My Uncertainty

What does it mean to know somethning? How can I know if I know it? How can I know if I'm teaching it? When and how do I determine whether my students have learned it? Is there such a thing as "it"?

I took my title from a book I'm reading, My Dyslexia, by Philip Schultz, founder of the Writer's Studio, an organization in New York that offers courses in creative writing. I am starting one of their online courses now; it's about how to teach creative writing to students with LD. 

Schultz discovered he was dyslexic when his son was diagnosed with it as a second-grader; at that point, Schultz was 58 and was already an accomplished poet. Reflecting on his youth with this knowledge, he writes, 

I understood that I was different from other kids. I lived in a world of differences measured not by appearances, wealth, or even intelligence. The world I lived in involved struggle for control over my thoughts and actions. My differentness felt freakish. My brain wouldn't obey me, nor my parents or my teachers ... Everything a teacher said would make me angry and distracted ... I hated rules and tests of all kinds. I almost never understood what was being asked of me, and I almost always suspected its motives. (37) 

That's terrible enough, but to not have a reason must have been agonizing. No recognition that it wasn't it his fault, no affirmation that he wasn't stupid. 

That's part of why I want to take this course, to do everything in my power not to recreate this experience in my classroom. Of course, my students' circumstances are vastly different from his in that they are in a supportive enivronment, are recognized for their strenghts, and the whole school works to meet their differing needs. Nevertheless, learning can be so arduous. My fear is that my students, or any LD students, will lose their inherent curiosity the longer they remain in school. 

How do I know if they're learning in such a way that will allow them to be open to future learning? Do I present them with facts to memorize? Do I provide opportunities for discovery? Do I model, and model, and model? But what if that leads only to copying? I want to know how to teach thinking, and I feel confident that teaching writing is the best access we have to thinking, the closest thing we have to evidence or verification of thought processes. 

I'll leave you with Schultz; here he expresses the sheer challenge of understanding how his mind operates: 

It's a tricky business, trying to understand the labyrinthine and subterreanen circuitry of one's own mind, tricky but also necessary for someone for whom thought itself must often be translated, interpreted, and censored before being transmitted. part of me has always lived in fear of the way my mind thinks, and behaves, as if it weren't entirely in my control, or belong to someone who wasn't always sympathetic to me. It's a fear as old and helpless as my earliest perception of myself. (41) 

Pity Party

Though I have lived here for six years, I have not yet found a reliable place to get my eyebrows waxed. Last week, I went to a new salon, the Aveda in Georgetown. It is a bit pricier than other places, but I was hoping they would do a better job and then I wouldn't have to deal with the eyebrows for a while. I am not a fan of eyebrows or the waxing of them, for the record. Anyway, the loquacious waxer was asking me about myself, and I mentioned that I was a teacher. This elicited THE STANDARD TEACHER PITY PARTY. I don't know how to respond to this. (Other teachers out there, any ideas on how to be assertive without sounding defensive?) Would she stand for it if I said, "Ew, waxing, don't you just have to touch people's nasty skin all day and make small talk?" Or, if we think about the other (nether) regions that people want waxed, "How do you do such a foul job all day, and why do you succumb to the beauty industry's notion that less hair means more allure?" My guess is that these questions would not sit well with her.

So why do people keep asking teachers how they stand to be with teenagers? Or tell them how wonderful it must be to have the summer off? Or tell us that we must have a lot of patience?

First, we see the all the possibility in teenagers and actually do enjoy spending time with them. We value this important period in their lives and know that they need us to provide structure and models for them. Second, we don't just sit around all summer, at least not the motivated teachers. We recuperate from expending incredible amounts of physical, emotional, and mental energy for the past 10 months and prepare for a new year. We attend conferences that we pay for ourselves. We work on curriculum. We read. Third, patience isn't some gift that we were born with. We work at it. We understand why our students struggle and we meet them where they are. We don't expect them to already know everything and we don't expect it to be easy to teach them. But that is the challenge. That is why we need to work so hard.

So I'm tired of people who haven't taught thinking that it's easy, that they know what it involves. Or that they have the one answer for how to improve education in this country. Or that teaching is a back-up career. Or that it's possible to be a good teacher with only a summer of training. Or that works ends when the kids leave school in the afternoon. Or that smart people don't become teachers. Or that someone is too smart to be a teacher. Or worse, that the best teachers should become administrators. These insidious myths reveal only ignorance in those who hold them to be true.

Most of us are constantly learning because our education classes didn't prepare us well enough for all of the challenges that we have to meet. Don't think it's cute or rewarding to teach. There are rewards, sure, but I don't do what I do just because I like a modest salary and a fuzzy feeling. I do what I do because I think it's the most important thing I can do.

P.S. This Alexandria teacher has taught for 55 years. Awesome! But notice the hint of condescension in the reporters' voices.