from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

thoughts on a teacher's week 

The title of this post should indicate that this is not a politically related post (at least not directly), but rather a reflection on my real work, that of a classroom teacher. It will have political implications, as you will discover should you have the patience to read to the end.

It is always hard for me to evaluate my own work as a classroom teacher. There are times when I know things have gone well, but also far too many occasions when i am unsatisfied because I am not reaching every student. Thus I actually enjoy when other adults are in my classroom because they can give me feedback, often ntoing things I don't notice, even when I have taped (audio or video) my instruction.

At least once a year my spouse comes and spends a day in my classes. She did so yesterday. It was not a day where I was doing a lot of "teaching" in the conventional sense. In my five 9th grade US History classes we were watching 3 clips from "Eyes on the Prize" (for which her dear friend Laurie Kahn-Leavitt was the principal researcher). I set up the clips, which totalled about 18-20 minutes, with some brief discussion about "Letter from Birmingham Jail" which they had read the night before. I also talked about how the incidents we were discussing -- Birmingham in 1963, especially the children's march, and Selma 1965 and the Edmund Pettis Bridge incident -- intersected my own life. Birmingham was shortly before I graduated from HS, and led directly into my own involvement with Civil Rights that summer, and Selma was the final catalyst to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

After the clips, many of my students were reluctant to discuss what they had just seen. To put it bluntly, many were in a state of shock. Thus it was good that they had the opportunity to switch to a different topic, to ask my wife questions -- about us, her, me, whatever, although we did have a few (5-7) minutes of discussion on the video and the civil rights movement before we moved on.

Later she told me how impressed she had been with how responsive I was to the emotions of the students, how I seemed to know which students upon whom to call, and how to change how I asked the questions in order to get a response that was meaningful to that student. I appreciated that, because I work very hard at trying to understand what makes my students tick, in order to better motivate and serve them.

She also told them something that really surprised them, and may in fact have a positive impact. She told them how depressed I get when they don't do their work or don't take it seriously, because I care so much about their success. You should have seen the expressions on the faces of some of my more problematic students. The idea that I actually cared about them was something totally alien to their concept, and in a sense may be an indication of changes I need to make in how I approach those students. Teaching is, after all, a series of overlapping relationships [thanks, Parker Palmer, for this idea], and one ignores any of these at one's own peril.

On a somewhat different tack, I received a request from the dad of one of my students. This man is involved with the famous Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, which works with very gifted students to challenge them more. They were inquiring if I would be willing to teach AP US Government over the web this summer. I think it is unlikely, both because I have never taught the course before [I will be doing so next fall], and have not taught online. I think a large part of what makes me an effective teacher is my ability to react to what is happening in the classroom -- somehow I fell I would be missing much that is important were my only communication with the students via electronic means. Still, I am honored to be considered.

I think much of what I do in the blogosphere is not all that important, although occasionally, when I am willing to stand on principle, as I did yesterday, my involvement is important. And my other participations do serve as background text, necessary underpinnings to my being able to construct posts such as that. It is as a teacher that I perform my most valuable work. Thus it is precisely that which I must put at risk when I take stands on principle. If I am not willing to risk that which is important to me, how can I challenge my students to take similar stands on principle for what they believe. One challenge to my students this week was to ask the, as they saw in various video clips over the past 4 days people getting beaten almost to the point of death, for what would they be willing to die. That is a challengeing question to ask a 13-14-15 year old. But sometimes there are things worse than death. When the demonstrations in Birmingham seemed not to be working, when King made the decision even if he didn 't know what else to do he could go to jail with the others, at that moment he became a true leader, as Andrew Young noted. It was from that incarceration that he wrote the Letter that is such a profound statement of moral principle. And if I am to offer my students the true meaning of that lesson, I must live it myself.

So I ask you my readers, however few of you there may be, for what are you willing not only to die, but to give up all that gives your life meaning? Jesus challenged his followers, noting that whomsoever sought to save his own life would lose it, but that those who would give up their lives for his sake would have life everlasting. I am not, strictly speaking, a Christian. But I accept that idea in principle -- that unless I am willing to surrender all I hold dear, my commitment to principle is not absolute.

I accept that I will fail at this endeavor far more than I will succeed. I further accept that I cannot impose this upon others. But until and unless I attempt to live it, how can I teach it to others?

FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME OFFLINE at kber@earthlink.net Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed! Preface any messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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