It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure.
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).”
What an improvement that would be!
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform…. We could just look at the score and vote accordingly.
But who would we get to make and grade the tests?
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners.
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests.
From the never ending antics of our clown President to the Coronavirus to the continuing rise of White Supremacy, it seemed you couldn’t go more than a few days without some ridiculous headline assaulting your senses.
As a result, there were a lot of worthy, important articles that fell between the cracks – more so this year than any other.
Before we charge into the New Year, it might be a good idea to spare a look over our shoulders at these vital nuggets many of us may have missed.
On my blog, alone, I’ve found at least five posts that I thought were particularly important but that didn’t get the attention they deserved.
So come with me please through this survey of the top 5 education articles (by me) that you probably missed in 2020:
Description: Kids usually spend about 1,000 hours with their teachers in a single year. During that time we build strong relationships. And though just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things. Some policymakers insist we prioritize an “instrumental focus” with students using their personal information to get them to behave and do their work. The goal is compliance not autonomy or problem solving. However, increasing evidence is showing the value of a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal is free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures. I provide my own personal experience to support the latter approach.
Fun Fact: This post is full of letters my former students wrote to me during the pandemic. They highlight better than any study the value of authentic relationships to both students and their teachers.
Description: The link between standardized testing and segregation is obvious but hardly ever discussed. In short, it goes like this. Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation. This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory, unfairly resulting in more children of color in lower academic tracks and more white kids in advanced placement. If segregation is an evil, so is the standardized testing often used to place kids in remedial, academic or advanced classes.
Fun Fact: It seems to me this has immediate and important policy implications. There are so many reasons to end the failed regime of high stakes testing. This is just another one.
Description: Virtual instruction has been a hot button issue this year in the wake of school closings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that in-person instruction is more effective has been used as an excuse to keep many schools open when logic, reason and facts would dictate otherwise. However, the kind of in-person instruction being offered in a pandemic is, itself, not as effective as the kind of in-person instruction offered under normal circumstances. Moreover, distance learning is not all bad. It does have some advantages such as it being generally low pressure, more difficult to disrupt class and easier to contact parents. At the same time, it presents unique challenges such as increased student absences, the problem of when and if to keep the camera on and difficulties with special needs students.
Fun Fact: We desperately need an honest accounting of what is going on with real virtual classrooms around the country and how students and teachers are meeting these challenges. If there was more discussion about how to make distance learning better, the education being provided during the pandemic would be so much more effective than spending all our time and effort trying to reopen school buildings regardless of the risks of infection to all involved.
Description: When should teachers praise students and when should they use reprimands? The research is all over the place. Some studies say praise is good but only so much and only in certain circumstances. Others say reprimands are more effective and still others caution against when and how to use them. My own experience has shown that honest praise and thoughtful reprimands are more effective than not.
Fun Fact: This may seem like a simple issue but it highlights the complexities of teaching. Educators are not working with widgets. We’re working with real, live human beings. There is no simple solution that will work every time with every student. Effective teaching takes good judgement and experience. If we ever want to improve our school system, it is vital that we understand that moving forward.
Description: Forty years after the Montgomery bus boycott that was sparked by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man, the civil rights icon lent her name to a charter school proposal in 1997. However, the Detroit school that would have been named for her and her late husband, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Academy for Self Development, was never approved. In any case, Charter school advocates like to pretend this mere proposal means Parks was an early champion of charter schools and thus that school privatization is an extension of the civil rights movement. Yet a closer look at the facts shows a sadder story. At the time of the proposal, Parks was suffering from dementia and under the sway of countless corporate consultants who used her name and clout to enact several projects. It ended in a protracted legal battle after her death between her family and the consultants to whom she willed a treasure trove of civil rights artifacts.
Fun Fact: I think this is one of the most important articles I wrote in 2020. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s the truth. The school privatization movement likes to co-opt the language of the civil rights movement while violating the civil rights of students and families with substandard education and pocketing tax dollars as profit that were meant to educate children. The exploitation of Parks in this way is symptomatic of what you’ll see in any inner city charter school where entrepreneurs are getting rich off of the children of color whom they pretend to be serving.
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down of my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look (like this one). Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:
Moreover, kids who live in stable, loving households who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, overcoming neglect or abuse, etc. have a greater chance of being ready more quickly than those trying to manage under a heavier load of problems.
And if a child isn’t ready today, that doesn’t mean she’ll never be ready.
The mind does not take ultimatums. You don’t have to fill up every shelf as soon as space becomes available. In fact, you could never fill it all up if you tried. There’s always more room – just maybe not right now.
If a child doesn’t learn a certain concept or skill as soon as he or she is ready for it, that doesn’t mean he or she will lose out on that opportunity.
Brains are flexible. They’re almost always ready to grasp SOMETHING. It’s just not up to society what those somethings are or when they’re achievable.
We know that learning is best achieved when a person’s foundational necessities are met. At base are physiological prerequisites like food, clothing and shelter as well as the need for safety and security. Then comes psychological requirements like relationships and self-worth. Once all these primary needs have been met, we can most effectively achieve academic goals.
Children’s physiological needs aren’t being met because their parents livelihoods are in jeopardy. And the very idea that children should be sheltered or kept safe is mocked by the economy first concern trolls demanding parents choose between their children or their jobs.
They pretend to care about our kids so they can get us to do the very things that undermine our children’s safety. And it’s all somehow for our own good.
You want to fix the problem, nothing short of ending the crisis ultimately will work.
We can mitigate the damage, but marching kids into the classroom – sending them into a dangerous situation where they may get sick and (even more likely) bring the virus home to friends and family – will not help anyone.
No, it will never be comparable to the quality of instruction you can provide in-person. But even the quality of in-person instruction is not the same during a pandemic. Hybrid models with necessary precautions of social distancing and mask wearing are, themselves, substandard.
The best that we can do in most cases is learning at a distance.
Will all kids respond?
They’ll do the best they can. And this will largely depend on the environmental factors in their homes.
Kids are just that – kids. They need adults to put them on a schedule, make sure they wake up on time, have breakfast, and hold them accountable for attending their classes – even if those classes are held on-line.
Before this ruling, the Second Amendment was interpreted to be referring only to service in the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required each able-bodied male citizen to obtain a firearm (“a good musket or firelock”) so he can participate in the “well regulated militia” the Amendment describes.
Just imagine if Barrett gets together with the wingnut Republican majority on the court to reevaluate that ruling!
Imagine how many centuries of slow progress she could overturn by appealing to the common man – of 1776.
Imagine if she and the regressive right examined free speech cases! After all, many of these laws were written during the time of the Adams Administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts which radically cracked down on free expression.
We could expect a rush to return to the mire and muck that many of our enlightenment heroes were trying to escape in the first place.
But originalists like Barrett claim only they can interpret what the language in these laws originally meant. Yet their training is in law, not literacy or antiquity. They’re not linguists or historians. They don’t have some shortcut to what people used to mean by these words. They’re just playing with the language to make it mean what they want it to mean so they can rule however they so choose.
Even if they could figure out the original meaning of the words in these laws, that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense in today’s world. How, for example, do the founding fathers views on medicine have anything to do with today’s healthcare system that didn’t exist in the 1700s and that the founders couldn’t even comprehend? How do the founders views on gun rights relate to today’s firearms when they knew only of muskets and not automatic weapons?
Finally, why should we give preference to antiquated ideas over modern concepts? The laws of yesteryear may have been suited to the days in which they were written. However, if a law cannot grow to encompass the world as it exists, it has no right to continue to exist.
Judges are not supposed to overturn precedent based on lingual folderol. They’re supposed to uphold the law based on logic, reason and sound judgement.
Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.
It’s ironic that such degeneration would come from the Republican Party.
Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
Your choice not to wear a mask in public increases the infection rate in my community. Your decision to eat in a restaurant, go to a bar or spend a weekend at an amusement park puts not just you and your family at risk, but me and mine as well.
But this is what I see in the light shinning through the crack in the maelstrom of nonsense we have been living in lately.
We can all come together and create schools that serve everyone regardless of race, religion, creed, sexuality, gender or difference. We can teach facts, thought, history, science, arts and humanities.
And armed with such tools, we can recreate society in that image.
That is the lesson of Trump’s diagnosis.
You can lie and cheat and steal.
You can fool people into believing that you’re not a liar and a cheat and a thief.
“I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed. One of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, ‘Think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.’”
She did eventually teach law at Columbia University where she enumerated the changes in sexual discrimination litigation throughout her career. While in private practice, she won five cases involving women’s rights before donning the Supreme Court robes. At the time, she was quoted in Time magazine as saying her strategy was to “attack the most pervasive stereotype in the law – that men are independent and women are men’s dependents.”
To live at the same time as such a figure is not that uncommon.
We’re often surprised to read obituaries of great historical heroes we hadn’t known were still alive until their passing.
But that such a model was still WORKING, still doing that for which she had built her reputation, still holding together the fragments of our system as it threatened to crumble! That was truly amazing.
She was there. STILL there. For all of us.
Working well into her 80s through colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.
This is the horror story we’d been warned about every election season for as long as I can remember. This is the nightmare scenario used to shepherd the Democratic flock together, to keep us all under one big tent while lightning flashed and thunder raged.
And it is here. Now. Today.
I never met Justice Ginsburg. Never talked with her. Never had the honor.
But I don’t think she accepted being used in this way. After all, if her biggest concern was the Chief Executive or even Congressional politics, she could have stepped down near the end of President Barack Obama’s first term and been replaced.
Or could she?
Perhaps she had to rethink her own retirement plans after the whole Merrick Garland affair when Senate Republicans refused to even discuss Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death a full nine months before the election.
There’s no way to know for sure.
But given Ginsburg’s record of tenacious dissent in the face of injustice, I can’t imagine her counseling moderation as solidarity.
She stood for justice when no one else would.
That’s what she did!
In 2007, her dissent in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter – a supervisor for Goodyear Tires – was so compelling it sparked the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She literally explained why the court was wrong and that this was a case of discriminating against women in employment, and that led to a change in the law two years later!
In 2013, when the court all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, her dissent was equal parts logic, prophecy and prescription. The majority of the justices made the bizarre argument that the Voting Right Act – and one of its features, known as “preclearance” – had already solved voter suppression.
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
When she read the dissent aloud in court, she went beyond her written remarks quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then she added that it only bends that way, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
Her remarks about what would happen in the wake of this decision have largely proven true with waves of voter suppression sweeping the country – especially in areas where this would have been impossible had the court ruled differently.
The west is on fire. Storms are threatening our southern coasts. Police brutality is out of control and bands of neofascist thugs are given free rein to beat and murder protesters. We’ve separated immigrant families and put their kids in cages. The President has lied to us, disparaged our troops, bragged about breaking countless laws and the government is powerless to stop him. Our political system and social fabric is coming apart at the seams. And everyone from the average Joe to the lawmakers who represent him can’t get up the gumption to take precautions against the killer virus that has already put more Americans in their graves than every war since WWII.
You look at the raging dumpster fire around you and wonder – how do we invest in the future when we aren’t sure there will be one?
I’ve had students in my on-line class for only two days so far.
And it’s been great.
They show up in record numbers smiling and ready to learn.
Where are the local newspapers that would have reported on each school district as people test positive for the virus and others are contact traced? We closed most of them and downsized the newsrooms of others to make up lost advertising revenue.
If you’re not a supersized district serving millions, they only report on bed bugs, poorly trained security guards or whatever public relations statement the superintendent released today.
So we trudge on in silence just hoping to get through the day.
You’ve got to plan for just about everything. You put the assignments on Google Classroom and set up the Zoom meetings and make your handouts into PDFs and try to digitize your books and figure out how classroom policies designed around a physical space can be revised for cyber space. You answer countless questions and concerns, videotaping your lessons for those who can’t be there in person. You try to make things interesting with new apps, new software, new grading systems, new approaches to the same material you’ve been teaching for over a decade.
And it never ends.
By the time the day is supposed to be over, the emails are still rolling in, the assignments are still being submitted, administrators are making pronouncements, and you haven’t even finished all the things you have to do to get ready for tomorrow yet.
When is there time for my family? When do I have time to make dinner or check on my own child’s progress in her own online experience?
What’s worse is that when things go wrong, I’m afraid to bring them up for fear that some decision maker long removed from the classroom will simply shoot from the hip and end on-line instruction.
Now – as usual – it’s all in the hands of everyday classroom teachers. We’re left to just figure it out.
And we do!
Part of me really enjoys it!
I love finding new ways of doing things and seeing if they’ll work out better. I’m excited about seeing how my students will react to a Bitmoji classroom or a new Kahoot or this video or not being hassled if they keep their cameras off in Zoom.
Biden is not great on education. Trump is worse. So we have to support Biden while we prepare to fight him in January. And that’s IF we can both defeat Trump at the polls and somehow avoid a constitutional crisis if he refuses to leave the Oval Office willingly.
Everything is one fight after another. We have to win this battle before we can wage the next one.
No wonder we’re so exhausted.
Everyone is worn out, but no one more so than classroom teachers.
“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason…”
I know everyone is different and some people know more about these things than others. However, you have to admit that just being a White person, you probably don’t know nearly as much about them as any random Black person.
After all, Black folks deal with this every day. You and I, we’re just visiting.
“I’m an American whether I like it or not and I’ve got to take responsibility for it, though it’s not my doing. What can you do about it except accept that, and then you protest it with all your strength. I’m not responsible for Vietnam, but I had to take responsibility for it, at least to the extent of opposing my government’s role in Vietnam.”
And most of the time we may not even be aware they’re there.
I know I’m not.
Let me give you an example.
Several years ago my wife and I won free tickets to an opera recital. We like that sort of thing so we dressed in our finest and went to the concert hall to enjoy some culture.
The soprano was a local girl I’d never heard of (I’m sorry. I can’t remember her name), but she was wonderful. She was also Black.
And the Black community was out in force to support her. The concert hall was filled with mostly Black faces above suits and Sunday dresses.
It was the first time I could remember not being in the majority, and it made me uncomfortable.
I knew it was stupid. The other people there at the concert were no danger. No one was going to take their suit jacket off to jump a couple of White people who came to hear Puccini and Verdi.
But I felt some fear in my gut.
It wasn’t rational. I guess all those nightly news reports disproportionately megaphoning Black crime while ignoring that committed by White folks had an effect on me. I didn’t ask to be taught that fear. I didn’t want it. I recognized it as dumb and bigoted.
I couldn’t control the way I felt. But I could control the way I reacted.
I made an effort to talk with those around us and be as friendly as possible. And for their part these folks were entirely warm, cordial and inviting.
That’s what I’m talking about.
We, White people, have to take a step beyond learning about racism and acting against it. We have to do some soul searching and locate it within ourselves.
It’s probably there.
You can’t grow up in America without having it grow inside you like an alien pathogen.
“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”
I bring this up not to judge you.
Brother, I’ve never met you. Sister, I don’t know you.
I’m on my own parallel journey.
There is only one person you have to be accountable to – and that is yourself.
Can you live with yourself if you have not taken these few steps?
If you believe in justice, don’t you have a responsibility to be so in all your dealings with other people?
Black people are people.
Black lives matter.
White people like us have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters of color.
Let’s meet them.
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I took them to my empty classroom and read the first one:
“Hello Mr. Singer, I just thought you should know that you are the greatest teacher I’ve had since Kindergarten all the way to my freshman year of High School and probably will remain that way forever. You always helped me with my work when I was behind and gave me extra time to finish it. Your class was the class I looked forward to every day. You were always a nice and funny man. Thank you for being there for me and everyone else in your classes. I’ll be sure to visit you after school every now and then…”
I picked up another:
“You have no idea how much I miss you… I quite miss our talks after class about video games, movies and musicals. As cheesy as it sounds, I always looked forward to them; especially during the days I was having problems with other students, your wise words always helped…”
“…we had fun times in your class. There wasn’t one non-fun day that we had because if we was going to have a bad day you made it better and way more fun. You also helped us a lot even when we didn’t ask for it. When people didn’t want to do our work, you got them happy and got them to do their work. Thanks for everything and thanks for helping me be a smarter kid.”
I felt a lump forming in my throat.
My cheeks were hot.
And why was my face wet?
I hadn’t expected any of this.
After a semester of distance learning, I’d come back to school to return all the materials I had hastily marauded from my own filing cabinets and book shelves.
I had stopped in the office merely as a matter of course.
With the school year at a close, I had gathered the odds and ends in my mailbox including this bundle of correspondence.
Now as I sat at my desk smiling, laughing and crying – experiencing each letter like a warm hug on a winters day – I remembered something Ms. Williams had said in an email.
She had assigned a thank you letter to her high school business classes. Her students had to write a formal thank you to a previous teacher. But that was all that was required. Who they wrote to and what they said was entirely up to them.
She had written to me months ago to let me know these letters were coming.
It was just bad luck that the assignment was due just as the global pandemic closed everything down so I was only reading them now.
While just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things.
Some policymakers will insist on limiting that relationship to connections that increase academic outcomes. Others advise a more holistic approach.
Both are backed by research.
A review of 46 educational studies concluded that strong student-teacher relationships are associated with positive outcomes in everything from higher student academic engagement, attendance and grades, better behavior and fewer suspensions to higher graduation rates. And this is true of both short term and long term effects and even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds.
However, many studies disregard everything but standardized test scores. That is the primary goal and arbiter of effectiveness. As such, in those cases the relationship they are looking for is much different than in those with broader aims.
Some programs prioritized an “instrumental focus” with students where teachers were encouraged to use personal information on students to get them to behave and do their work. The goal was compliance not autonomy or problem solving.
Other programs valued a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal was free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures.
Moreover, the study found that the differences in focus corresponded to where aspiring teachers were expected to get a job after the training was complete. The instrumental focused teacher prep programs invariably trained incoming educators for low-income and high-minority schools. The reciprocal approach was preferred for teachers preparing for wealthier and whiter students.
Teachers have to help kids become their best selves. And the definition of what counts as your best self is largely defined by the student, his- or herself.
How telling that we implicitly understand this when it comes to high socioeconomic kids with lighter skin! How pathetic that we lower our sights when it comes to poor kids and children of color.
I teach mostly minority students in a low income school in Western Pennsylvania. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always fought against this prescription to see student relationships as instrumental to their outcomes.
And the results are evident in what they wrote to me.
“…now that I’m no longer in your class I’ve decided it was about time that I give you a proper thank you for all you did, putting up with me and dealing with me in class… You helped me learn how to write essays. But most important of all, for two years you made school fun for me again, which was something I thought was impossible.”
“…Everyday I was always looking forward to having your class because I knew that having your class would be thrilling. I miss having your class because you made me laugh and in return I made you laugh a couple of times.”
“…Being in your class made me enjoy learning and reading more. It was almost always something I looked forward to throughout my day. We were always learning about interesting topics and I was never bored in your class… Thank you for being the greatest teacher ever and a cool dude.”
“…I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”
“You were my favorite teacher because your class was always fun and we were always doing fun things and fun projects in your class and your class was never boring. You also taught us a lot of useful things… we’ve been using them so far this year. You were also never in a bad mood and always were positive in the morning so you always brought my energy up… I never looked forward to a morning class besides your class because I knew that we were going to do something fun.”
“…Your class was the only class that I got excited for because we always read good stories and did fun things… I also wanted to say I’m sorry for talking and disrupting the classroom when I was carrying on. I should have been paying attention to what you had to say and what you were trying to teach me.”
“You have had some pretty good accomplishments in your life if I may say so. Like your book “Gadfly on the Wall”, and I have to say it’s a pretty good book. I read some of it and I get what you’re saying.”
“…middle school was hard for me. I had difficult days with tons of IXLS piled [on from other classes] but instead of you giving them to me you actually taught me by yourself. Also we were able to joke around a lot about books and just random things in class.”
“…you taught me how to write and put punctuation in my sentences and in my paragraphs. Coming into your class in the beginning of 7th grade I didn’t know how to read that good or consistent… My vocabulary and speech increased in your class.”
“…You always had a way to make the class fun or easy. Also you always had a way to keep me on track and prepared… If I didn’t have you for 7th and 8th grade I don’t think I would be able to handle 9th grade… I’m glad to of had you for two years because I learned double the stuff and was double ready for 9th grade. I’m doing well [now] because of you…”
“I wanted to write to you because you’re honestly my favorite teacher and you kept my spirits up. I had your class for two years [7th and 8th grade]; the first year I wasn’t sure how I felt about you but overtime I realized you’re pretty cool. I loved Socratic Seminars . They were a way to voice your opinion and that’s always fun… You helped me find a few of my favorite books like “The Outsiders”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which my friends and I still mention to this day… I’m in the musical this year and… without you I don’t think I would have been able to build up the courage to try out… You made me the person I am today. You taught me to challenge things that are unfair and to treat people with respect.”
Those are just some of the highlights.
I think more than anything I could say, they prove the point.
But to put a cherry on top, I’ll add one last thing.
In my 8th grade poetry unit, we watch “Dead Poets Society.”
Last year my students threatened to reenact the ending of the film where the kids stand on their desks to honor Mr. Keating, their English teacher who taught them to think for themselves instead of being cogs in the machine.