The Reason My Head Exploded

 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 simpleJennifer, 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?



9 thoughts on “The Reason My Head Exploded”

    1. To clarify, are you suggesting that secondary students determine a teacher’s job status entirely? What would this look like? An end of year report card on the teCher, and if the students score him below a certain point he be removed?

    2. I totally agree that the kids should have a voice–in my experience, they always do know who the good teachers are but I’m not 100% sure it would be a good idea to give the all the power. First of all, it would alter the balance of power in a classroom in a way that would diminish the teacher’s authority. And it also might skew away from tough teachers who really teach the kids to very sweet teachers who like the kids. But I agree they should have some voice.

  1. My guess is when your administrators said that all great teaching looks alike, they’re referring to instruction that produces learning as measured by standardized tests (if one believes that is learning). In fact, the book Explicit Direct Instruction, which many schools use, both traditional and charter (I think), even states that their research shows that direct instruction, which looks like xyz (I won’t go into it here), can be replicated and coached for. It is the most efficient and effective way to raise scores on high stakes tests. Yes, they have a statement like that in the book. I don’t think the teachers you’ve been writing about teach using these methods. Still, I’m not totally against what they wrote about. I mean, there have to be some sort of techniques that are common among effective teachers. We can’t just leave teachers alone and let them do anything they want according to whatever they believe teaching should be? Or could we?

    1. No, I do believe in accountability. And I also think those effectiveness techniques are extremely helpful in many situations–faced with a large, resistant class, for example, or when a differentiated group really needs to master a large body of information. But I’m not sure accountability has to do with technique. I think somehow it has to do with doing the right job for the kids in front of you in the school and community you’re in. And that “right job” also has to do in part with the mysterious alchemy between any teacher and each class. That’s not to say effectiveness techniques won’t often be helpful. But I feel like somehow the task of accountability first has to do with purpose–with defining what the “right job” will be in any given classroom situation.

  2. Everybody in any school knows who the great teachers are. Walk into any school (once you get past security) and ask the kids, ask the teachers, ask the principals. They’ll tell you – and there will be a remarkable unanimity in the answers. And yes, the teachers everybody identifies will not be alike – except in one respect: they’re teachers, not educators.

    1. I’ve definitely found it to be true that everyone in the building knows who the great teachers are! The problem with using that for accountability, as we tried at my school, is that as soon as that rumor mill is used to create a ratings mill, relationships are suddenly commodified in a way that is not impartial and is potentially toxic for a collaborative environment..

      1. Yes, everyone knows who the great and not so great teachers are, and from my experience it’s usually from student comments.

        Ellie, can you expand on what you wrote? Did teachers rate other teachers? How did they do this? Did you all observe each other? Or did you rate each other on your contributions to the school?

      2. Ben, in answer to your question, it was a “360” survey in which we were evaluated by 3 peers and an administrator. The survey was a questionnaire of about 15 questions rating things like contributions to the school, positive attitude, belief in student success, willingness to receive feedback, attendance at conferences, etc. One peer was in your department; the other was in your grade level. The administrator was the person who did your classroom observation. Though the ratings were not yet tied to pay, they would be used as a base for the following year, when the ratings would be tied to pay; they also could be known to any administrator in the school district. It was unclear who exactly had access to this information, how long it would be in your record or how widely it could be shared.
        We were a very small school. We all knew each other extremely well and many of us were very close. Many of my colleagues had small children, made very little money and were still paying off student loans. I would have had to hate their guts in order to give them a poor evaluation that would be in their record and tied to pay at a later date. On two occasions, I found myself “evaluating” my closest friends. Fortunately, they were all excellent, so it was no problem giving them the highest ratings. But even if they hadn’t been, I’m gonna keep it real: I still would have given them the highest ratings. They were my good friends, for God’s sake!
        On the rare occasion that someone received a poor rating, because it would later be tied to pay and therefore possibly punitive, and because we all were so close, it was not experienced as helpful feedback by the teacher being rated. It was experienced as vindictive, personal revenge that the person doing the ratings had been too chickenshit to discuss in person. Though this did not happen to me, I would probably have experienced it the same way.
        Peer feedback is a great thing. I wish I could have had more of it. But not when tied to pay.

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