How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference

In the beginning of I Married a Communist, a novel about the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Philip Roth, who died in May of this year, introduces a character who, everybody would agree, is a model high school teacher. Mr. Ringold, the teacher, and his student (Nathan, the novel’s narrator) both live in Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Ringold teaches kids from his neighborhood, students he deeply understands. He cares about them, but more to the point, he cares about what they read and insists that they learn to think about it.

Here is a short excerpt, a dialog between Mr. Ringold and Nathan, then an adolescent, who rides his bicycle past the teacher’s house on the way to return books to the library:

“Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history.” One is about the life of of Tom Paine.

“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?'”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”

“To defy the English.”

“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized.  Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”

“‘Paine said,’ I told Mr. Ringold, ‘I wrote a little book because I wanted men to see what they were shooting at.”

The teaching continues as Roth sets up the plot through the first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ringold, attentive to every opportunity to challenge his student, holds himself accountable—personally responsible—for challenging Nathan to develop probing intellectual habits.

Compare Mr. Ringold’s understanding of education to what Stanford University education professor emeritus Larry Cuban recently described as the wave of school accountability that has swept the country since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983: “The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools…  Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.  Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….”

Technology and data are the key. Financial bonus incentives—not teachers’ personal responsibility for their students—are understood as the motivator. Forgotten is the human connection— the teacher questioning, cajoling, encouraging, enjoying learning with her students.

Cuban quotes Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary, who was a primary driver of the cult of efficiency: “Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice.  Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.”

In the passage Cuban quotes, Duncan’s thinking is depersonalized. The subjects of the sentences—the forces conducting the educational action—are abstractions: technology, the military and “the best strategy.” It is as though Duncan, who never taught school prior to becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools or becoming U.S. Secretary of Education, lacks any feel for teaching.

Through all these years of data-driven, outcomes-based, efficiency-framed education theory, Mike Rose, the education writer and a UCLA professor of education, has continued to remind us that schooling must always be about human relationship. Rose just posted a new piece: Teaching As a Way of Seeing. He begins: “‘The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, ‘is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible. Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.”

Rose continues: “These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.”

Rose quotes a high school teacher who aspires to be the kind of teacher Philip Roth created in Mr. Ringold: “‘I was a strange kid,’ a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, ‘but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.'”

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5 thoughts on “How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference

  1. #CaringForTheLoveOfLife Thanks for this post!!
    The teaching continues as Roth sets up the plot through the first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ringold, attentive to every opportunity to challenge his student, holds himself accountable—personally responsible—for challenging Nathan to develop probing intellectual habits.

  2. Pingback: Living With The Results Of Trying to Do The Wrong Thing Better | Rethinking Learning...

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