Oh shit! He called on me. And I haven’t done the reading!
I’m sitting in Robe’s class at Campbell Hall Episcopal Day School opposite a semicircle of fifteen teenagers, all of them looking at me expectantly. I feel unprepared.
And conspicuous. Man, do I feel conspicuous. What’s the difference between a class of 15 and a class of 50? In a class of 15, there’s nowhere to hide.
The text is John Winthrop’s 1630 “A Modell of Christian Charity,” a nearly-incomprehensible Puritan sermon describing a community in which “we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” In a famous passage, Winthrop says that America will be a “city on a hill,” with the “eyes of the world on us.”
The kids are all sitting against one wall because they disagree with Winthrop’s vision. Anyone who agreed was invited sit on the other side of the room, but no one did. They like Winthrop’s ideals, but find them unrealistic and too religious.
Robe is playing, in his own words, “antagonist,” firing questions at them individually: How in the world is forced equality a bad thing? We have a supposed separation of church and state now and yet our government has to deal with morals all the time, are they ever really separate? Isn’t the US still a city on a hill?
Unlike the diverse classrooms I’ve visited so far, the student body here is over 80% white, but Robe, who is African-American, doesn’t hesitate to bring race and privilege into the discussion. “First class problems,” he says with a smile when a kid in the corner complains about his parking issues at school. Later, a blond kid says he’s inspired by the silence of the Little Rock Nine as they walked into school, flanked by white people screaming and throwing rocks. “You think being silent was a choice?” asks Robe. “Are you convinced that they weren’t just trying not to ignite something even worse? I’d’ve probably just been saying, holy shit, I’m gonna be beaned on the head with a rock, somebody’s gonna call me a nigger one more time.” Still, the kid argues that their silence was a choice for dignity, making Robe pause and acknowledge that he hasn’t ever looked at it that way.
Nobody is let off the hook. “I haven’t heard from you yet, twinkletoes,” he challenges a slender girl in a high ponytail who has listened silently so far. When you talk, there’s a pretty good chance Robe will play antagonist. Damn, I’d hate to go up against this guy in court, I’m thinking, which is when he turns and asks me what I think about all this.
That’s when my head explodes. Even though I didn’t do the reading, my mind is a crazy jumble as I struggle to connect all of these ideas, including the irony of a discussion of economic equality in this setting. I can’t do it, not on the spot like this, so I fumble something about the tension between individual and collective happiness. Fortunately, Robe doesn’t challenge me. But the hot mess in my head ignites into two gigantic realizations:
REALIZATION 1: Great teachers are not alike. I’m sorry, I know I’ve only been at this for two weeks, but I’m gonna dive in with a theory: great teachers are great in large part because of their individual human qualities. I know this not what anyone wants to hear, because as a nation, we are trying to get more great teachers into low-income communities and get bad teachers out. To do this, first we will have to identify great teachers. But how?
Back when I was teaching, I cannot tell you how many times I heard administrators say “all great instruction looks alike,” referring to a six-page rubric of techniques that would be observable in any given class by a “highly effective” instructor. Teachers who scored high would be rewarded. Teachers who scored low would be coached. In this way, having examined the data and re-jiggered the monetary reward system, we could create a system that might put more effective teachers in low-income classrooms.
But I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. Jennifer, Dennis and Robe are all excellent—and so far, totally different. For a description of Jennifer’s teaching, click here. For a description of Dennis’ teaching, click here.
Robe has an extraordinary gift for argument, for always being two or three mental moves ahead of whoever is speaking—while always encouraging the other person. He’s never sarcastic or dismissive; what he conveys is instead an intense curiosity. This is not the same thing as the “academic questioning” box on many teacher effectiveness rubrics, which rate a teacher only on singlemindedly interrogating students about the mastery of a single measurable objective. Robe’s not getting at a measurable learning objective. He’s getting at meaning, which is complex, personal and leads in all kinds of unexpected directions, like this one. Unless I sat in, like, a yeshiva for ten years arguing with Talmudic scholars, I could never learn to lead a discussion the way Robe does. There is such a thing as talent.
REALIZATION 2: I’ll tell you next week. I know–annoying, right? But wouldn’t it be even more annoying if this post was like 5,000 pages long? I’ll put my other epic realization in the post where I talk about Cynthia Castillo’s class at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles. By the way, I’m going to start posting only three times a week. I’m starting to feel a bit loony posting so much, and I don’t want to overburden you. In the meantime, if you disagree with REALIZATION 1, please comment. I’d love to change my mind. And if you agree, here are my questions:
If great teachers are not alike, then how are we going to hold teachers accountable?
And for what?
And who gets to decide?