A teacher reflects on leaving his classroom
Steve Brandt, Star Tribune blog, October 15, 2012 – Daniel Forstner, a Washburn teacher, has taken a new district assignment as a teacher mentor. That means he is giving up his own classroom to help other teachers improve in theirs. He has taught at Washburn in Minneapolis, St. Olaf College, Humboldt Junior High in St. Paul, and New York City schools. This is his elegiac reflection upon leaving his students:
For the first time since Bush debated Dukakis and Gibson faced Eckersley, I am not a classroom teacher. I began the year with five Minneapolis 10th and 12th grade English classes, but I accepted and have now started a job as a teacher mentor. There is something unnatural about working with groups of students in September while knowing you won’t be there in October, like lining up with the pack for the Twin Cities Marathon and having no plans of leaving downtown Minneapolis.
Despite the fact I just used one, I will not miss the race analogies currently in vogue in American education. Last year a federal education official spoke in Minnesota and invoked “race” and “competition” so often it appeared the words had magical healing powers. In theory and practice I do not object to competition–it can be motivating and for some enjoyable–but as the organizing principle for teaching and learning, it is hollow.
Here is what I will miss most: walking toward my classroom in the early morning, wondering what the students and I were going to learn that day. The thought sounds heretical–suggesting that I taught without lesson plans and enjoyed the adrenalin rush of “winging it.” Actually the plans were more or less in place, but there was always mystery over how the students would interact with the text, my questions, their questions, our tentative answers.
I will miss being there as my 12th graders immerse themselves in the Republic of Gilead, the dystopian setting for Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Who will be haunted by the narrator Offred’s poetic voice as she recalls the last time she saw her five-year-old daughter? Will they take inspiration or feel irritation from her cautious resistance? Will someone share the experience of the Uptown restaurant waitress who saw the book on my table and stopped to explain how it changed her life?
I will also miss finding out whether Pencey Prep drop-out Holden Caufield can connect with the class of 2015. Whether or not that happens depends partly on the teacher, and I will miss being the one to facilitate this encounter. Fourteen years ago I gave a copy of Catcher to my eighth grade student Luis. Perhaps I sensed Holden’s mix of alienation, idealism, and grief would speak to him. Luis accepted my gift, suspicious. Two school years passed and one afternoon I saw the sophomore Luis heading toward his bus. I asked him if he still had his copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Without breaking stride, he looked me in the eye and pulled it out of his back pocket.
Today in American K-12 education, there is plenty of talk about learning targets, but we can be agnostic over how to reach them. In some quarters the thinking is that teachers are the ones with all the answers–the job of the educator is to give and for the student to receive. But such a paradigm raises the likelihood we see in our classrooms what John I. Goodlad described in A Place Called School: well-behaved students with little energy or affect.
The cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham writes about how the brain can reward itself with a small dose of dopamine when it solves a problem. Discovery, on a chemical level, is pleasurable. Too often in the classroom, teachers deprive themselves and their students of that pleasure. We set laudable goals and mobilize resources to meet them, and we might even be successful doing so. But we can leave little room for confusion, surprise, and mischief.
Education secretaries like Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan come and go. Our national education slogan “No child left behind” was replaced by “Race to the top”, and “Race to the top” will someday be replaced by a new slogan and agenda. In the meantime we would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with the educator John Dewey, who wrote decades ago about designing curriculum that allows students to explore ideas and discover concepts. I will miss having a front row seat for those conversations and discoveries. I am grateful the work will continue.