This week in Methods class, I’m going to read aloud one of my favorite picture books, Russell Hoban’s The Little Brute Family.
The Brutes are a horrible family–crabby and cranky, they fight over everything and they are never content with what they have. They live in misery, until one day when Baby Brute finds “a little wandering lost good feeling” and tucks it into his pocket. He feels happy for the first time in his life and heads home to be helpful and kind to his family. Those positive feelings are catching, and before you know it, the Brute family is brutish no more.
I’ve been thinking some this week about the lesson at the heart of The Little Brute Family as I’ve reflected on one of Maggie’s questions: How can she reconcile what she sees in high school classrooms with what we learn in our Methods class?
What Maggie saw recently in high school classrooms:
- A science teacher who claimed his students can’t do inquiry work and who couldn’t articulate any learning goals for his students
- An English teacher who gave her students a full class period to complete a short vocab worksheet that called for no higher-level thinking
- Worksheets galore in both classrooms
- Bored, disengaged students
This happens to my Methods students all the time. We have an engaged, dynamic class; we read professional development books by teachers who also seem to have engaged, dynamic classes; we interact with excellent teachers on Twitter and through the blogs we read. My students are all fired up to get into the classroom to put some of their ideas into practice on real, live teenagers, and what happens when they get into the schools?
Other teachers telling them:
- These students can’t.
- These students won’t.
- You can’t.
- You won’t.
- Those ideas might work in your Education classes, but they don’t work here.
Obviously not all of the teachers they meet are like that. But the negative voices seem to speak so much louder than the positive voices.
We talked a bit in Methods class last week about why some teachers become negative. Where does that attitude of “they can’t” come from?
My students’ first thought was laziness. Some teachers are just lazy, they said. They don’t want to try. They just don’t care.
But I don’t think that’s it at all.
I don’t think any teacher sets out with a plan to be mediocre. But it’s really hard to strive for excellence when you’re disillusioned, when you’re stressed, when you’re in survival mode. And increasingly, our schools function as spaces where students and teachers must focus all their energy on survival.
Teaching is a high-stress, high burn-out profession. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and often unsupported. Our students come to school in crisis mode, and the ethos of far too many schools—compliance rather than caring—only exacerbates that crisis. The desperation to improve test scores leads to all kinds of bone-headed instructional decisions. Teachers are asked to do things in their classrooms that they know will not improve learning, and their jobs are threatened if they refuse to comply. Fear permeates such toxic environments.
And let’s face it. Even in a school with a healthy culture, teaching is still damned hard work–incredibly demanding, complex, and unpredictable.
I think disillusionment is a big reason why new teachers leave education (50% of them leave within five years). There is so often a huge gap between the promise of teaching and the experience of teaching, between our vision of what we might achieve in the classroom and our struggle just to make it through the daily slog, and it’s a gap that plays out within every relationship, in every interaction, at every level, within every component of teaching. Between teachers and students, teachers and administrators, teachers and parents, teachers and other teachers. Between lesson plan and lesson execution. Between what you think you’re teaching and what your students are actually learning. Between the resources you need and the resources you are actually given. Between what students ought to know and what they do know. Between learning standards and students’ daily needs. Between the needs of a whole class and the needs of an individual student. Between what we say we want students to be able to do and what we test them on.
How can my pre-service teachers develop some kind of resistance to disillusionment? What can I possibly do to equip them with what they need to thrive in their classrooms?
In the end, I think the reconciliation that’s needed isn’t about that disconnect between our Methods class and the high school classes students may be observing. That’s not something we can do anything about, at least not immediately.
We can do something about being hopeful in our work.
What needs to be reconciled, I think, is the relationship between reality and hope. Because as Maggie points out in her next blog post, there is always a reason for hope.
What I think happens in those disillusioned teachers’ classrooms is a loss of hope. When faced with the reality of teaching, it can sometimes be hard to hold onto your ideals. And in an environment where many of the professionals have lost hope, the teachers who try to hold onto hope can be made to feel inexperienced, naïve, overeager, silly.
It is not naïve to have hope.
It is not idealistic to believe that your students can learn and want to learn and will learn.
In fact, I would argue that hope is the most realistic stance we can bring to our classrooms. It is the only thing that will sustain us and our students. This is perhaps the only thing I know for sure about teaching: that when I do it again tomorrow, it can be different. And that’s hope.
I don’t have to teach my Methods students how to be hopeful: they are already full of hope. They just need to learn how to hold onto hope, how to cultivate it, how to share that “little wandering lost good feeling” with others.
Tune in tomorrow for some resources on cultivating positivity.