One of the counselors at my camp, Nick, said that he told his campers to wear a life jacket at all times, but that he never wore his own. He defended his decision by saying that the campers were smart enough to understand that he was a trained lifeguard responsible for their safety, and that they were untrained swimmers not responsible for anything. They should be able to understand, he claimed, that their positions were different, and so the rules were different.
We have this kind of stratified privilege system set up throughout society, most explicitly for different ages, so I can see why Nick thought he was right. Kids can’t vote, drink, or rent a car. It is reasonable to tell kids to do what we say and not what we do. But I would be willing to bet that the campers on this canoeing trip thought that wearing a life jacket wasn’t actually very important, because their primary leader and role model never put his on a single time.
Nick thought he was immune from drowning in a river because he was trained as a lifeguard (apparently not remembering that he only barely passed his lifeguarding tests). He had been given a certification with connotation of skill and a position of authority, and made the mistake of thinking he was done. He was a very good counselor in many respects, and I think that blinded him to this weakness in his teaching. I think Nick was telling his campers that life jackets don’t really matter for confident swimmers, and I don’t think he had any idea he was doing it.
I think a lot of us teachers share this blindness to the things we teach indirectly to our students. For example, in the first several years of my career I hid my processes from my students, thinking that I should be a perfect person, the pinnacle of professionalism, professor of propriety. I wowed them with things I knew and steered away from topics I didn’t know. But in hiding mistakes I deprived them of the opportunity to see someone handling mistakes, and in avoiding areas of my ignorance I missed opportunities to show them someone learning.
Some of the areas I most tried to polish were the policies of my classroom. I didn’t want them to think that I was unqualified, or that I was just making stuff up, because I was afraid that they would think I was wasting their time. I wanted them to think I really knew what I was doing, to build their confidence, make them take the class seriously, and I wanted (ironically) to gain their trust.
But in the last few years I have started being more open with them. I share my professional development with them, telling them that I’ll be writing the day’s objective on the board at the beginning of each class because I read that it improved learning, and telling them that I was going to try out a new format for required notes taking because some research shows that it helps students later in their careers, and asking them to please tell me what they think of it later. This year’s big thing was standards-based grading (my first blog post – awww), and I was very upfront with the students about trying a new thing, not knowing for sure where it was headed or how well it would work, but assuring them that I was trying it for their benefit and, honestly, the benefit of my next batch of students.
I’ve started to believe that if your students don’t see you learning, then they will not think that learning is important. If all you ever show them is math that you already know – you never show them what you’re reading about education, or your blog, or your new hobby – they will think that factoring (or whatever) is all you care about.
Now, like Nick might suggest, we are already certified to be good at high school math. We don’t need to double-check our answers and we can use a calculator because we’re already good at long multiplication, despite the fact that we ask our students to double-check everything and do arithmetic by hand. And hey, that’s true – we are more skilled with math than our students (usually). But we must show them that we learn as well, or, like Nick’s campers, they’ll think they only have to learn until they grow up.
That would have been a sweet place to stop the blog post – I love me a poignant conclusionary now and then – but unfortunately for my rhetoric I have a practical suggestion: Start a blog. http://function-of-time.blogspot.com/ and http://samjshah.com/ have some tips for you to start. Blogging is fun, because other people read what you write and you can feel famous (warning: I had fewer than a dozen readers for many moons), and feeling famous is fun. Blogging is visible and you will be held accountable, which will cause you to think carefully about what you write, which might cause you to think more carefully about what you do in class. One of my coworkers asked me skeptically if I thought it was ethical to try something in class just so I could blog about it. At first I was taken aback, thinking maybe I had let this blogging thing get out of hand, but then I realized: oh my god, I’ve actually pushed myself to try something new because of my blog! This is great! You should not be embarrassed of trying to improve your classroom, and you should show your students that you’re doing it, and if it ends up sucking, you should apologize to the students and ask them what they think would have worked better. This is what considerate, learning adults do when they screw up.
If you want to start a blog, go to http://wordpress.com and sign up for free. It’s really easy. I’m going to be asking for people to write guest posts on this blog, and that might be a good way for you to get started, but you’ll need an article or two up on your blog to qualify. This summer could be a great time for you to condense some real change out of the vapor that was 2009-2010 – something you could use to show your students what you’ve learned from them.