Let’s Just Get Those Pesky Humans Out of the Way

Somebody throw cold water on me.  I really need to be shocked back to my senses.  I just read a study saying that “placing more students in the classrooms of highly effective teachers can improve student achievement.”  Yes, more students; in fact, as many as 12 more students.  But here’s the kicker: the study did not actually use human beings.  It was a simulation, using only the value-added scores of 8th grade students and calculating how they “might” have performed with a more effective teacher.

Okay: I’m trying to breathe, I really am.  One…two…three

 How in the world could anyone suggest that these test scores, taken in a vacuum, could in any way represent the complex web of human interactions that takes place in a classroom?  And yet this study is currently making the rounds of polite education policy blogs, which are dutifully headlining it and summarizing it, especially the part about how cost-effective it will be (“without costing taxpayers an extra penny” are the study’s actual words)—eliminating the detail that real, breathing, flirting, sweating, weeping, texting thirteen year olds were not in the room they were supposedly crammed into?  Nor was the frazzled, exhausted, overworked, underpaid teacher?

 I am going to try to count sheep now.  Maybe that will work.

One little fluffy sheep.  Two little fluffy sheep.  Isn’t it great that “sheep” is the same no matter how many there are? Unlike students…aaaaghhh! 

No, seriously, I have calmed down.  Ish.

 Here’s what I’ll tell you from my observation this year.  Okay, it isn’t as scientific as a simulated study of data points, but on the other hand, unlike these other loons–excuse me, economists–I went ahead and observed actual breathing human beings.  I know, crazy, right?

 Want to know what makes a great teacher?  One thing I can definitely say: you have to know and like the actual kids in front of you.  Now, this may seem obvious, (or so I would have thought) but I’m not talking about some general, misty-eyed fondness.  I’m talking about an individual, day-in, day-out, moment by moment warmth, something that occurs between a teacher and each kid.

This warmth can be expressed in a variety of ways: concern, patience, encouragement.  One unexpected form of warmth is affectionate banter, which I’ve seen this past week in several different classes.  In these classrooms, kids love to give that teacher a little bit of flak, and the teacher loves to give it right back.  Not constantly.  But every so often throughout class. And in a great teacher’s classroom, that banter creates community.  It creates a sense of safety, because if the teacher has the class under control, the banter doesn’t spill into meanness or some kind of icky, boundary-crossing friendship.  It’s as if the banter both establishes a warm relationship and also its boundaries.

 I realized the importance of affectionate banter on my second visit to Laura Press’ AP Lang class, an academically proficient, ethnically mixed group of kids at Hamilton High.  On my first visit in September, the kids were a fairly quiet group, and they still are on the quiet side, but they’ve livened up quite a bit since then.  What I was struck by on the second visit—and it was very early, barely 8 am—was the amount of kidding around even though they’re just going over the answers on a quiz.  It wasstill a traditional, rigorous academic class in which they’re closely analyzing Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but the kids were engaged throughout and the mood was warm; if kids got off-task, Laura teased them mildly, pitting them against each other to come up with the right answer.

 In Laura’s class and so many I’m observing, by late November if a class is good, you can feel the warmth in the room.  How do you measure it?   Well, if you’ve spent much time on planet Earth, you can actually feel it.  But if you have missed those formative moments, “warmth” is something humanoids experience in the presence of someone they trust and like.  Manifestations include smiling, eye contact, listening and responsiveness.  See under: relationships.  If you haven’t had one ever.

Sorry.  Deep breath.  Most strong emotions pass in thirty seconds.  Did you know that?

Anyway, because I’ve taught, I know that creating this affectionate mood is not the same thing as coming in with your heart full of love.  I tried that my first year and my classes went out of control in a hot second.  Sure, the kids liked me.  But they didn’t like learning from me.  That’s why I say you have to know and like your students.  You have to know what they need in order to be able to focus and learn in your classroom.  Maybe those particular kids need very strict, clear rules, which is what I found in many of my classes.  Maybe that group needs plenty of quiet and calm.  Maybe they need rowdy student-led discussions.  So it’s not as simple as just coming in like a fountain of unconditional love.  You will get your ass handed to you if you don’t also what kind of boundaries your particular students need.

 But if you don’t also love them at least a little, you’re not going to be great.  At least, I haven’t seen it done.  If you know of a grim, hard-hearted teacher who does not like or know his students but is also amazing, please let me know and I will adjust my theory here.

When I tell Laura afterwards about the warmth I’ve observed in her class, she smiles, but reminds me that this is an honors class.  Last year was different; she had only very large non-honors classes that were “boy-heavy” because so many of the girls are skimmed off into honors track.  “They were very immature,” she tells me, “and there were just too many of them.”  For years, the LAUSD had capped class sizes, but when they lifted the restrictions, classes ballooned to 40 or more.

And she could feel the difference, not just because of the number of kids in her room but because these kids, by last year, had been in gigantic classes since 7th grade.  “These kids bore the brunt of the recession-style classes.  It was like this tipping point of bad behavior, they always outnumbered the teacher, they never got attention.”  Already behind in academic skills, with the honors kids pulled into other classes, they spent years in low-performing classes that were out of control and therefore actually had little real experience of what a functional class was.

 “The number one thing is that classes have to be smaller for those kids,” Laura says.  “Because one on one, I can create that trust.  All kids secretly want that relationship.  What you want in a class is enough kids who already trust a teacher that they model that relationship for the others.”  But in very large classes of kids with low skills, “the balance was off.  I had to pick and choose.  Who was going to get my patience?  Who was I going to make an effort with? If it was just my targeted few, that doesn’t work so well because the kids appreciate my effort but the kids on the outside of that call to them, it’s like this mermaid call.  And then it turns into chaos.”

For Laura, the experience of teaching these classes of low-performing kids who’d always been packed into very large classes and didn’t ever remember getting a teacher’s attention, it was like “being at the center of a tornado of need.  Because they’ve been shortshrifted their whole adolescent educational experience.  They’re the population who needs so much attention and they’re the ones who’ve gotten the least.  And it just snowballs.”

Well, that’s what she thinks.  But that’s so unscientific.  She didn’t do a simulation or anything.  She just taught for twenty-one years.

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