You Never Know All the Good You Do

There is a general dictum that says, “Teachers only plan a lesson to the point where they think they won’t get surprised.” As a former middle school and now college teacher, I have gotten to the point in my career where I don’t often get surprised by my students’ answers (or lack thereof). Wednesday night’s class was different.

Wednesday’s class focused on the goals, resources, and orientations that teachers bring to their instruction. To provide us all with a common “text,” we explored Elizabeth Green’s wonderful description of Deborah Ball, the celebrated math educator. My students were quick to infer the content and pedagogic resources Ball had, the goals that she set for her instruction, and her orientations towards her students, subject, and teaching.

As a quick summary, Ball has a tremendous amount of conceptual mathematic knowledge and a honed pedagogy of questioning. I might even argue that she makes questioning an art form; with questions, Ball is a master at eliciting exactly what she needs to know from students. Her goals are to help students through the curriculum but, more importantly, to help them conceptually understand math, becoming mathematicians through their creation and use of proofs and conjectures. Finally, her teaching is oriented towards students’ construction of math, believing that her students are mathematicians, and that teaching is a complex, serious, important endeavor.

After my students laid these pieces out on the board, we began a discussion about which was the most important, or driving, aspect of Ball’s overall teaching. Which of these three aspects made Ball “special”?

One student offered, “Well, it’s her resources!”

I have to admit, I was a little surprised. My students are smart… really smart. Authors who have studied Ball’s teaching often argue that what make her special, what gives her the driving force to be the teacher she is, is her orientation. Without her orientation, she never would have selected such goals and she wouldn’t use her resources as effectively as she does.

“Yeah, definitely the resources,” chimed another student.

Ugh. Ok, why weren’t they thinking at all about the orientation? I had to ask.

“Well,” said a third student, “her orientation towards teaching is great but it’s not special. We all believe those same things.” Other heads nodded in agreement.

“So, you’re saying that it was the extra time she spent thinking about math conceptually, with support from university faculty, that made the difference?” I asked, in not so many words. Of course! The class moved on with the conversation…

It has taken me 24 hours to realize that that moment was a disguised affirmation. At the time I thought my students had made a great argument for what professional development should look like. Rather than talking about high-stakes testing, confidence intervals, and “bubble kids,” build teachers’ conceptual and pedagogic resources seems to be a much more effective way to professionally develop those who already love to learn. 

But this interaction was also an affirmation of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing. My students attend a college that teaches through high-impact practices at all levels, has Arts and Sciences faculty that think that students should be taught to “do” their disciplines rather than simply drink from “the fountain of knowledge,” and an Education Department faculty that encourages students to think with these orientations in every class. Unfortunately, all of us have to take it on faith that our little part in this process will eventually lead to our hoped-for outcomes. I got a chance to witness, just for a moment, confirmation that what we do has made a difference. 

In the Teacher Preparation world, Deborah Ball is held up as a shining example, probably rightfully so, of a great educator. But what so many authors would contend made her special (her orientation) didn’t resonate with my students, not because they didn’t think that it was important but because it was commonplace in their image of education. They wanted more time to think conceptually, as Ball had taken. They could do it, given the resources.

Surely, this is not the last conversation that I will have with my students about their orientations; it is still yet to be seen if those orientations are manifested in their day-to-day teaching. But, even with these unknowns, it’s evident to me that all of the little and big efforts my colleagues and I have put into building these orientations are paying off in the quality of our future teachers. To my colleagues I say, “Keep going. You never know all the good you do!”

A New Deal: Thoughts on Our Anti-High Stakes Agenda

Throughout the country, but in New York in particular, a lot of education talk has been focused around three things: (1) high-stakes tests for K-12 students (unfortunately aligned to the Common Core State Standards), (2) high-stakes tests for pre-service teachers designed in coordination with and assessed by Pearson… very interesting, and (3) current teacher compensation plans. To this last point, New York teachers have been without a contract for years; a tentative agreement is in the works as I write.

Looking across all of this activity, it is clear that there is an issue of trust between “Education” and “Society.” I put these two groups in quotes because I actually don’t believe that there is actually that wide of a gap… many parents think that their children’s teachers are great and many teachers feel respected by their students and the community. On the national stage, however, these groups are at odds. The use of high-stakes tests indicate that “Society” does not trust teachers when they say that their students are ready to be productive members of society. The inability for regular contract agreements indicates that teachers don’t feel appropriately valued by “Society” and that “Society” may be questioning “Education’s” worth.

The good news is that it looks as if things might be turning around. Contracts are being negotiated and voices are finally crying out of the harmful effects of high-stakes testing. What Education needs to think about now is, “What’s next?” We have a great opportunity now to re-define our social contract with Society. Society wants to know the value Education intends to provide to the common good and how Education intends to monitor and regulate that value. This is hopeful! This is good news!

While I certainly don’t have all (if any) of the answers, below are some thoughts for a New Deal that Education can make with Society:

1. The value of good education is based upon active citizenship. Citizenship (action civics, to be more specific) requires citizens to (1) have strong content knowledge, (2) have skills by which to collaborate with diverse other citizens, and (3) have the ethical values to work for the good of the whole. It does no good for our students (your children) to be able to fill-in the right Scantron bubble… it matters if they can use that knowledge for their own benefit and ours. We want intelligent, versatile, ethical citizens; Education can provide that. With these knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we can feel confident that our students can provide for themselves, their families, and Society.

2. The value in teaching is based upon facilitating constructivist learning. There is little factual information that anyone with an internet-enabled device can’t find in today’s world. The value of teaching is not in our lectures; it is in our ability to create constructivist learning environments for our students. These environments may look different depending on age, grade, subject, etc. but they all require students to think and act. To be sure, this can be scary. Sometimes students don’t think and act the way we expect (or want them to). The value of teaching is to guide students through these experiences (good and bad) so that they can gain the most benefit from them.

3. The value of the Education profession lies in its connections with Society. If any New Deal is to be struck, it must rely on constant connections with Society, including business. Education can use and learn from all aspects of community assets and can adjust to the growing needs and various directions of the world. The Education profession can be flexible. What the Education profession needs from Society is a conversation rather than legislative mandates and big-business monies. Educators pledge their lives to working hard for and with students. Connections with Society are integral to that work. What is also integral is the ability to make ethical, professional decisions regarding that work without the influences of those who have not pledged their lives to such work.

We are all concerned for the students/children of this country. Maybe it is time to strike a New Deal, regain trust and respect amongst all parties, and get back to focusing on meaningful learning.