Princeton professor, and moral activist, Peter Singer likes to propose a scenario to his readers and listeners. He tells a story of walking past a boy who is drowning. You are the only one who can hear him and see him and it is up to you to save this person’s life. Unfortunately, you are wearing a brand new suit and some crazy expensive shoes.
What would you do? Well, for 99% of humanity it is a no-brainer. You would ruin the suit and the shoes, let’s say it’s $1000 worth of some sexy GQ-ness, and save the kid.
Humans are good when the pain is in front of them and the reaction is visceral. However, when I tell you that you could save the life of a boy across the globe by sending $1000 dollars, the reaction is flipped. Most of us do absolutely nothing. Instead, we offer all sorts of morally void and logically empty platitudes about how we can’t save everyone.
In short, we are much more likely to be a good person when the suffering, or challenges, or whatever is right in front of us.
Adam, my co-blogger here, used this same logic when he convinced me to be a teacher a dozen years ago. I was telling him about a fresh-out-of-college job of working with kids in my neighborhood in an after-school program and some sports leagues. I told him it seemed kind of limited and empty; that there wasn’t much that I could do to help a kid in a few hours a week.
His first reaction was kind of smug, especially for someone who I knew was in the midst of his first year of teaching.
“That’s because you’re working in the minor leagues,” he said as if he had reached a higher level of intelligence than the rest of us.
“All that stuff is the JV team, man. Teaching is the real deal, the big league.”
I told him he was an asshole, so he tried to qualify it all and actually kind of said the most important thing anyone has ever said to me.
“Teaching isn’t like any other job. You are with the same kid, or the same 30 kids, or same 130 kids, every day for 180 days. There is really no hiding or running from the challenges or the joys that come with that.”
I wanted to punch him in his smug little face for a second.
“If you are trying to do some kind of good for the next generation, there is no job more important or more impactful than teaching. The only thing more meaningful is parenting.”
In other words, Adam was agreeing with Singer’s claim. Sort of. I wasn't going to do a whole lot of good from afar. Not every kid in a classroom is drowning and, in fact, some are swimming laps at an Olympic pace. But the analogy still kind of works. While Singer often makes the claim that we should probably send some money somewhere to help someone, Adam was giving in to our human tendencies. He was telling me I had to get closer to the scene. He was telling me I wasn’t a good enough person to help from across the world, or even across the city.
But what Adam realized about the power of proximity didn’t come with instructions on how to do that well in the classroom. I’ve been spending the first decade of my teaching career trying to figure out exactly what that meant. The only reason I keep trying is that it is always becoming more clear that there is something deeply true about this closeness thing that determines whether students are learning anything from us.
Understanding this proximity and closeness might be the most important thing I can do as a teacher to help my students move forward, but it certainly makes the job of teaching a lot more challenging and consuming. But I want to work at some of these things in the next year.
1) Research. Know. Question. Notate. Try.
Last night, I watched Night School with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. It was a pretty bad script that made me laugh because those two people are hilarious and made me cry a little because I am a teacher and this movie is kind of about learning. My guess is that most people didn’t cry when they watched Night School, but I am kind of a huge emotional mess and that is especially clear when someone tells some sappy tale about learning. Or one about being loved, but that is another post.
Anyway, Haddish plays a teacher trying to help a few adults pass their GED exam. Hart is a student who is working to save his career and his relationship, but he has always run from school because he has dyslexia and no one ever noticed. Haddish notices some tendencies Hart has toward problem-solving and asks him to talk about it more. Then, she makes him get tested for learning disabilities. Then, she tries her own version of brain-based therapy to help him get better.
In the end, Hart thanks his teacher for being the first person to ever notice him as a learner. In high school, it was always his humor or his athleticism or his actions, but no one ever talked about the fact that he wasn’t learning and asked why.
It is a simple thing, but I think there are a lot of teachers who don’t take the time or don’t know how to notice whether their students are getting better. If you ask teachers to talk about learning, many of them give responses that have more to do with activities and tasks than actual growth and change.
I’ve tried to get to the bottom of that question in a few ways. I try to research everything that I can about my students’ history in school and know that information before I even meet them. Then, I use this amazing opportunity that we all have each day to ask as many questions as I can to try to understand how to help the student learn. I’ve learned to take notes on everything I learn because it helps me notice the changes. I note that a student might be struggling at home, or sleeping on a couch because their family was evicted. I’ll make a note that a student is going to great lengths to avoid reading or writing. Or I’ll notice some kind of social behavior or small rewards that work to motivate them. I’ll take note of successes and failures.
Then, I try anything I can to make sure those notations are showing improvement. Basically, I want to be more like Tiffany Haddish.
2) Closeness makes the job harder. Keep your head up and keep trying.
If we as teachers are evaluating ourselves on whether or not each student improves, this is a really hard job. If we are just accepting that our students stay on the trajectory they are on and accepting the status quo that really doesn’t always ask for growth, this is actually an easy job.
I thought of this the other day when I got a few minutes between eggnog and in-laws to go for a quick jog with Adam. He told me that he was talking to a friend of his who works at a private school. He had the feeling that he and his friend, though they both work in schools, were talking about different jobs.
“I don’t think she really understands what we do,” he said as we wheezed our way through another lap on a high school track.
This time, I got to be the asshole contrarian.
“She should understand it though. Any teacher should understand it. Helping students to get better is really hard work in any setting. It doesn’t matter if you are teaching a kid to read, or working on a Harvard application. Humanity is really hard.”
We are all interventionists who get the sacred opportunity to add to a student’s learning, to give depth to experiences, and enrich the lives of people. It doesn’t really matter if the work is in keeping someone from drowning or helping fine-tuning an Olympic swimmer. In our terms, it doesn’t matter if we are helping a kid get better at reading, listening, and speaking, solving problems and equations, or learning to care and empathize. Getting better is always challenging, and a deeply human process that requires us to look at our classes not at a group of 20 or 30, but as 20 or 30 individuals with unique experiences that require our work, concern, compassion, and intelligence.
Unfortunately, because of racists and evil people and systems, some teachers are able to accept the given trajectory for their students and they will still end up in college and with a living wage. Some student pathways are much more damning. In spite of that, forgettable and memorable teachers exist in all schools and we all have the opportunity to disrupt our students’ trajectory in really positive and meaningful ways.
The closer attention we pay to our students as individuals, the more likely we are to help them and provide interventions that make sense. That gets kind of hard if we keep our distance. It’s Singer’s scenario; the closer we are the more likely we are to help.
This year, I resolve to stay close and aware. I think we all should do that.