What Counts as Teaching?

I met Dale, his girlfriend Maya, and their new puppy for lunch on Friday.  Dale and I worked together at my previous Title I school in his first year (my last). Within three years, Dale was department chair,  teaching AP Calc BC and AP Stats,  honors pre-calculus, designing his own courses, settling colleague spats. But Dale began his career teaching Algebra I, and even after taking a leadership position, he never hesitated to take on a low-level class to give his colleagues more variety. Given that Dale’s school, like mine, assigns teachers to categories of classes, he could easily have stayed in the stratosphere, but he easily handles tough kids.

Dale had planned to stay at that school forever. I remember one lunch when Maya and I pointed out he might be better moving to a different school, but he was adamant. However,  Maya (who makes a lot more money) has become exhausted and stressed by her commute. They decided to move closer to her job, which is in a much wealthier part of the world. Dale still isn’t thirty, and you don’t get hired into department head positions, particularly not in the wealthy suburban districts near his new place. Dale knew that, knew that  prioritizing location would limit his options, that he’d be unlikely to get the ideal course load he now had. My own school would have taken him in a heartbeat, given him the AP class load he preferred, but he wanted to be close to home.

We knew all this. We’d talked about it last year, when he was looking. When Dale accepted a job, we talked about his schedule: a bunch of algebra I classes and computer science. All freshmen. More money, but not enough more to get excited about. Dale’s a cheery guy and showed no resentment, at most mildly philosophical about the change.

End preamble. Nod to Dale’s awesome relationship priorities.

So we’re talking about Dale’s new job at lunch. He is using the district curriculum that is mapped out by day. He spends no time at all developing his own lesson plans, but since the required curriculum has regular quizzes and tests, he spends far more time grading than he used to. He loves it, though. The students  (mostly white) are capable and interested and far advanced of anything he’d seen at his last school. They do homework. They ask in depth questions, demand deeper understanding.

As he told me all this, Dale was grinning. I knew he was remembering something I told him early on in our acquaintance, when he was a first year and I was a third: “Look, I’m not sure what you call it when people deliver centrally planned lessons to prepared kids, but it sure as hell isn’t teaching. Because if it is, what the hell is it we’re doing?”

“So,” I said now. “Is it teaching?”

“Sure feels like it. But yeah, it’s different. Their questions are amazing. We’re really discussing in-depth math. The kids enjoy it. They aren’t obsessed about grades. I’d rather plan my own lessons, although I can see how I’d get used to just downloading the worksheets for the day. But the kids, they want to know about math. And I get to tell them all about math. What is that, if not teaching?”

Every so often, I can get my head around this notion. When I think of reformers going on and on about the importance of curriculum, how arrogant teachers are to think they can create their own, I realize these are people whose notion of teaching is something like Dale’s classroom. When I read a paper stating that to improve teaching and advance student learning requires weaving together the curriculum that students engage with every day with the professional learning of teachers“, I realize they, too, think that my world is just a slightly more chaotic, lower-level version of Dale’s universe.

But see, it goes beyond curriculum. That’s just my pet peeve. Think about what a PE teacher does every day. A first grade teacher. A high school special ed teacher managing twelve aides and eight severely disabled “students” who have to wear mitts to stop from hurting themselves, who will be attending “school” all year round until they’re twenty one because Congress gets crazy some time. Think about any teacher in a poorly managed inner city school, where chaos reigns. Or what about an ESL teacher who only speaks English, but has eighteen students from Congo, India, Salvador, China, Afghanistan, and three other countries?

What counts as “teaching”?

It’s a few hundred thousand blind men and a camel.

I’ve written various renditions of this point throughout the years. And I know teachers aren’t unique. Lawyers, engineers (if there is such a thing), doctors–all the professions have similar width and breadth.

But.

A surgeon can fix the ailment of a patient who sleeps through the operation, and a lawyer can successfully defend a client who stays mute throughout the trial; but success for a teacher depends heavily on the active cooperation of the student…Unless [the] intended learning takes place, the teacher is understood to have failed.–David Labaree, The Trouble With Ed Schools

Labaree goes on to observe that the aspects of health that require patient cooperation–obesity, smoking, addiction–have extremely low success rates. Doctors have offloaded these responsibilities onto therapists, who aren’t expected to have a fabulous success rates.

But when the country began actively forbidding both students from quitting and teachers from limiting their student population, teachers weren’t allowed to offload their responsibilities onto some lower career ladder occupation, or even lower expectations for success. In fact, governments became ever more quantitative in its demands for educational outcomes.

Don’t bleed too hard for teachers. We mostly ignore the outcome expectations. And it’s pretty good pay for most of us, as well as a great working schedule. But for any number of reasons, the public debate and the absurd expectations is a huge part of the job in my region of Teacher World, and not even a tiny blip on the horizon of Dale’s.

That is, if what we do is called teaching.

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