That Man Behind the Curtain

As my generation used to say back in the ’70s, my second period AP English Language class “is a trip.”  On Thursday, half of the clan found the funds to attend a college fair, so I put aside my planned follow-up lesson on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (where they will compose their own satirical proposals) and instead handed them a vocabulary review exercise.  While working, we got to talking about their progress this year.  All agreed they had learned a great deal, but most attributed it to their own efforts.  “What about me?” I asked.

“What about you?” one replied.  We all laughed.  I love this class because they are so challengingly honest.  I have nicknames for them.  There is “Ms. Bag Lady,” a thin, energetic wisp of contradictions who hides both gems and junk in her large purse.  I have “Mr. Pretty Boy,” whose improvements in writing are only matched by his temper-fueled outbursts at any perceived slight.   A key member of the group is “Mr. Detective,” who has taken it upon himself to expose the mystery of me, the “man behind the curtain.”  “So where do you claim you graduated from college again?” he asks.  And what was the year?”

“Ms. No Neck” becomes defensive whenever I challenge her on too many missed assignments, but I can see how hard she is working to control herself when speaking back to me.  Just before she launches a classic hand-on-the-hip, invective-filled roll of her head and eyes, I always yell, “Check the neck,” and she now does.  “I appreciate all the things you called me in your head, but didn’t say out loud,” I tell her.  Whenever she smiles,  I know it will be a good class.

On Thursday, I also reminded my students that the Education Writers Association (EWA) and the Carnegie Corporation of New York had invited me to attend a workshop in New York City.  My students know I started a blog this year, but I will not give them the name.  Mr. Detective has, thus far, been unsuccessful in discovering my cyber self.  Naturally, he insists on verifying the original email asking me to share my thoughts with expert journalists, policy makers, and high-profile bloggers from around the country.  I show him part of the communication, but only after deleting all references to my alias.

“Ok, I believe you,” he announces.  “But why would they invite you?  You’re just our teacher.”

Therein lies the rub.  Of the fifty-five or so in attendance, I believe only thirteen would be returning to a classroom on Tuesday, and none from the featured panelists (though many have taught in the past).  Still, I relished my involvement and remain flattered by the invitation extended to me by Linda Perlstein of EWA.  Not only did I get to ride the Acela for the first time, but I also was able to put a face to the words of many bloggers and journalists I both admire and read.  I learned a few things too.

Mostly, I thought of my students as the conversations bubbled throughout the day.  We began with a video presentation on the stated goal of an “excellent teacher for every student in every school.”  Of course, “every” is a lofty word, and I remember some union practices limiting collaboration time, class size, and length of school day being cited as barriers to top performance, though, according to the data, right-to-work states were also found wanting in many ways.

Data played a key supporting role all day.  One presenter announced that the average teacher in America has only been on the job for 10 years or less.  During the question and answer portion following each discussion, I did manage to challenge the belief that experience is a de facto negative in education, unlike in medicine, law, or a host of other professions.  At times, I talked too much.

The conference focused on three key areas of exploration:  Education Schools (Teaching Teachers), Teacher Recruitment and Hiring (Bringing in the Best), and Professional Development (Learning on the Job).  In addition to outlining stubborn barriers and current trends, each panel was also designed to assist journalists as they strive to objectively cover issues in education for their audiences.  Finally, during the last session, teachers met directly with these journalists to answer some of their questions and provide suggestions for underreported topics worthy of coverage.

After perusing my notes from the sessions, I want to share with you a few facts and statements that held my eye:

— Elementary school teachers are currently drawn primarily from the bottom 50% of college students, unlike the top one-third pool in more successful countries.  I find this statistic startling, even as I publicly deride the latest tendency to hoist homogeneous nations like South Korea, Finland and Switzerland as examples of our goal.  Our diverse history warrants more consideration and reflection than that.

–Interestingly, 96% of education schools and programs are not attached to nationally recognized selective schools.  On these less selective campuses, education majors tend to be the least selective students.  Too many of these candidates end up teaching in our most problematic schools.

–For all the cache Teach For America’s (TFA) highly educated recruits bring, they, along with Teaching Fellow programs, account for only 10,000 of the 240,000 new teachers each year.  Education schools do matter, and I was happy to hear they are now working to emphasize practicums and instruction over theory.

–Often school system recruitment methods must emphasize “keeping the really bad ones” out, as opposed to luring the top candidates in, an interesting dynamic.

–Less than 8% of teachers are African American.  Only 4% are Latino (no word on principals).  Perhaps in response to the “elitist” label often attached to TFA, spokesman Spencer Kympton points out that Teach for America has double the  national percentage of teaching minorities in its own recent recruitment classes.  In addition, he notes that 40% of all their candidates have “low income” backgrounds.

Clearly, we cannot solve this “cultural divide” solely by bolstering minority recruitment.  We need great teachers, whatever their pedigree.  Still, I would love to see more new teachers whose life and friendship choices prior to entering the profession demonstrate a capacity for open exchange and empathy beyond their neighborhoods.  Without wider experiences, how are new teachers to truly “see” the miracles. and not the stereotypes, unfolding before them?  The first minority person with whom a teacher engages should not be his or her student.

–Accomplished schools require a strong mission, a good leader, and a committed faculty with high expectations.  No mention ever of the role of parent involvement, and I still remember my days as a public school parent leader struggling to be heard.

–The best professional development occurs when teachers assist in planning it.  Professional respect and inclusion are still elusive for too many teachers who “heeded the call.”

At the end of day, while meeting with journalists, I mentioned my concerns about reporting which merely mimics the “talking points” distributed by savvy school systems.  I, along with my teaching peers, also cautioned against relying solely on test scores to measure teacher effectiveness and/or student achievement.  Personally, I have students who scored “advanced,” but are clearly deficient in some critical areas, especially writing and grammar (which most of these exams do not bother to test).  I also have students who are performing well above the “below basic” and “basic” labels they have been given.

Specifically, I mentioned a question on DC’s 10th grade standardized test from a few years ago.  I had worked hard to teach my students how to both recognize and craft figurative language and other figures of speech.  We spent classes analyzing the role metaphors and similes play in stimulating the “lazy reader.”  We noted the elements of literary surprise in the work of authors ranging from Lorraine Hansberry to J. D. Salinger.

We composed lyrics and personal essays which incorporated these tools.  Then, on the exam, the required skill assessment rested on an obscure Lord Tennyson passage with a key reference to “skiffs,” a term whose meaning my urban, land-bound students could not discern from context clues.

Of course, most got the question wrong.  Given the national experience and the high percentage of minority students in public schools, why did the test manufacturers choose this passage to measure the students’ ability to appreciate figurative language?  At times, I think these children are easy marks for an industry fueled, in part, by a persistent “achievement gap.”

While heading back to my hotel, I did celebrate much of the day’s discussions.  Everyone wants to see all of our nation’s students succeed–unlike in the past.  Yes, questions about what “success” resembles persist.  Still, new teachers from a host of backgrounds will enter our classrooms next September, ready or not.  Regardless of the route they took to get there, these teachers will find a daunting challenge before them–how to push today’s multi-tasking youth beyond the boundaries too many young people have accepted as truth.

I kept thinking all evening about my students.  Sooner or later, they and their parent and guardians will have to be escorted into the circle of consideration if the discussion about reform is to truly become complete.  Until then, I intend to show off the tee-shirt I purchased ablaze with the New York City skyline and words from Jay-Z and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind:”–

“These streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you.”

Education and practice remain the avenues to invention, especially of self.  For the time being, I am the “big light” in my classroom, that man behind the curtain pretending to be a wizard.  I am joined in this adventure by my students who have so many dreams, no matter what their test scores say.  Rather than teach to the test, I teach to the dreams.

Ms. No Neck will never be America’s Next Top Model if she cannot answer questions from Tyra Banks using proper English.   Mr. Pretty Boy will never hurdle his way into the Olympics if he continues to dodge whatever emotional challenges confront him.  The characters and ideas we encounter in literature and essays will help Ms. Bag Lady discard personal weight she should never have had to bear.  Crisp, succinct writing (and thinking) will assist Mr. Detective as he seeks to unravel, decipher, and defuse the turbulent racial history he inherited.

The fact that they know I expect each of them to pass the AP English Language exam in May is part of it, but not most of it.  The most-of-it part is that they expect it too.  I did not give them that; it was there all along.  Like the teachers I met on Friday, and the ones with whom I share a  building, I just help them find the courage to dream the dream out loud–and then claim it.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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8 Responses to That Man Behind the Curtain

  1. I enjoyed meeting you at the conference. I too would have appreciated hearing more from working teachers on how to recruit and train high-quality teachers. I plan to link to this post from my blog. (I’ve been too stressed to write on it myself with a family wedding followed by a family medical emergency.)

    One thing: Elementary teachers are drawn primarily from the bottom half of college students based on test scores. Secondary teachers typically were above-average students.

  2. teacherken aka Ken Bernstein says:

    glad to meet you, and am enjoying reading the reflections of others. I wrote two posts, both of which I sent to the teachers, but did not send on to the others. Perhaps I should have.

    The second, which contains a link to the first, can be read here


  3. Todd says:

    It truly is difficult to get qualified individuals about this topic, you sound like you understand what you are posting on! Thanks a lot

  4. Great meeting you there. I appreciated your comment at the event and here as well. I look forward to reading more from you.

  5. Pingback: Take Aways from the Education Writers Association Seminar « Outside the Cave

  6. Pingback: Recruiting and training good teachers — Joanne Jacobs

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