The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Back to The Front pt.1

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I last checked in with you about teaching when I was wrapping up the school year and talking about the precious and capricious nature of summer vacation. That was 77 days ago, and now I’m on the eve of returning to school once again for my nineteenth year.  I’m ready, if for no other reason than I need some institutionalized structure in my life despite a decent job of maintaining structure this summer.  I’ll run better when I get back to mostly running in the morning, I’ll write more and better with the discipline of a few Creative Writing classes under my direction, and I’ll probably benefit from a better, more consistent diet.

The first thing we’ll experience is this year’s motivational speaker, which is a pro forma step in starting up the school year.  It’s hard to remain optimistic about this after seeing a score of them over the years.  A few have been great and a few have been horrible, but for the most part they’ve been mediocre.  Mediocrity, though, is a sin if you’re tasked with motivating a school’s faculty, or even a baseball or a sales team.  I’ve sat through mindless drivel that one time included chanting, that another time included a man singing Motown hits acapella, and that still another time included a married couple sharing too much information about their private lives and marriage while repeating ad nauseum to staff and students, “You are special!”

What chafes the most, though, are the typical war stories recounting events that may or may not have happened to any particular teacher.  A lot of teachers with whom I have spent my career have grown tired of even their own stories and rarely tell them.  Some stories have been mythologized the ways stories sometimes can be, like the one about the boy who had his arm ripped off by a street sign because he was hanging it out a school bus window.  One asinine story I’ve heard several times from different school personnel and motivational speakers has to do with a teacher at a rough urban school who had remarkable success with a class of thugs and ne’er do wells.  When asked what she did to succeed, she said it happened inadvertently.  Seems she was reading the students’ schedules to see who she had on her rosters and was astounded at the IQ scores she kept seeing.  She immediately revamped her lessons and ramped up all her expectations and found challenging, engaging activities so as not to be overwhelmed by all these supposedly super-smart kids.  She was even able to maintain this throughout the year.  Heck, she didn’t even have any discipline problems with classes that otherwise would have sent a teacher to the nut hatch.  So how could all this be inadvertent?  She hadn’t seen her students’ IQ scores–what she saw was their locker numbers!

Most often, that story or a variation of it is used as a setup for a speaker to say, “See!  That’s why you need to set high expectations!  Look what can happen!”  Nevermind that I have never seen any kind of data to back that story up and it has never been attributed to a specific person, much as I’ve never seen a police report about a gang driving around a city at night with their lights off and killing motorists who flash their headlights at them.  I imagine my school is a reasonable target for a bumbling speaker to peel of the yarn about the IQ scores because we have our share of ne’er do well classes and more than a few features in common with some rough urban schools.  Unfortunately, the story is insulting because of the ignorance that has to be assumed for a teacher to believe it, and because it grossly over-simplifies what has to happen in a classroom for kids to meet and exceed high expectations.  Still, setting high expectations for all students is probably the most important thing a teacher has to do.  Come into a school on opening day and look around the audience when this message is delivered, and you’ll see all kinds of smiling and nodding and lips uttering “Right on!  Sure thing!”  Come back a few months later, and see how that has worked out.  Setting and maintaining high expectations (and mind you, FAIR expectations) is a bit like watching sausage being made.  It ain’t pretty.  All too many teachers find themselves defending high expectations in light of lower or failing grades that can many times be a consequence of demanding a lot from students–especially low-level reluctant learners in schools with rough demographics.  Try reminding interlopers of the kick-off message about setting high expectations, and you might hear something along the lines of, “I don’t think that means that so many of your students should be struggling.”

As for tomorrow’s speaker, we’ve already been informed that he has been “speaking to school audiences for 30 years…,” that his primary aim is “acknowledging, honoring, and connecting…,” and that he has earned an Emmy, a spot in the National Speakers Association Hall Of Fame, and that listening to him will provide an “unforgettable experience” and that we should “…be prepared to laugh and have fun as you look at building relationships through a new lens….”

This tips me off to this year’s message, which if I’m correct will be a recycled message from years past:  Students will work and achieve if they feel the institution genuinely cares for them.  The institution “genuinely caring for them” means that teachers should be building meaningful relationships with students.  Much like the moral of the story about the IQ scores, there is a lot of sound insight therein, but merely talking about it and saying “This is what you should be doing” over-simplifies the problem.  Furthermore, what constitutes a meaningful relationship is a very subjective, and like I said about parts of last year’s kick-off speech, too many people look at the idea of building relationships as the end instead of the means.


Written by seeker70

August 25, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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