Reflections on a student teacher, week one: Primum non nocere

First, do no harm.

My first ever student teacher started with me one week ago, and that phrase has been on my mind a lot. I want him to be able to get his hands dirty, I want him to understand everything that goes into a teacher’s day beyond just teaching, I want him to understand what it’s like to be an educator in today’s political climate. And I want to do all of this without terrifying him.

I know, right?

After just a week, it’s clear that the whole placement is going to be a balancing act. Explaining some of the challenges one might face as a beginning teacher is fine. Drowning him in pessimism thanks to budget cuts and nasty public attacks on teachers is probably less okay. I can get pretty outspoken about the negative perception of education today, but it would be harmful for me to let that discourage a young, enthusiastic teacher.

Watching somebody else teach in my classroom, working with my kids, is also a surreal experience. That has made me consciously think about why I do things the way I do, because he’s watching me teach as well, and asking questions. There are times where I’ll want to jump in and make a suggestion, but I recognize that doing so would disrupt the learning process for both my students and my student teacher. Instead, I take notes and we debrief after class. I’m not trying to say I want to jump in because he’s doing poorly; quite the opposite. I want to jump in because I’ve known these kids for 2-3 years and I understand how they operate. He’ll develop that with time though, so I take notes instead.

An unexpected benefit of welcoming a student teacher into the classroom has been a boost in my own energy each day. There are opportunities to split classes up into smaller groups, I’ve been able to grab a secondary instrument and play along with my students for long chunks of time while not on the podium, and it’s another person to closely collaborate with each day.

Seven more weeks to go, and I’ll try to post a regular reflection each week.

On Gun Violence

Stuff happens.

That completely tone-deaf remark by Jeb Bush in the aftermath of yet another school shooting is just a symptom of the overall indifference we as a nation seem to have when it comes to these tragedies. It was a disgusting moment that stood out during the aftermath of the most recent tragedy, but it’s hardly fair to blame Bush entirely. He is far from the only leader who has failed miserably when it comes to protecting our children.

It’s amazing to me just how much the attitude toward gun violence has shifted over the past several years. I remember coming home as an 8th grader in April of 1999, and seeing my mom glued to the TV. She was watching the tragic events at Columbine High School unfold, and I remember thinking this isn’t supposed to happen at a school. It was shocking and horrifying.

Now? School shootings remain horrifying and tragic, but they are no longer surprising. The cycle of events is depressingly predictable. A gunman shoots up a school. Politicians everywhere claim to feel for the victims and families. There are renewed cries for gun control, followed by shouts from gun lovers that more regulations would infringe on their freedoms. And nothing is ever changed.

To defend his asinine statement, Jeb Bush said (emphasis mine) “…you just read the papers, and you see a child dies in a pool and drowns. And parents want to pass a law to do something, and you got to be careful that you want to solve the problem. If there’s a problem, a defect in the law, fine, then we did that all the time, but sometimes you’re imposing solutions to problems that doesn’t fix the problem and takes away people’s liberties and rights…”

There are a couple of egregious errors with Bush’s statement. First, we are well past the point where these shootings are isolated incidents that only affect a few people. He wants us to believe that cries for more gun control are just an emotional overreaction by grieving families. Bullshit. It’s a reaction from people all across the country who are sick of seeing lives needlessly ended.

Even worse than that though, is his claim that proposed solutions to these mass shootings would take away people’s liberties and rights. We have elected leaders who have decided that the right to own guns is equally as important as our children’s right to safety and life. Again, I call bullshit. Nobody’s right to own a weapon is anywhere near as important as the lives of our young people. If that’s really where our priorities are as a nation, then we have failed as a society.

Schools are supposed to be a refuge for our students. I want my classroom to be a safe place for my students, regardless of any struggles they may be dealing with outside of school. Every child is entitled to a space where they are protected and valued. By refusing to take any meaningful action against school shootings, our elected officials are telling us that they don’t value our students, that protecting them is too great a burden.

Think about how drastically our lives changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. One tragic event changed everybody’s lives forever. We’re rapidly approaching 150 school shootings in the past three years and nothing has changed. We haven’t even seen a token effort to curb the violence.

It’s well past time for one of our leaders to stand up to the ridiculous pro-gun talking points that get recycled every time there’s another school shooting. It’s past time for us as a nation to re-asses our priorities and figure out what we really value. Our leaders need to do something. Even something that just barely lowers the frequency of these shootings is a step in the right direction, and it would be a hell of a lot more than anything that’s been done in the past decade. Stop the violence, we need our young ones to be safe.

Another Unfair Hit Piece

Hot on the heels of the Vergara decision in California, the New York Post has decided to step into the fray and attack tenure in the schools of New York City. They begin with an anecdote designed to cause outrage and alarm, a story about a teacher sexually harassing students with inappropriate comments and physical contact. The authors of the piece express surprise and anger that the teacher was slapped with a fine and an order to attend a sexual harassment workshop, rather than being fired.

That’s not the part of the story I take issue with. I agree that the teacher involved got off with a very light punishment. If I had kids of my own, I definitely would not feel comfortable having them work in close quarters with that teacher. As teachers, we are in a position of power and trust, and it is our duty to not abuse that by attempting to take advantage of a student.

But then, the Post loses the plot. The authors cite some actual, concrete statistics (something that Eric Hanushek fails to do in his statements attacking tenure), stating:

Of 133 educators taken to trial since 2013, the city Department of Education has gotten just 50, or 37.6 percent, fired, it said. In 77 cases, hearing officers found the employees guilty of poor performance or wrongdoing, but imposed lesser penalties. Six cases were dismissed.

Okay, fine. The Department of Education attempted to get 133 teachers fired, and an independent hearing determined that firing was too harsh a punishment in many of those cases. There are a few problems with the Post’s manufactured outrage though. For one, they only offer details on eight of those 133 cases. Not a single shred of insight is offered on the other 125. Perhaps the Department of Education made a poor case. Perhaps the independent arbiter felt that the issues were correctable with less extreme measures. By not expounding on the bulk of these cases, the Post is basically asking the readers to make a leap of faith and assume that the cases were all equally valid, fireable offenses.

Secondly, the title is pure sensationalism. “It’s nearly impossible to fire tenured teachers” is far from the truth. Yeah, it’s tough to fire a tenured teacher…if administrators don’t do their homework and collect well-documented reasons to fire said teacher. Based on their batting average, that’s probably exactly what happened with the NYC DOE.

And lastly, the Post is attempting to attack the entire tenure system based on the fact that the NYC DOE attempted to fire 133 teachers since 2013. That’s 133 teachers…out of 75,000. For those of you that prefer percentages, that’s less than two percent of all teachers in New York City. That leaves over 98 percent of teachers diligently working to deliver a quality education, without a major issue. Ninety-eight percent is an incredible batting average. It tells you that the tenure system is working for the overwhelming majority of teachers in New York City.

If the Post is really concerned about those 133 teachers, perhaps they would be better served looking at the administrators who granted them tenure in the first place, instead of attacking the 74,000+ teachers who continue to do a great job.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter – BYU Singers

We’ve now officially entered my least favorite time of year — the absolutely wonderful few months where I leave for school before the sun rises, and leave for home after the sun has gone down. I find myself feeling drained of energy fairly frequently, and my motivation also tends to take a bit of a hit. I yearn for the long, warm days of late spring that are oh so many weeks away.

My students are feeling the drag as well. They come to class every morning bleary-eyed and cold; they want what we all do, just another 15 minutes under their warm covers each morning. But there is a job that must be done, and we must find the motivation to do our very best work on the dark, snowy mornings of winter.

By the way, those top two paragraphs don’t apply to folks who live in Southern California. If that’s you, feel free to ignore them.

Winter can be a great time for us educators to learn something new. Opportunities for professional development are bountiful, if you know where to look. Great professional conferences like the Midwest Clinic or the Michigan Music Conference are right around the corner. These conferences tend to hit right when our batteries are most in need of a recharge—what better way to provide it than several days of talks and performances from inspirational teachers and musicians?

I’ve also found myself spending a great deal of time on the Soundtree Institute this winter. When we were enjoying daylight until nearly 10PM this summer, my evenings were spent on a bicycle or at a ballgame. The cold, rainy Michigan fall and winter has made enjoying some quality webinars at home with some hot cocoa a very attractive prospect.

Many colleges are performing some excellent end-of-semester concerts this time of year. Just this past Tuesday, the Michigan State University Wind Symphony gave the wind version world premiere of a John Corigliano work, Tournaments Overture. The concert band performed some Ives (Variations on America) and Persichetti (Symphony No. 6) Winter concerts are a great venue for discovering new music, or reconnecting with some old favorites.

Although winter can be a generally unpleasant time of year, it’s important that we take advantage of opportunities to improve our teaching and recharge our batteries.

Music is Not A Weapon

Imagine a Clockwork Orange-type education system, where students who step out of line are subjected not to detention, but to the music of Bach, Verdi and others on a constant loop. Rather than being taught to appreciate the great artists from our past, students are taught that classical music is a punishment rather than a pleasurable experience. What better way to make somebody hate something for life than to punish them with it as a youngster?

Such an environment exists today, unfortunately. A school in Derby is using the music of Bach and Verdi, and the poetry of William Blake, to punish unruly students. To their credit, they have seen results, but at what cost? Is this an example of just how little we value the creative aspects of our culture today? Rather than study these artists in a context that would help students derive some meaning from their accomplishments, these artists are relegated to being the stimulus in some Pavlovian punishment loop.

The arts are a lot like eating spinach—if you’re forced to do it as a child, you won’t enjoy it as an adult.

Gladwell on Teaching

Disclaimer: I think it’s important to take Malcolm Gladwell’s writing with a grain of salt. At times, it seems like he uses small sample sizes or cherry-picks stories in order to support his thesis. It’s important to not take his writing as the absolute authority on his chosen subjects. That said, I like that his writing makes psychological/sociological ideas accessible and understandable.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his pieces from The New Yorker. In this volume, he writes about everything from condiments, to Ron Popeil, to the Enron scandal. Tucked neatly in these pages, in an article about former Missouri quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Chase Patton, are some interesting ideas about teaching that Gladwell relates to the trials of transitioning from college to pro football.

Now, I’ve written about The Tipping Point in this space before and how a professor of mine used that to make some important points about music education. That was a case of Gladwell’s ideas being brilliant when given a new context. Unfortunately, when he is writing explicitly about education, his ideas become more puzzling and create more questions than they answer.

This article, entitled Most Likely to Succeed, is certainly a puzzler. In it, Gladwell proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that even good people can have bad ideas. This seems to be a major problem in the field of education—people with good intentions but no prior educational experience are put in a position to make decisions, and often make poor ones. No Child Left Behind is a shining example.

In this article, Gladwell attempts to make a connection between drafting an NFL quarterback and hiring a teacher. As an educator and a sports fan, I was quite interested to see what connections he would make. His main point is that football scouts can not effectively evaluate college quarterbacks until they’ve been given the chance to perform in a pro-style offense, because there is such a big difference between college and professional playbooks. Then, Gladwell claims that it is equally difficult to evaluate teachers until after they’ve had the chance to work in the field for a couple of years because there is such a difference between college and “the pros”.

The whole premise of his article is based on this analogy, and I find a great deal of fault with it.

First of all, comparing the NFL draft to attempts to improve our education system trivializes teaching as a profession. Luckily for Joey Harrington and Ryan Leaf, change in society has never hinged on the play of a quarterback. Educators, on the other hand, can facilitate sweeping changes (albeit very gradually) by virtue of being good at their job.

That might be nitpicking on my part, but the issues don’t end there. At one point, Gladwell states:

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

I’m sure that Gladwell means well here. He would no doubt like to improve the US education system, but those few sentences show a lot of ignorance about the nuts and bolts of the profession. His plan to open up teaching to those without education degrees sounds eerily similar to John McCain’s “Troops to Teachers” plan.

For those of you unfamiliar with Troops to Teachers, here’s a brief summary taken from an LA Times transcript of a McCain speech:

MCCAIN: We need to encourage programs such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers where people, after having served in the military, can go right to teaching and not have to take these examinations which — or have the certification that some are required in some states.

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCain’s plan would have certainly sent the US education system to hell in a handbasket. The certification tests that he dismisses so easily are all about content mastery. I don’t care how inspirational or heroic a teacher is, we can’t have teachers in the classroom if they don’t have a good grasp on what it is they are supposed to be teaching.

McCain and Gladwell also seem to casually dismiss the importance of teacher training programs in college. While you can achieve content mastery outside of a traditional teacher certification program, you don’t get the valuable classroom practice or observations that you do in a traditional program.

During my time in the Music Education program at Michigan State, I spent time in at least five different classrooms—observing the teacher and teaching small lessons—before I even began student teaching. Those experiences plus student teaching is where teachers learn how to interact with their students and deliver content. Under the Gladwell/McCain plans, we’d lose that part of the training.

What makes this even more puzzling is that earlier in the article, Gladwell cites a calculation done by Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford. Hanushek says that by replacing the bottom six to ten percent of teachers in the US pool with merely average teachers, the US education system could close the gap with higher-performing countries like Belgium and Canada. Why, then, would we want to take the risk of adding more bad teachers to the pool?

The last issue I’ll bring up here is perhaps the one that bothers me the most. While it’s refreshing to see somebody thinking outside of the box in an effort to help the education system, it’s upsetting to see that they don’t understand how it works. Gladwell calls for a rigorous apprenticeship system, apparently ignorant of student teaching, the rigorous apprenticeship system we already have in place. There are already constant observations, lesson planning, classroom management, administrative tasks, etc. as part of the student teaching internship. Aspiring teachers must already prove themselves over the course of six months or a year before they can be accepted into the profession.

There’s No Music Like Live Music

This past weekend, for the first time in about 11 months, I was part of a live performance.

Student teaching and graduation from college had conspired to keep me out of any musical ensembles for the past 11 months, and I was grateful for the opportunity provided by a small community jazz band just a half-hour’s drive from my house.

They aren’t the most talented musicians I’ve ever played with, and the literature isn’t particularly difficult, but that’s not what this is all about. It’s about getting to be a part of that special communal relationship that only a musical ensemble can offer. It’s about getting together for a couple of hours each week with a group of people who love making music as much as I do. Most importantly, it’s about reconnecting with a part of my life that had been missing for over a year.

It’s going to be a long, circuitous route, but I’ll link this back to teaching, I promise.

An old quote says, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Words to live by—if you’d like to be nothing more than a poor-to-mediocre teacher. A more accurate saying would be, “Those who teach must do, lest they forget how.” It’s important to remain involved in your field to keep your knowledge base updated and easily available for recall in the classroom.

Up until the recent musical opportunity presented itself, I hadn’t played my trombone—or any instrument, for that matter—regularly since May. I had made an effort to play every day while student teaching, especially as a model for my students, but as soon as I graduated, a lengthy lay-off had set in.

It’s amazing how much ‘rust’ I had to shake off after just a short time away from total immersion in music. I hadn’t forgotten how to play the trombone, not by a long shot, but I wasn’t as comfortable in an ensemble setting as I had been in college, nor did I have my full facility on the instrument.

Imagine how rough the transition back to functional musician would have been if I’d taken a year off, or two years instead of just six months. That’s an awful long time to be away from that aspect of my field. Even if I were currently working in the music ed field, I think that taking a huge break from performing/composing would hurt my teaching, as it would mean that I was not continuing to refine my understanding of those aspects of music.

Moral of the story—stay involved in your field, lest your teaching suffer.