle school) teachers spend 26.8 of their 44.8 hours directly engaged with students in classrooms. Among developed countries, that’s the most instructional time in the world. In other developed countries, teachers average 19.3 hours of instructional time out of 38.3 total hours.

In the U.S., the challenge is how to reduce the quantity of instructional time in the interest of improved quality of teaching and learning.

The data is here.

This weekend, be nice to your mother and a teacher or two.

Wisdom From a Life of Teaching Piano

Behold my favorite teaching essay of recent vintage from the unlikeliest of publications. Thank you Byron Janis for the perfectly timed reminders about what teaching excellence entails. If you teach, coach, or parent, this is a concise treasure trove of insight. He writes:

“To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented ‘self’ can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.”

And when to coach and when not to coach. And when to parent and when not to parent. It’s the very rare teacher, coach, or parent who avoids overpowering their students’, athletes’, or sons’ and daughters’ varied senses of self.

“During the course of my instruction Horowitz also made a very important point. ‘You want to be a first Janis—not a second Horowitz.'”

“. . . talented students must be taught that they are not only pianists but artists, and to create, not imitate. They should be shown that inspiration comes from living, experiencing and observing life, the real as well as the imagined.”

Twenty to thirty years ago, schooling in the United States shifted focus to standardization of curriculum, teaching “best practices”, of most everything. Consequently, we don’t foster creativity very well. Not only do the arts suffer, but our culture. Janis’s radical musings point a way forward.

The Cold, Hard Reality of Teaching’s Artificiality

Yesterday a colleague said she thought about “just canceling everything” this week, the last of the semester before final exams. “I thought I’d just tell them we’re through. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

That brought “I feel you” laughter from others. So when I told another colleague that today was the last class session of the semester, she said, “I bet you’re happy about that.” “No,” I explained, “I’m going to miss this group.”

My thirteen first year writers this semester were amazing. They were from Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, and different parts of Washington State. They were funny and kind and they listened to whomever was speaking. They thoughtfully embraced the questions inspired by the course theme, “The Art of Living”. They shared their differing perspectives on the need for a philosophy of life; on gratitude and empathy; on money’s relative importance; on friendship, family, and romantic love; and on spirituality’s relative importance. They liked one another, they liked the course content, they tolerated their teacher.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a group of randomly assigned students gel with one another and me in unexpected ways so I have a feel for what our future holds. I’ll see them in a few months or years somewhere on campus, probably walking across Red Square. And a fair number will pretend they don’t see me. I have a sophisticated phrase for this phenomenon, “That was then, this is now.”

I remember the Good Wife experiencing this her second or third September of teaching. Much to her dismay, her third graders whom she had poured her soul into, quickly bonded with their fourth grade teacher. She was lucky to get sheepish hand waves when she wanted hugs of continuous gratitude. Their subtle head nods conveyed “That was then, this is now”.

This semester I instituted a social psychology experiment of sorts. Mid-semester, after bonding with my thirteen writers, I explained the “That was then, this is now” phenomenon. Of course they didn’t need it explained, but my figuring them out brought smiles of appreciation.

Then, occasionally, I would begin class by reporting on brief interactions with former students elsewhere on campus. “Saw three students on my way to and from the pool at lunch yesterday, two made eye contact and said ‘hello’.” They enjoyed my scorekeeping.

So today, my parting words were a request, “When you see me on campus, don’t look past me, say ‘hello’.” They said they would, but I’ll settle for subtle head nods.

 

 

 

 

Do You Mind If I’m Totally Frank?

Last week, that’s what one of my students asked me in the middle of a discussion led by a classmate. The topic was what stoicism teaches about getting along with others. At the beginning of the discussion, I skimmed the student leader’s questions. The last one was about stoicism and sex which was addressed within the related reading.

With about ten minutes left in class, I said to the student leader that he should probably pick one of the remaining two questions. Without hesitating he jumped to the last much to his classmates’ delight. Apart from a little antiseptic sex ed talk, I’m guessing this was the first time they’d ever truly discussed sex in a classroom.

It’s ironic that the more interpersonally consequential the subject—take sex as one example and marriage as another—the less likely we are to talk about them with adolescents and young adults in any detail. I guess we think of such topics as too personal, private, and value-laden. As a result, pastors rarely if ever talk about sex and marriage from the pulpit, parents rarely if ever talk about their relationships with their children, and educators routinely sidestep topics like that. That means adolescents and young adults are left to themselves to resolve all of the challenges posed by human intimacy through trial and error.

The sex question immediately piqued everyone’s interest. One especially animated student turned from the student leader to me and asked, “Do you mind if I’m totally frank?” Me, “Sure, of course.” Her, “There’s a big difference between fucking and making love.” As they repeatedly say on the television series Fargo, “Okay, then.”

Couple that ice breaker with the fact that it’s a small class, the students are friends, and they think I’m way cooler than I am, the conversation was more candid than I had anticipated. It’s kind of a blur. At some point, I pointed out that they hadn’t yet dealt with the stoic’s primary insight on sex, that in middle or old age few people reflect on their younger selves and wish they had been more promiscuous. Stoics point out that the opposite is much more common, that sexually active people often regret the damage done by being so promiscuous. To which one student bravely said, “I’m 19 and I regret being as promiscuous as I was in high school.”

From there the discussion turned to the confusing and controversial stoic suggestion that sex, even inside of marriage, should only be for the purpose of procreating, which strikes me as an overreaction to the dangers of promiscuity.

Rewind the tape to earlier in the week when, with two colleagues, I was involved in a protracted discussion with a student teacher who is struggling in her internship. I was asking questions designed to get her to admit a regret or two in the hope we could turn to what could be done to remedy the situation. “What would you have done differently if anything?” “Okay,” she finally said without asking if she could be perfectly frank, “I fucked up.”

After the meeting that utterance was what one of my colleagues wanted to talk about first. He was right, she does have to be smarter about professional contexts, meaning more tactful and diplomatic, but these two incidents point to a huge generation gap when it comes to attitudes towards profanity.

Swearing, using “fuck” more specifically and not just as a verb, but as any part of speech, is so common among adolescents and young adults that some adults’ resistance to it, like my colleagues, hardly makes any sense to them.

Just as it’s unrealistic to expect married people to abstain from sex except when procreating, it’s unrealistic to expect young people to stop swearing altogether. The best hopelessly square people like myself can hope for, is that they learn to use profanity freely around their peers when in informal settings and then “code-switch” and refrain from it when around mixed aged people in other settings.

If you don’t agree, you can go forget yourself.

Why So Many Teachers Quit

That’s the title of this LA Times Op-Ed. I purposely haven’t read it so that you can compare Rizga’s reasoning and mine.

Conventional wisdom is that teachers quit because of the modest compensation, but every teacher enters the profession knowing that.

I hypothesize a lot quit because they fail to master classroom management. Absent positive relationships, classroom life is a complete drag. Also, nothing is more stressful than never truly having students’ attention. And absent attention, respect is elusive. Absent mutual respect, joy is inconceivable. What do those who struggle most with classroom management have in common? They usually aren’t comfortable with their authority.

That’s not all. When some teachers conclude they can’t teach as creatively as they want due to over standardization, they leave.

Another variable is true for everyone at whatever their workplace and for everyone in life more generally, teachers want to be appreciated. Teaching is among the most challenging and selfless endeavors a person can undertake, but no teacher that I know is perfectly intrinsically motivated. New teachers can master classroom management and commit long hours to crafting the most creative lessons possible, but if no one—students, families, colleagues, administrators, the “public”—ever truly acknowledges their efforts and demonstrates a modicum of appreciation, their enthusiasm inevitably wanes.

I suspect a significant proportion of teachers quit because of some combination of these three things.

How to fix it? Empower those teachers in each school that are most skilled in the art of classroom management to mentor those just starting out. Refuse to teach to standardized tests. Continually repeat that teaching excellence takes many forms. Show and tell teachers that you appreciate their efforts.