Wow- what a great post- love love love it.

2 02 2007

This is seriously how I’m feeling now.  -e

Art, Passion and the Job of Teaching…

By (Chris Lehmann) on General Ed

I debated leaving this as just a comment response to Dan from my entry, but I think there are enough ideas in here to stand as its own entry…

Dan wrote in his comment:

    I agree that right now we need less cynicism. But I disagree that inspiration and uplift are the answer.

    We need to advocate realism. Specifically, we need to get teachers to talk more realistically about teaching.

    Even more specifically, no matter how plainly teachers feel these things, we need to stop calling our job "a calling." (You’ve called teaching "a calling" in one of your comments on my blog, so I am cognizant of where we stand on this one.)

    We need to avoid terminology like "passion" in describing the prerequisites of our job. We need to eschew terms like "artist" in describing our vocations and completely strip martyrdom from the discussion.

    Gals like Gruwell (not that I’ve seen the movie) have done more for students in a year than I have in three, but she, and movies like Freedom Writers, do teacher recruitment a disservice by implying there is something superheroic and otherworldy about our job. Every time a movie like Freedom Writers comes around, I get a little melancholy and think about how close I came to becoming a CPA. From how Hollywood and so many teachers describe this job, to succeed you have to possess some rarified blend of passion, artistry, and martyrdom and you’ll know if you do because it’ll smell faintly of crayons and coffee.

    But this job — like all jobs — needs hard-workers more than it needs saints. It needs problem solvers and creative thinkers. It needs people who are confident and well-spoken. The public’s perception of teaching, I fear, mirrors that of the clergy, where teachers have been summoned to this crusade by some spiritual force. Passion is then their reward and it’s on them to absorb the financial burden of their calling.

    But this is just a *job*, one which eagerly accepts dedicated workers and puts them to good use. My last semester at UC Davis, I took an internship in a high school in lieu of a PE class. I realized within a week that every talent I had ever developed was out in that classroom in steady rotation, often simultaneously. The same is true of every skill I’ve adopted since. If we’re interested in selling this job to fiercely dedicated undergrads and under-fulfilled graduates, that there is our sales pitch, not a mantra of superhuman self-sacrifice.

First is, I’d actually encourage anyone to read about Erin Gruwell and her students because she would never claim that there’s something "superheroic" about our job. In every interview I’ve seen with her, and as I read her book, she always talks about how much she’s learned from her kids, and that this wasn’t some superhuman effort, but rather what happened when she cares.

But that’s really not what I wanted to address in this post. There are a few ideas that Dan brings up that I want to explore a bit… first is this comment:

    We need to eschew terms like "artist" in describing our vocations…

A teacher isn’t an artist, however, there’s a hell of a lot of artistry that goes into teaching. Teaching is made up artistry, craftsmanship and social science (which explains why Marzano is so popular these days.) There is a lot about the craft of teaching that we can and do learn — something like learning how to make strong transitions from question to question or topic to topic, something that you can and do get better at over time. There are many research-based strategies for teaching and curriculum development that really are almost scientific in their methodology — there’s a reason we use Understanding By Design as our curriculum development model at SLA, for instance. But then there are the moments when you get to see a master teacher ply their craft, and I’m sorry, but its artistic. Watching teachers who know how to listen, who know how to take a bunch of ideas and thoughts that are floating around a classroom and move an entire class somewhere deep and powerful and meaningful… that’s artistry. I still think of great teaching as a jazz piece… yes, the lesson plan are the notes on the page, but the coolest stuff happens in those moments that take us away from that, the unexpected moment, the flash of a new idea, of understanding, of shared meaning… of transformation. I loved it when we came to ideas in classrooms that gave me a new lens for looking at the world… I do think some teachers talk about the art of teaching while neglecting the craft and science of it as well, and that’s wrong. But it’s just as wrong to think that the artistry isn’t important as well.

Which brings me to my next point:

    We need to avoid terminology like "passion" in describing the prerequisites of our job.

The hell we do.

We need passion. I want passionate teachers. I want teachers who love the stuff they teach, but who love the kids they teach even more. I want teachers who can’t wait to get into the classroom. I want teachers who think powerfully and deeply about their unit plans. I want teachers who believe deeply in what we do, and who work hard to do it. I want teachers who care and who inspire kids to care.

And the thing is, Dan, you are one of those teachers. Let’s be honest — you spend weekends writing mini-theses on math assessment. You spend hours arguing education policy on blogs. And you question your methods and your ideas, and you ask people you’ve never met how to be a better teacher. If that’s not showing a passion for your chosen career, I’m not sure what is.

Onto the next thing… (so much for the craft of smooth transitions…)

    Even more specifically, no matter how plainly teachers feel these things, we need to stop calling our job "a calling." (You’ve called teaching "a calling" in one of your comments on my blog, so I am cognizant of where we stand on this one.)

Here, it’s a personal thing, I suppose. Where I am right now, doing what I’m doing… this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m a teacher. Two hundred years ago, I think I probably would have been a rabbi… and for me, my teaching is wound up in two of the lessons I learned as learned about the history of Jewish culture. I view my teaching as part of the linage of a love of knowledge and wisdom and the belief in social justice, both of which are deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. Obviously, that particular motivation isn’t for everyone, but it’s part of where I draw my inspiration and strength. Is there room to talk about teaching this way, and also get bright, hard-working people who want a good, fulfilling job where they might just make a difference? I think so.

But I’ll get even more mushy. I think classrooms are sacred places, not any sort of religious way, but in that those rooms … our buildings… are the embodiment of the idea that we can learn and become wise and create meaning in our lives. Our classrooms — in their ideal — are places of learning and hope and progress. The thought of that geeks me out. The idea that I get to serve that ideal and strive to be worthy of it… what better way to spend a life?

Which brings me to what might be what I believe to be the most important part of this post (way to bury the lede again….) In the context of talking about artistry and passion, you wrote:

    We need to… completely strip martyrdom from the discussion.

Here, I agree, but I also say that you never heard me suggest I was a martyr (nor, for that matter, do I think I’m a saint). I’m no one’s martyr. I knew the pay scale when I signed up, and I had a decent idea that I was in for a fair amount of work, but more than that, here’s the best part:

Twelve years in to my educational career, I love what I do. I love my life. I loved being a teacher in a classroom. I loved coaching girls basketball. I loved coaching Ultimate. I love figuring out new ways that technology could make a school better. I love that I’d learned enough that someone thought I was worth entrusting a dream to. I love building SLA. I love sharing that vision with anyone who will listen. Martyrdom? Hell no… save that for the folks working 9-5 in some corporate gig because they can’t see themselves doing something else. I do what I do because it matters, and yes, I know that along the way I’ve changed a life or two. But my students have changed my life too. They have made my life richer than I could have ever imagined, and I’m a better person for knowing them.

Do I wish I had more money? Sure. But I’ve known plenty of people who make a lot more than me who don’t enjoy themselves anywhere near as much as I do. Martyrdom? Not a chance.

Dan, we’ve got the greatest job in the world — we teach.

One last thought… and it’s a lesson someone had to teach me.

Dan, you’re bright and multi-talented, you could do any number of jobs really well, and I know someone will soon offer you a job to leave teaching. They’ll offer you more money and more societal prestige, and given that you still think about how you almost became a CPA, you’ll probably be tempted. So I’m going to tell you something that my boss Steve told me the first time someone offered to triple my salary to leave teaching and go work for them (hey, it was the 90s in NYC, what can you do?) He said, "If you want to go do something else, go do it. The offers won’t go away, but more importantly, you need to decide what you want from your life. If you want to be a teacher, teach. This is the life, this is the pay, and you’ve got to decide what you want. If this is what you want, do it, don’t apologize for it, and don’t spend your time second-guessing it."

I’ve never regretted my choice. It’s an incredible, fulfilling, fun, artful, passionate life. Although, I do admit, I probably smell of coffee.




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