Friday, October 17, 2008

4th CESTL Keynote Address: Meaning of Teaching

The Meaning of Teaching
Keynote Address @ 4th CESTL
By Dr. Arnold Dodge
December 13, 2008

I want to thank Dr. Boyanton for inviting me to speak at this very special event. I cannot imagine anything more inspiring than students presenting their research to one another and to the wider university community. What a smart thing to do.

I must admit, putting together remarks on “The Meaning of Teaching,” was daunting. What a popular term – teaching – and oh, the variety of meanings that people ascribe to it. We use and overuse the term – in its varied forms: I was teaching my dog a trick. I taught myself the computer. Did your professor teach this concept? I taught it, they just didn’t learn it. Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. Give me a fish, I eat for the day. Teach me to fish, I eat for a lifetime. And on and on.

For purposes of today’s thoughts, let’s focus on the profession of teaching. Public school teaching in particular since this is the arena that I played in throughout my adult life and one that perhaps many of you in the audience will venture into shortly.

So what is this school teaching all about? For me, teaching is the most important job on the planet. In fact, when I was a director of curriculum, the district I worked for brought in the Gallup organization – Gallup of poll development fame also has a strong operation in organizational developmental. Gallup was brought in to talk to administrators about hiring practices. The workshop leader told us that their findings show that those who do best in the field are those who believe that teaching is the most important work – with no exceptions. (After all, the doctors and the engineers and lawyers and the politicians – you name it – all got to where they are through the guidance and tutelage and mentorship of teachers. I thought this was a profound finding and one that reinforced for me the notion that teaching is a passion for those who take it seriously.

So after believing that teaching is so important, I need a compelling metaphor to close the deal. And, I have come to believe that this metaphor is the defining image for me of the meaning of teaching. You may have heard this already, but I am awed by the story of Michelangelo’s approach to creating his masterpiece, The David. (The David is on display in Florence and viewing it is worth the price of airfare, hotel and accommodations.) Michelangelo’s work on this sculpture is based on the artistic discipline known as disegno. Under this discipline, sculpture is considered to be the finest form of art because it mimics divine creation. With this concept in mind, Michelangelo worked under the premise that the image of David was already in the block of stone he was working on – in much the same way as the human soul is found within the physical body. For me, this elegant approach captures the meaning – the art - of teaching. The very word education comes from the root word educare – to bring forth.

When we stand in front of a class of students or sit beside an individual student or interact in any way with one of our students, we are practicing the art of uncovering the image of the child beneath the raw material that we are given to work with. Our job is to chip away at the outer layers and to coax the divine image to emerge. Gently, diligently, we trust that the image awaits us if we only have the patience and the tools to complete the task. In the deft hand of a skillful teacher, we see the results of this labor. A child will blossom in a classroom which has both a safe and a challenging culture. Vygotsky, the great thinker about children’s education, calls this place the zone of proximal development. It is the place where a child feels that he or she can stretch the limits of his or her potential because the teacher is there as a non-threatening and motivating mentor to bring forth the best that child has to offer. Such is the teacher as artist.

Let me share some thoughts (and a bit of a rant) which highlight the challenges we face to keep the true meaning of teaching as magnificent as a Michelangelo sculpture.

I had the privilege to hear a traveling artist who promotes arts education by speaking to all kinds of audiences around the country. His words are instructive in the context of our approach to the raw material in our classrooms. This speaker recounts his findings when he purposely asks the same question to various age groups. He asks, “How many of you are artists?” When he asks adults – in a crowd of 100 – a few hands go up. When he asks high school students in a similar size crowd, a few more hands go up. In junior high, still more believe that they are artists. In the upper elementary grades, more than half the hands go up. And in kindergarten, every hand goes up.

I would submit to you, that we could ask the same groups similar questions and we would get roughly the same percentages. How many of you like to write? How many of you like to skip, jump and hop? So what happens along the way? How is it that we lose the self-concept that we are skilled? Buckminster Fuller says that “All children are born geniuses; 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently degeniused by grown ups.” We have to be on guard for this phenomenon. A conversation about the meaning of teaching should include a reminder to those in-service and those pre-service teachers that the very last thing we want to do is degenius our students. Borrow a page from Hippocrates’ admonishment to the medical profession: first do no harm.

So, now, let me tell you what I think is the sworn enemy of the artistry of teaching. (And here begins my rant.) This enemy comes disguised as one bearing gifts. The antithesis of finding the spirit in the child is ironically the driving force behind the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation, which has bi-partisan support and which was signed into law by President Bush in 2002, has as its centerpiece the mandate that all children will be tested in grades 3-8. This high stakes testing environment which has been the prevailing ethos in our schools for the last 6 years has done more to destroy the true meaning of teaching than any other public policy initiative in our lifetime. And why is it so odious? And why if it is so bad, does NCLB have such traction. Three reasons I think.

First, its name. How can anyone argue with an act called No Child Left Behind. What are you in favor of leaving a child behind? Or as the Bush administration calls NCLB detractors: those who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations. What good intentions slogans imply. So let me be generous and say that the intentions of NCLB are good; it’s the consequences that are awful. Let me list a few of the consequences of NCLB mandated testing: Kindergarteners are getting ready for tests and losing recess and play time; preparation for reading tests is precluding the reading of novels and other good literature; “soft” subjects - like art, health, foreign language - those that have no value in the high stakes scoring tally - are being marginalized; hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on tutoring programs with hardly an uptick in test scores; teachers and students are being paid to improve high stakes test scores and ruining perhaps for a lifetime the intrinsic love of learning. No Child Left Behind – good name, bad law.

Second reason that NCLB is popular but failing our students: the keywords, high stakes. The public believes that they are getting their money’s worth if there is high stakes accountability for both teachers and students. Finally, they say, a “take no prisoners,” “hold their feet to the fire” approach to taming the unruly and costly public schools. That’s the traction that makes the public enamored of the high stakes approach. Here’s the slippery slope: We know in fact that one shot testing once a year with results that are published for all to see does not yield schools where students want to learn and teachers want to teach. Shame is a poor motivator and stress is a debilitating companion for learning. We have students and teachers throughout the country who have been turned into test giving and taking machines. This is not the paradigm we should be striving for. Machinery is for assembly lines where widgets are made. Mechanistic, on-demand, assembly-line approaches have no place in schools. Children are unique and fragile and perishable like snowflakes - they are not like widgets.

Third and final reason why this NCLB act is a lie, in my opinion. The advocates will tell you that one-size-fits-all testing is (a)efficient (b) fair and (c)useful. I contend that the right answer is (d) none of the above. On the issue of efficiency: Our nation’s schools are rife with examples of the mismanagement of these tests – everything from problems of multiple choice tests with no right answers or two right answers, to the untimely review and grading of the tests, to instances of cheating and gaming of the system. Let’s take on fairness: The imbalances in community wealth, parental support and background knowledge do not suddenly become righted because we give the same tests to all kids in a state. In fact, the greatest predictor of test results remains SES. And finally, the test makers will tell you that their assessments yield important data for school decision making. Well, there are so many issues related to validity, reliability, why national test results are so different from state test results, etc. etc. that we may not have useful results at all. In fact we may have results that are misleading.

So, what’s a teacher (or future teacher) to do? First of all, don’t get discouraged. The policy makers and the politics always come and go. Good teachers and willing students transcend any particular moment in time.

To that end let me say that in my career, there have been several policy upheavals, changes in leadership at both the local, state and federal levels and yet my students and I were quite often oblivious to these forces.

Let me share a few anecdotes with you which help me at a very personal level understand the meaning of teaching. These stories and memories remain vivid for me although some events occurred nearly 40 years ago.

I had student who was a fabulous actor – I was the drama coach. I said to him that one day, when he was on Broadway, I wanted tickets to the show. Sure enough, Vincent played the Master of the House in Les Miz. We went to dinner before the show and then my student was on stage . I will never forget that moment.

And then there was Justine, a selective mute, who spent the entire year in my class not speaking a word. I found the patience and the love to never embarrass her and attempted to include her in all that we did. Justine eventually came to speak in the years to come.

And how about Todd who stuttered, but who insisted on taking parts in all of our class plays. How well I remember hearing Todd recite Shakespeare – “Oh J J J J J Juliet, She sp sp speaks, O sp sp speak again br br br bright angel . . .” What’s more inspiring is the patience and the support that the rest of the class gave to this young man.

These are the experiences that define my career for me – and you know what, I can’t remember how my students did on the tests they took. Sorry, policymakers.

And before I leave this personal reverie about the meaning of teaching, let me share with you a dreamy passage that I read recently by Mildred Chase from her book, Just Being at the Piano. The author elevates the act of piano playing to a transcendent experience: “Everything that you have consciously learned, all of your knowledge, emanates from within you. There is a sense of oneness in which the heart of the musician and the heart of the composer meet. The music is in your hands, in the air, in the room, the music is everywhere, and the whole universe is contained in the experience of playing.” For me, this description comes close to describing the experience of teaching. When teacher and students merge and the whole classroom sounds like a symphony you know you have made the right decision to become a teacher and it is then that you know the true meaning of teaching.

So, in closing, by the power vested in me as the chair of the department of educational leadership and administration at CW Post, I now deputize all of the aspiring teachers in this room. Your mission is to save our schools. Through the courage of your convictions and the sweat of your brow you will reclaim the true meaning of teaching which has been stolen by the politicians and the business people and the media. Your marching orders are as follows:

You are at all times to use this calculation when assessing your students: effort = reward. No more children trying and trying and trying and still failing state tests.

You are to make parents your partners. No longer will parents be afraid to come to open school night for fear of finding out that their children are failures. And you will always make time for parents when they want to discuss the most cherished individuals in their lives.

You are to work with your colleagues and share best practices whether across the halls of your school or across town with a colleague in a struggling school district. You will not compete for grades with your fellow teachers.

You will remember that you have the future sitting in front of you and you will know that you have a sacred mission to send a message to the future via the young people. Our business is future oriented; your classrooms should never be imprisoned by old ideas. (Remember that current third graders and their younger school mates have never lived one day in the 20th century.)

You are to take heart in the words of those who are in the schools now who are inspired by their work and see that teaching is truly a calling. Like the statements made by one of my current students in our administration program who is an aspiring principal: “To be a teacher is to hear the heavenly sounds of 30 seventeen-year olds genuinely laughing at one of your jokes; to be a teacher is to hear the sound of disbelief in a parent’s voice when you call to say that her child is doing well in your class; to be a teacher is to be excited to sign up for a workshop or seminar because you can’t wait to find a new way to teach your students; to be a teacher is to be genuinely proud of your students when they succeed in the classroom, on stage or on the court or field; to be a teacher is to provide your students with support during a time of personal turmoil in their lives; and to be a teacher is the idea that a heartfelt “thank you” from a student brings more personal and professional satisfaction than any perk that tends to be offered by the private sector.”

And as a deputy, you are to consider yourself a “tribune” - a person who upholds or defends the rights of the people. You need to speak out if you think a policy or a practice is harmful to your students. You will be amazed at how powerful the truth can be – especially when voiced by a dedicated teacher. And you should seek out fellow tribunes so your voice will be part of a chorus of voices on behalf of the developmental and educational needs of children.

So now I officially pronounce you ambassadors for spreading the word of the true meaning of teaching. I wish you good luck in your pursuits. And never forget that no matter how hard the raw material and how difficult the chipping away becomes, there is always a David inside each child.

The End!

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