Teach Right (from 8-7-13)

I hated gym class. I had a couple of good coaches early on, but by middle and high school gym had become a terrible, terrible experience for me. I lacked confidence, was kind of a klutz, and was absolutely terrible at team sports. When they did “choose up sides,” I was often the last one chosen. I felt self-conscious and gawky, and other students made nasty comments to me. Some of the coaches made nasty comments to me. Anticipating the class often made me physically ill. If this was “physical education,” the only lesson I learned was to avoid being physical.

I have had to overcome my physical education classes to become a fit adult. I run almost daily and take eight to ten mile bike rides. I am probably in better shape than I have ever been, but to become fit, I had to overcome those PE classes. A class should not kill the very thing it is meant to to inspire. Ever.

Mr. Fitz’s new motto is “Teach Happy. Teach Right. Speak up.” I’ve addressed what it means to Teach Happy; now I’d like to address what it means to Teach Right.

I began this piece recounting my experiences with gym to illustrate my first rule of teaching right: first, do no harm.

When you are teaching you may sometimes need to push students, to cajole students, to get them to stretch the boundaries of what they can do. Occasionally there may be frustration on both sides. But if your goal is truly to help students achieve, I believe that the end result will be learning, and students being pleased with their own progress– and wanting to continue to do well. I had some wonderful math teachers who pushed me even when I was insisting that math was not my subject. I occasionally resented them, but they never made me hate their subject. They actually helped me overcome my math phobia to the point I felt I could do it. Most of my coaches, on the other hand seemed to berate me because it was fun to do so. They didn’t encourage me to find a way to do better. They just yelled or made disparaging remarks.

I don’t think I make every student love my subject, but I very much hope that I do not make them hate English. My hope is that I have given even my most word-phobic students some confidence and skills they did not have, and a sense that writing and reading were things they could do, and things that could make a difference in their lives.

Of course our whole system now seems based not on helping students to develop their strengths, but to make them aware of their weaknesses. The recent, dismal results of the first round of New York State Common Core Assessments will discourage students and make their parents feel their children are “behind” or “failing” and send many of the students to remedial level classes they don’t need. And the focus on testing will redouble, as you can see from this stomach turning, dystopian document New York put out to focus everyone at schools on data and numbers and assessments. Focusing relentlessly on the negative and making it nearly impossible to succeed because the forces behind the tests want schools to fail is bad teaching. (See my last post.) It is Teaching Wrong. More on this point later.

Aside from Do No Harm, what can you say about what it means to Teach Right? Many models are out there, from Marzano to Danielson, that purport to break teaching down into its component parts and “best practices” and encouraging you to teach according to their rubrics. Many people like these models because they seem to take the ambiguity of teaching away and make it easy to observe and measure. Having talked to teachers who work at schools where these models have turned into legalistic, letter-of-the-law rule books, I can only say that I don’t think the key to great teaching is having a learning target written on the board in a three part sentence with “you will” at the beginning.

Of course, some people think using Value Added Modeling, using test score gains to grade teachers, is the key to evaluating who is teaching right. But a statistical analysis of tests scores linked to teachers doesn’t tell us what those teachers did right, aside from supposedly help their students make gains on tests. The students making gains may take those skills beyond the testing day; they may not, and they may have ended up hating the subject. The students not making gains may actually retain the real knowledge taught, and leave loving the subject.

I have no intention of coming up with an entire rubric of what it means to Teach Right, though if I did and marketed it brilliantly enough, I could probably retire early and become fabulously wealthy since the real money is not in teaching, but in telling other people how to teach. No, what I’d like to do is suggest a very simple concept.

In Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that helped me survive some of my horrific, early years of teaching, the author introduced the idea of the Emotional Bank Account. Whenever we have a relationship, we can make deposits (good things we do which strengthen the relationship) or withdrawals (not so good things we do, like breaking promises, which weaken the relationship). I don’t tend to be a very numbers or money oriented person, but as a metaphor this worked for me– with my own family, with friends, and perhaps especially with students.

I’d like to propose a similar concept. I’ll call it the Intellectual Bank Account.

Here’s the basic concept: You can make deposits to the Intellectual Bank Account, or you can make withdrawals. A child or adult with a healthy Intellectual Bank Account has certain traits and skills. I almost shudder to list them, for fear they be turned into a rubric, but here are a few possibilities. The students and adults I know who seem to have healthy Intellectual Bank Accounts have some of the following qualities, if not all of them:

I think there’s more, but I’m stopping here on purpose because I don’t want the list to seem complete. And quite frankly, there’s a “gut feeling” aspect to this. You can’t just check the balance of a person’s Intellectual Bank Account and see what the amount is. I think most of us know what smart looks like, sounds like, and feels like, even if our definition of it is skewed by our particular values. 

In contrast, what does an unhealthy Intellectual Bank Account look like? A person or student with an unhealthy Intellectual Bank Account exhibits some or all of the following traits:

We have tended to limit our idea of smart to test scores, without looking beneath the surface to see where low and high test scores come from. Test scores are merely a symptom, either good or bad, of what investments have been made in a student’s Intellectual Bank Account. And what things count as investments– or as withdrawals? Well, speaking as the parent of two high scoring teenagers (a junior in high school with high test scores across the board, and a freshman in college, starting this month, who had high scores across the board, and a perfect SAT score on his first try), and as a teacher who has spent 20 years in the classroom watching students grow or fail to grow, and talking with their parents, here are my unscientific lists. 

Withdrawals from the Intellectual Bank Account of children include:

What count as investments to the Intellectual Bank Accounts of children? 

It is worth noting that if the differentiating factor between high scores and low scores tends to be socio-economic status, the real mechanism at work is this: wealthier kids have more investments made in them; many of our poorest kids, often for reasons beyond their parents’ control, not only don’t get invested in, but have active withdrawals made from their Intellectual Bank Accounts. Testing only serves to point up the paucity of the investments made in these children’s lives: it cannot make the actual investments that would help them.

So this is what Teach Right means to me. To Teach Right means to make investments in students’ Intellectual Bank Accounts, not withdrawals. A total focus on data and testing and measurable outcomes may seem like an investment– but it is really a withdrawal. Test driven teaching doesn’t promote curiosity, a desire or ability to learn, connection-making, creativity, reading for pleasure, problem identification or problem solving, real thinking skills, or an the ability to deal with ambiguity. In fact, I would venture to guess that the reformers’ approach, which views education as an onerous chore that must be inflicted on children, actually hurts the intellectual bank account and turns kids off on learning. 

Teach Right means Do No Harm. Do No Harm means not making withdrawals from our students most precious intellectual abilities like creativity and curiosity. Teach Right doesn’t mean teaching to the test, teaching from a script, or being a curriculum dispenser. Doing those things kills your own Intellectual Bank Account. You can’t invest in your students if you are bankrupt. Teach Right means invest in our students in ways that encourage real intellectual growth and a life of the mind– things that can’t be measured on tests.

Invest by inspiring and encouraging curiosity, a desire to learn, self-efficacy in learning, creativity, and the joy of reading. Invest by helping students develop the ability to solve problems, deal with ambiguity, and think for themselves. Invest by teaching students how to invest in their own Intellectual Bank Accounts. That investment lasts a lifetime.This is what it means to put students first– to make real investments in them as people. This is what it means to Teach Right.