Career Crisis #2 (of 2)

I watched Freedom Writers two weeks ago and have tried, since then, to graft several different structures to a post which has pitilessly rejected each of them.

There was the drinking game. I had the first rule:

Whenever anyone affirms the heroism, nobility, passion, or self-abnegation of the teacher, take a drink.

I quit that, however, when it became clear I’d be legally blitzed by the first reel change.

Around the same time Erin Gruwell’s staunchly disapproving father (played by Scott Glenn) at long last affirmed her career choice, I felt it would be interesting and appropriate to compare the intentions of pornography vis-à-vis those of Freedom Writers but after the final fade I felt too flattened and too earnest for anything so closely resembling glibness.

From a moviegoing perspective, Freedom Writers is merely average. It sticks resolutely to the biopic formula, constructing villains out of cardboard (a snarling department head; a racist honors teacher) and a protagonist out of porcelain, all while ladling on the hero worship. If you stripped away the relentlessly hagiographic dialogue — students worshipping teachers, teachers worshipping students, Holocaust survivors worshipping students worshipping them right back — you’d have about twenty seconds of mid-shelf rap. If I weren’t a teacher, Freedom Writers would’ve bored me.

But I am a teacher, which intensified my reaction. My screening of Freedom Writers coincided poorly with some events online the sum effect of which has left me drifting detached from my job and my colleagues, both online and off-.

At one point in the movie, as the going is just getting tough, Gruwell’s father tells her, “No matter what, you’ve got to remember, it’s just a job. If you’re not right for this one, get another job.” Swank stares back at him with the patronizing half-smile usually kept on layaway for the harmlessly insane.

Gruwell (at least as portrayed in the movie) sees her job as a calling and a mission. She sees herself as a caregiver and a friend. She rebukes the racist honors teacher, accusing him, “You don’t even like them!”

He responds stiffly (the preferred manner of cardboard villains), “What does that have to do with teaching?”

She hosts dance parties and referees self-actualizing games designed to connect students to themselves and each other. She touches a student’s face affectionately. More to the movie’s point, she commands her students to introspect, to journal, to write about anything they want.

It is my conviction that all of these caring strategies are good means (except for the affectionate touch), but none of them should be the ends of teaching. These are all good things, and the best teaching will inevitably subsume these lower levels of Maslow, but none of them should be the goal of teaching.

The fact that MTV portrays these caring strategies as Erin Gruwell’s means, end, aim, and goal, while relegating grammar, syntax, and vocabulary instruction to a one-line mention, depresses me even weeks later. Because, let’s be clear, in a culture where the consumer is king, we can only blame MTV so much for representing one over the other. This is how the movie-going public and, more to the point, how teachers want our job portrayed. MTV is merely the closest reflective surface.

I wish I could relate, I do, but I’m with Scott Glenn: this is just a job.

It’s an unromantic sentiment that’ll never find traction in a group that obsessively cultivates its image as self-sacrificing, difference-making caregivers. But if I could print any slogan on a mug to get me through an eighteen-hour day, it’d be those five words.

This is just a job.

This is just a job, which means my objective has been well-defined, though we may disagree on how best to measure it. This is just a job, which means I was hired to teach students a particular skillset.

There isn’t any romance in my objective and MTV will never make a movie about really effective phonics instruction, but there is extraordinary, enduring value in effective phonics instruction, in learning, in breaking life’s possibilities wide open for students by teaching. There it is: I have been hired to teach. Any inspiring, difference-making, role-modeling, surrogate-fathering, or dance-partying is strictly incidental.

I don’t mean to set up this false dichotomy between teaching and caring. Both happen in the same practice; both are essential. But teachers — or rather, Teachers, by which I mean my union proper, the blogosphere in general, and my co-workers in particular — have emphasized caring over teaching. Teachers continuously fail to differentiate us from well-educated au pairs, as evidenced and perpetuated by Freedom Writers’ very existence.

Again: teaching and caring (passion, if you want) are inextricably linked.

But: only one of them is difficult.

It is easy for me to greet my students warmly at the door each day, to ask after the trivial travails of their lives, to follow up on that girl who dumped you or the parents who grounded you for missing cheer practice. It is easy for me to bake cookies, cancel class, and dance.

Caring — like the kind bound up in Erin Gruwell’s dance party — is the easiest part of my job. Caring — like the laundry service Prezbo gave Duquan in The Wire — should be the least of our obsessions. Caring — sadly — is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Caring — depressingly — is how our taxpaying public sees the extent of our duties and — predictably — determines our pay and esteem.

Caring is easy. Keeping students engaged and operating at full capacity over a two-hour block is difficult. Serving every student the highly specific smoothie of success and failure — just enough success to encourage them, just enough failure to challenge them — is difficult. Making the leap from single-variable equations to two-variables without losing anybody is frighteningly difficult. (Three years and three tries and I still haven’t found the right inroad.)

All this talk about caring and the intangibles of our job — cf. Freedom Writers and nine out of ten blog posts on the state of teaching — distracts from and lowers the bar on the matters of teaching truly worth discussing, namely: how to teach.

I have found my co-workers and co-bloggers depressingly singleminded on the subject of our objectives and deeply protective of their identities as passionate caregivers. So much so that a conversation on the PR and terminology of teaching simply cannot be had, even on one of the most evenhanded blogs in the sphere.

Immediately after watching Freedom Writers, I happened upon yet another blatant misinterpretation of this position and realized that just how little I relate to my co-workers and -bloggers. I wrote there:

In my workplace and around the blogosphere, I find teachers eagerly propagating the nobility of the teacher, the tragic, underappreciated condition of the teacher, the passion of the teacher, the artistry of the teacher, and then going the extra mile to misconstrue and marginalize my outlying objection to what I perceive to be a pervasive complex of martyrdom.

Likewise above, I can count on one hand the number of educators I’ve met (in real life or around here) who believe that hard work trumps passion in this job, that the latter follows the former, that caring’s the easy part, that “passion” has become loosely defined through overuse. And even then I’d have three fingers I wouldn’t know what to do with.

More and more, I find myself approaching this job so differently from my co-workers and co-bloggers, which wouldn’t be so bad if both groups didn’t find it so easy to marginalize my entire raison d’être. It’s not you guys who need to change, though, it’s me. You all need me a helluva lot less than I need some connection to you. Just the same, I only have so much stomach for this kind of detachment. Two years worth, tops.

In the intervening days since that comment, I haven’t been able to think of a job I’d rather do than teaching. I’ll quit blogging before I quit teaching. I’ll make a lateral step to teacher education or research or — I dunno — administration, maybe, before I quit teaching. But I can no longer ignore the importance of a likeminded, likewise-driven professional corps.

I took a field trip last week to a program improvement school whose faculty has been set ablaze by data collection, benchmarks now informing and motivating some enthusiastic and effective instruction. Maybe that’s the environment for me. I only know that it’s corrosive — on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis — to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane.


Patti Smith Was Right… Don Henly, Too, I Guess,” TMAO

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Just got in, checked the reader, saw this post, didn’t want to read about Freedom Writers, realized you weren’t really writing about that, and was glad I finished reading.

    This post is a prime example of why I gave you the “thinking blogger” nomination.

    My whole thing is balance (as you’ve probably figured out by now). Usually, I’d comment about the need for it. However, I think there are more than enough people holding down the “passion/concern” side of the argument that I can just throw my weight on the “effective teaching/professionalism” side without much hesitation.

    And you are a bit insane, if sanity means conformity to the majority perception. Like you, I’m not against “the other side,” but no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough … perhaps out of a fear of losing sight of the other side, perhaps because of the perception that NCLB is a cold, consuming monster that must be kept at bay. (I’m guilty of this, too, sometimes … at least in my blogging.) Whatever the reason, it’s making us all a little crazy.

    I’m with you on this. Love the kids, but you damn well better teach them what they need to know, too.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts here, Eric, and, especially, for raising a point I really wish I could’ve found a place for: this swing from professionalism towards passion/caring correlates directly with NCLB.

    It’s a pretty facile thought exercise to imagine a world in which the government requires annual yearly self-esteem progress of every student and holds teachers accountable for instilling confidence and a sense of belonging in every child. The blogosphere would call for professionalism as loudly as they are now for passion and caring.

    We see both sides of that coin as overreactions. Like you, I’ll cop to a necessary balance. But it’s tough for me to content myself with a term like “passionate professional,” accurate though it is, when the former attribute gets so much airplay around here and discussion of the latter seems easily scribbled into the margins. Anyway, thanks for keeping discourse high on both accounts.

  3. a pervasive complex of martyrdom. Hmm, food for thought. I disagree mostly with ED Hirsch’s push for a unified curriculum, “What every child should know” etc, but his analysis of the romanticisation of teaching philosophy, the rosy glasses thru which otherwise rational people allow their vision to be distorted, I think is accurate and could usefully be read and considered by every teacher who favours “hands-on, project-based, student-centred learning”. Not that I don’t believe in those approaches; it’s just that it’s easy to get behind ideas, as Hirsch puts it, that sound good, and fail to check if they actually work or not.

    That said, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be real careful. The issue of education is one that people feel passionately about, and have deep-rooted, what I can only call ideologies about this, making reasoned debate extremely difficult and rare. I hope this blog can be one of the rare places it happens. (A great (or terrifying) example of ideologies at work is Doc: the story of Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.)

    Setting up straw men is a dishonest debating tactic, loved by ideologues and politicians – people who aim at persuasion, not revealing the truth – and the writing on education is full of this tactic, on both the liberal and conservative sides. Caring – sadly – is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Really? I know and have read many who point out the importance of the emotional state in learning, but that is only in order to promote better teaching, not as an aim in itself.

    And on which “side” should we place someone like Pissed Off (Teacher)? Does it sound like the administration and supervisors she works with care about the kids? Is she a wimp, trying to avoid responsibility and wriggle away from accountability, just because she cares about her students?

    It’s not black or white, and it’s not a 2-sided issue. It’s a lot more involved and complex than that.

    Martyrdom has an interesting younger sibling: playing the victim. From my Olympean detachment (ok, geographical distance), it seems to me the Republicans have pretty much had things all their own way in public affairs for the past 7-8 years and before that under the elder Bush and Reagan. Yet many of them play the victim, whining about how the entire US (the media, the schools, the universities, the courts (!) even) is run by rabid left-wing nutcases who make them feel intimidated and afraid or even unable to speak out freely about their conservative views. I couldn’t believe my ears when I listened to actual Republicans. Is this (mis)perception manipulated and exploited by some for political and personal gain? Is the Pope Catholic?

    (I only know that it’s corrosive – on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis – to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane…. no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough. Now that isn’t martyr talk or victim talk is it? No! Of course not.)

    Another point where one needs to tread very, very carefully, is in avoiding being conned. Cons use people, usually enthusiastic people, to further their own, hidden, agendas, not yours, and not the ones they sound like they are promoting. They are masters of rhetoric and sophistry. I worked with a guy for several years before I realized that he had approached me only so that I would give his enterprise a veneer of professionalism and solidity; he loved it when I pointed out how “our” approach was solidly supported by pedagogical theory, but he himself didn’t believe any of that shit and he couldn’t have cared less, just as long as people bought the product.

    I’m not a big fan of the “inspiring teacher” film genre. A friend once gave me Dangerous Minds to watch, but was taken aback when I told him I was more impressed with the apparent bankruptcy of a “system” that allowed such decrepit schools and dangerous environments to develop in the first place.

    (Curiously, while many of these movies depict outstanding, strong-minded individuals (would you call Louanne Johnson a wilting bleeding-heart-liberal violet?), the kind of pedagogical approach many of the protagonists use kinda goes against the “student-centred, project-based, free expression” approach many enthusiasts seem to favour.)

    Finally, here’s a quote from Tom Englehardt which kinda sums up my position on this debate. If you’re still here, thanks for reading:

    Every now and then, I go to some event — I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor — and essentially ask people why they’re there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets…
    So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect.

    (My emphasis).

    (Related comment on Borderland)

  4. I agree with Eric’s last comment… in fact, I debated not even leaving a comment, but I’ll just throw in my two cents that “care” does not have to be a “no-standards” wimpy word that is somehow diametrically opposed to professionalism. In fact, I’d argue that “care” involves working your butt off as a teacher to be the best teacher you can be, because that’s what the kids deserve and need.

    When I was a basketball coach — a part of my job that I had *no* training for, just an excitement — I used to read books, go to coaches’ clinics, watch video, etc… and another coach asked me, “Why do you do all this?”

    My answer to them, I think, speaks to the ethic of care. My answer was that my girls showed up every morning at 6:30 am every morning, and they deserved my best. I knew we’d lose games, and I knew there’d be games when we missed lay-ups and made mistakes. That’s o.k., but I never wanted the girls to lose a game because I wasn’t a good enough, prepared enough coach. It was my job to teach them the game as well and as thoroughly as I could — it was my job to care about them and their abilities, that meant being REALLY good at teaching skills.

    That’s the ethic of care. In fact, it may surprise you, but I’m terrible at remembering to bring in cookies or donuts on the holidays – always have been.

    The best parents aren’t the ones who smoke pot with their kids because, ‘Well, they were going to try it anyway.’ And they aren’t the ones who let kids think that it’s o.k. to break rules, etc… they are the ones who teach kids the lessons they need to succeed in life. Same is true for teaching.

    Nel Noddings is the educational theorist who writes most powerfully and convincingly about this. I wish I could remember the first text I read by her — it’s not like me to forget books, but I’ve been wracking my brain on it. But she’s got the goods, and she’s got a LOT of books.

    One of the reasons I talk about care and passion and such is because we have to find ways to make this teaching life *one* life. As long as we’re asked to be schizophrenic, this job stays really, really tough. When we’re able to marry our care and our professionalism — when we see the links between them and embrace them. When we see caring as part of the work we do (and that’s why we have Advisory — it’s the institutional representation of the ethic of care), and when we see care *includes* teaching hard, prepping hard, always learning, then it makes it a lot easier to reconcile the very different — and insanely hard — skills this job requires.

  5. Nothing to add here except to agree that great teaching makes it difficult to tell where the softer side ends and the sterner stuff begins. If, as a corps, we focused equally on the tangible and intangible aspects of teaching, but couldn’t bring ourselves to acknowledge the schizophrenia of our approach (good term for it), I wouldn’t be so down. From my vantage point, though, the corps has been singularly focused on the intangibles.

    Which is why my favorite teaching movie in recent memory is Coach Carter, where Sam Jackson didn’t inspire the kids to great basketball, but ran ’em, drilled ’em, and taught ’em there.

  6. Love the kids, but you damn well better teach them what they need to know, too.

    What they need to know for the test, or what they need to know for after they get out of school? Because, to take an example of something that actually involves my discipline, the kind of writing that most of these NCLB-mandated tests require (and no, NCLB doesn’t mandate the exact format of the tests, but these are the state-by-state reponses, yes, yes) is the most unrealistic kind of writing to teach. Never will students have to write a five paragraph essay in the “real world”–how many memos have a thesis statement as the last sentence of the first paragraph? How many restrict their explanations to one paragraph per idea?

    We need to make sure that we’re teaching things that students really need. And yes, that is the best way to show that we care. I’ve avoided watching Freedom Writers precisely because I believe that most of that maudlin bullshit is basically that, bullshit. What needs to happen is a conversation not about how we can make the students think that we care, but about whether we’re really teaching what the students need. And that’s a big scary conversation that we’ll probably keep avoiding, as a profession, until you (Eric), you (Dan), and I are the “old” teachers and some other young punks come on the scene.

  7. Hello, Dan,

    An interesting post, and some great comments — given that we’re living in the blogosphere, however, a couple hairs to split :)

    RE: “This is how the movie-going public and, more to the point, how teachers want our job portrayed.”
    I don’t think so. I have known too many teachers (and I have been one of them) who valued the professional aspects of doing the job well. While the viewpoint you describe holds a certain palliative allure among the non-teaching public (Teaching is a calling; the relationship brings its own rewards that we can’t sully with adequate pay; and therefore it’s okay that many teachers can’t afford to live in the communities where they teach) many teachers value the professional skills their work requires. Many lack the ability to articulate it as clearly as you, but that’s a different matter.

    RE: “It is easy for me to greet my students warmly at the door each day, to ask after the trivial travails of their lives, to follow up on that girl who dumped you or the parents who grounded you for missing cheer practice.”
    While this might be easy for you, this isn’t easy for many. For many people, caring and empathy don’t come naturally. Good teachers know their subject matter; kind people know their students; great teachers know both. Let’s face it: students will do more work when they feel some kind of connection to the material or the teacher, and for many students, the connection to the material comes *after* the connection to the instructor.



  8. Over the years of learning from and watching master teachers, I’ve come to embrace one simple truth about what they ‘have’ that most do not.

    Loving their students ‘may’ be part of it. But it is not necessary.
    Loving the subject ‘may’ be part of it. But it is not necessary.
    Being an expert at one or both ‘may’ also be part of it. But it is also not necessary.

    But what the truly master teachers showed me time and time again — especially the ones who still had a bit of a jump to their step decades into their career — was that loving kids wasn’t enough, loving your subject wasn’t enough.

    What was it?

    You had to LOVE the REAL-TIME COLLISION that occurs between LEARNER and IDEAS. And you had to use your EXPERTISE to foster that collision over and over and over again.

    If one calls that ‘caring’, I’ll raise my hand in agreement. If one calls that something else, I’ll raise my hand there instead.

    Either way, I’m a “collision guy” who happens to love kids and the topic. For what it’s worth.


  9. I think you’re right, Jeff, but neither Eric nor I are categorizing curriculum here. Both of us intentionally (I’m inferring in Eric’s case) avoid a discussion of standards since, at this point, reinforcing our passion, care, and enthusiasm seems to be a much higher priority to Teachers at large than is pedagogy, technique, and assessment. Once that pendulum shifts, then it’ll be time to a) debate how to teach (my ideal blog’sphere) and then b) what to teach.

    I can only criticize this emphasis on care over technique so much. There are large matters of preference and necessity involved here, I realize. The blog’sphere functions as an alternate, more positive, teachers lounge for a lot of people.

    However, I do find it thoroughly lamentable (and the impetus for this post) that on the occasions I’ve tried to usher the conversation in a more pragmatic direction, the resistance was, well, downright irresistible.

  10. I dig that description of the balance, Christian. A lot. But I think it’s easy, again, especially for a lot of teachers who innately love that moment and can instinctively foster it, to emphasize the passion of that balance over the professionalism.

    And maybe it’s because I’m such a grinder at this job, or maybe it’s my incessant introspection, that I keep coming back to professionalism, and the idea that anybody can work this beat — really — if they want to work at it.

    Speaking strictly from personal example, I find nothing mystical or ethereal about teaching — nothing that would preclude an intelligent undergrad with a strong work ethic from getting in, enjoying herself, and successfully fostering those moments.

    And, for their sake, for the sake of the intelligent undergrads who are deterred by this sense that something ethereal and mystical is happening in our classrooms (like I was), that I really really want to talk in pragmatic terms about how to reproduce those moments.

  11. I think it was Jacques Barzun who wrote that teaching (or education) is not a problem to be solved, but a difficulty to be faced. Calling it a problem suggests it has a solution: if we could only find the right solution, our problem (whatever it is, “achievement gap”, poor test scores, unloved students, whatever) would be solved. But it’s not like that, Barzun suggests, it’s a difficulty. Teaching involves daily difficulties that teachers must face and find creative solutions for, again and again. And they’re all different. One teacher’s creative answer may not work for another teacher, or even for the same teacher with a different group of kids.

  12. Hey Jeff … as to the “what to teach,” I do agree it is a vital question. I didn’t see it as one that fit this particular conversation, but it is big.

    I’m constantly thinking about the what/why/how questions and trying to work them out in my planning (large-scale and small-scale), but I haven’t translated that work to blog posts yet. So far, the only online version of my thinking on these questions has been on a wiki.

    Of course, my specific reply to this problem will focus on English-related stuff, so it might not interest Dan, and vice versa with his math stuff. However, I’m sure there are larger principles that we can all discuss, that supercede discipline-specific concerns.

    I think I’ve been working “top down” over on my blog … setting up some large-scale, philosophical approaches and frames, hoping that I’ll eventually start filling those in with more and more specific thoughts/approaches/ideas.

    And Dan … I’m not picking a fight, and maybe it doesn’t matter, but I’ve always kinda thought I need to know the what and why before I can find the right how. (See … that’s one of them thar “superceding” principles we might rassle with.)

    Good conversation going here.

  13. Where to start:

    Bill, your first disagreement is noted. You may well be right. Absent any comprehensive survey here, my personal record is of near constant contact with in-real-life teachers who are disinterested in the professional, reproducible aspects of teaching and infatuated with the emotional feel-good side. (Possibly, I should add, because the professionalism just comes so naturally to other teachers.) This goes double for the blog’sphere, where I feel less vulnerable on this point. I’m glad you disagree, though. It makes me hopeful that there is a similarly-focused like-minded enclave of teachers out there I can sign on with.

    Marco, I won’t disagree with a spectrum here, and I’d rather not promote a binary view of caring/professionalism, though my post doesn’t do me any favors there. It’s easy to spot the woe-is-me tone and note the irony: “heh, lookit, a martyr complaining about martyrs. Ain’t that rich.” I’ve copped to that irony elsewhere but I don’t think a post which cites the dispiriting nature of martyrdom when you don’t feel like a martyr, really qualifies the writer for your pot-calling-the-kettle-black treatment.

    The point that interests me most, both in Marco’s and in Bill’s commentary, is the professionalism of caring, an identifier that so reeks of cheap compromise we’ve gotta define it fast. Bill does the job for me, “Students will do more work when they feel some kind of connection to the material or the teacher”

    Maybe it’ll sound monstrous (or completely unsurprising) but I don’t … er, I didn’t … like the students I taught. When I first taught. I figured it didn’t really matter if I was sharp, cynical, intimidated, and a bit alienating, but clearly I was wrong. So I started paying attention to the technique of caring, like waiting by the door, like asking personal questions in a friendly noninvasive way. It was wholly fake. I’m not expecting anything but disdain for this, but I cared strictly so that we could get down to business.

    In the intervening years, my misanthropy has dulled quite a bit, but I haven’t lost touch with the fact that it was through professional, reproducible steps, that I pulled 150 kids (more or less) back into my teaching locus.

    I think those conversations are great and would do our PR a huge service by discussing caring in less gauzy, intangible terms. My point has always been that the blog’sphere ably promotes this gauzy, intangible feel-goodery but is a dry seed bed for discussion of the professionalism.

    Finally, Eric, in the specific, you’re right. Any discussion of the best practices for the five-paragraph essay format would probably wait in line until we sort out whether we should teach it. Closer to my intention, though, is the universality of teaching. Class management techniques, graphic organizers, tech uses, parent relationships, and so forth. I would hate to miss the forest for the trees, debating the merits of this or that standards when there is so much to be said on the matter of how to teach anything. Perhaps you’d still disagree with that, but at least that’s a better representation of my intentions.

  14. Hello, Dan,

    First off, man, I love this thread. Christian’s comment on the collision moment is a great description of how magic happens in the classroom.

    RE “the professionalism of caring” — two other quotations from films come to mind — first, from “Wall Street”: “Greed works.”

    Second, from “Say Anything”: “Sincerity? I can fake that.”

    In the classroom, looked at cynically, caring works. Aping the motions of caring (assuming of course that the other intangibles are in place, such as safe mechanisms to get help when confused, etc) helps create a more effective classroom environment (and yes, I’m aware of the hugely subjective nature of the terms “safe” and “effective”). Toward that end, sincerity — whether real or contrived — helps create the appearance of caring.

    But isn’t this making it all a little bit too complex? Why can’t we care (as Christian defined it), be rigorous in our expectations towards students and colleagues, and value the professionalism of our work? These values are not mutually exclusive or binary.

    RE: fading “misanthropy” — Dan — never give up the ship :) jk — in all seriousness, though, putting in the time to “learn” how the “technique” of caring sounds like caring, plain and simple.

    Thanks again for this great thread —



  15. Two shots:

    1) I never have “tried” to care. This is going to sound a bit cheap, perhaps, but it’s true: I’ve always just thought of my students as people with whom I have to accomplish some tasks. My students tend to think of me differently than other teachers, too (so they tell me).

    This was brought home again today. A student was hanging out after school, just talking about whatever, mentioned another teacher, then said, “she’s probably the best teacher I’ve had so far.” Then the student looked at me, put on a weird face, and said, “Oh, except for you, but you don’t count.” Obviously, I asked what that meant. Answer: “I don’t think of you as a teacher. You’re just … Mr. Hoefler. That guy that taught me all that stuff last year … I don’t know.”

    Now that’s weird, right? This is not an isolated event. My theory on this is that I’m not at all interested in or invested in the power/position play between teacher and student. I just don’t care about that. I’ve been teaching eight years and have yet to write a referral. On the other hand, I’ve never had any need to. I just don’t think I play the teacher/education game the way most others in my school seem to. (That’s not meant to be derogatory at all.)

    And it’s not because I don’t work my students hard. I consistently hear the “word on the street” is that my class is tough, the assignments are “a lot of work,” but that you do “learn stuff.”

    I’m not saying my approach is better, and I’m definitely not recommending it (because I’m not even sure I could define this aspect of it). But I do think it’s got something to do with power.

    Is that off topic, or does that extend the discussion?

    2) Dan–to your last comment to me: I don’t know that I’d still disagree without hearing more and then thinking more. I think I’d like to write a post up about these ideas, but can’t right away. I do think it’s worth thinking through carefully, though. Maybe you’ll beat me to it.

  16. That’s some scary-good teaching there, Eric. The Caring School of Thought says that you just have a huge reservoir of passion for your students that has ably supplied your class relationship for eight years. “If only we all cared as much as you do, we’d all have such a time in our classes.”

    But I feel frustrated by the laziness of that inquiry as, I’m sure, does anyone who cares as much as you do but hasn’t seen anywhere near the same results. I would tell anyone thinking about teaching that your affinity for your kids is an incalculable boon to your instruction, but by no means does it disqualify anyone who doesn’t instinctively forge those connections with students.

    Because you can work at it. And, if we intensified our line of inquiry here, I’m sure we could pull a dozen techniques you instinctively use to produce a great classroom environment that anyone could have if only they worked at it. However, the current line of inquiry doesn’t produce conversations like those.

  17. Fruitful conversation here, I feel. Thanks, Dan, for your long response to Bill and me. I’m sure there are many, many teachers who feel as you do, and you need to teach the way you are, not try to be something else. In the same way, I’m sure not all kids need a friendly care-giver, at least not all the time.

    I think Eric raises an excellent point, about power, suggesting that a hidden, subconscious, agenda of the “care-givers” (by that I mean the ones who loudly proclaim the overarching importance of this emotion, not the ones who quietly go about it) may be one of asserting and maintaining power and control over their charges. (Which is not to say that caring always has a hidden agenda, of course not; but human beings are complex creatures and there’s always lots going on that we are simply unaware of.) This reminded me of an insight of Teaching in the 408 wrote (and I came across it earlier in Lisa Delpit’s writing), the hidden paternalism that may lie behind some “innocent” caring.

    The divide that you feel (and despite the dangers of binarism, I admit there DO seem to be 2 camps) reminds me of cultural differences. Being a Brit married to a Japanese, and having lived in worked in a number of non-English-speaking countries, I’ve learned that to bridge the culture gap you need more and more explicit communication, because so much (values, knowledge, history, etc) is not shared. It’s a drag, takes time and effort, but is necessary if one wants to bridge the gap.

    When I was in teacher training, my supervisor pointed out my facility for creating a good rapport with students, but warned there is a flip-side to that and you have to be careful not sacrifice a good relationship for challenging students. I never forgot the lesson.

    In grammar school (high school) I had a biology teacher everyone hated: he was tough, rarely smiled except sarcastically, gave frequent tests, tons of homework, and frequently told us “You’re all going to fail!” Yet most students successfully passed the Biology O-Level, and his success rate was second to none. So personal experience tells me you don’t have to be a caring-sharing heart to get good results.

    On the other hand, sarcastic tyrants aren’t the only ones who get good results.

    A few years ago, I had a class of dead-beats: they slouched in, responded minimally, never did assignments, slumped over their desks. Around the 3rd class or so, I gave them all some busy work and interviewed some of them one-to-one. The difference was surprising: many perked up, came alive, talked willingly, even eagerly. It didn’t carry over: when I talked to the class, they switched off. The lesson I learned – some of these kids need to feel the teacher’s interest in them personally or they ain’t gonna do nothing. It’s not a conscious strategy on their part, more like a law of nature.

    Politicizing the issue, reducing it to slogans (“the problem is too many liberal teachers!”) exacerbates the difficulty, and precludes us learning from others.

  18. Dan,

    Just wanted to throw my agreement in here that there are most definitely techniques to caring. It can be taught, and it can be learned.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Acting like you care long enough, as you found, can make you care.

    By the way, one of the tricks of care that I was taught in grad school that I used to use in my teaching was this — if you really want to get through to a student, take five minutes during your prep period and go find them in another class and pull them out to tell them the message you need them to hear. (Don’t take more than five minutes, or you’ll annoy your colleague.) But students really are blown away when a teacher takes the time to find out where they are and then seeks them out.

  19. Dan,

    Some wise comments here. Your job is to teach math to young human beings. Some of your charges need more care and feeding than others. We could certainly have a productive conversation here about ways to reach out to kids who need more of that intangible caring thing than others (techniques for caring, as Chris notes) and “how to produce a great classroom environment that anyone could have…” My question: do you really want to have that discussion or–despite your claim to the contrary-are you more interested in stoking this notion of two camps: the competent professional versus the passionate caregiver?

    I really haven’t read anything here from folks who are “singleminded” on the issue of “caring over teaching.” Although I am a math dunderhead, I have enjoyed reading your lesson plans and accompanying comments. Seems to me you’ve got blog fans who do indeed relish a productive conversation about “how to teach.” And don’t despair if that conversation sometimes strays into the caring realm…I seem to remember a post of yours about five for the weekend (correct?). Great idea. Building rapport to teach more effectively? Hmmm…. could also be construed as caring (certainly the kids might mistake it for something like that).

    Finally, if you’re still reeling from “Freedom Writers,” (I’m certainly skipping it) go rent yourself “The Substitute.” Now that’s a caring professional!

  20. Lori, thanks for de-lurking. I realize my track record doesn’t do me any favors here, but I’m not at all trying to increase the divide. This funk I’m in is a genuine reaction to what I perceive to be the general State of Things, though, understandably, not the state of things around here.

    You point out the Five for the Weekend feature as some sort of chink in my armor o’ professionalism, but that, to me, is an example of the professionalism of caring. It’s a reproducible measure that any teacher could implement. There’s nothing mystical or aerie about it.

    And the more I reiterate my point the more I worry my intention seems to be to fully stifle those who want to write about their personal, philosophical, spiritual, and intangible reasons for teaching. Which, I’m not. I’m just feeling deflated by the generally meager turn-out of professionalism in real life and around here.

    I mean, you wouldn’t believe how peppy I get when I read even a small paragraph like Chris’ above, where I’m offered a new arrow for my quiver, a new technique to inform my profession, not a new emotional plea to inform my ethos.

    For whatever it’s worth to you and others, this thread has picked me up quite a bit.

  21. Lori Jablonski

    March 1, 2007 - 7:38 am -

    Five for the weekend a chink in the armor? Oh my NO! I cited for the reason you state: an example of your professionalism…a professionalism that incorporates caring and a recognition that your charges are indeed young human beings. (Could this similar to bedside manner for doctors?) It is also a technique of professionalism that can be taught, just like Chris’ example. For whatever it’s worth, you offered me “a new arrow for my quiver.” And boy do I share your concern about a slackening of professionalism and competence in real life…in fact, plain old competence is one the qualities I most admire in anyone. It’s what I strive to maintain each day.

    Hope the day and kids are good to you.
    I’m off to class.


  22. Dan-
    I read 5-6 blogs per day (including jd2718, Myrtle, mrc, joannejacobs and Dy/Dan). They are all worthy of the Thinking Blogger Award, however, after reading your main post and all of these comments that your ideas have provoked, I would like to nominate you for Blog of the Year. This and 75 cents won’t get you a bagel, but after the recognition by Joanne Jacobs, it is clear that many recognize how talented a writer and how creative thinker you are. You are able to articulate ideas that many educators could not begin to bring to the written page and perhaps you are teaching all of us in the purest sense of what teaching is: Creating disequilibrium…
    Even though i appear to be only interested in the math Problem of the Day and a national math curriculum, you have reminded me what i really care about most is what happens in my classroom every day. I do care about each of my students and they seem to know that even when their behavior is outrageous and even when I tell them I love them enough to say NO to their petulant whinings and even when I push them to work for 40 minutes every day. I fail, I succeed, I never give up and after 35 years I still care deeply about each of my students as human beings. Some really smart people have reminded me that I teach kids, not math. However, I’d like to believe I do both. I can’t make every class magical but I never stop trying to chase that magic…

  23. Dan (and others),

    I am also “in a funk” at the moment. Funny how your words, Dan, are the same words that just came out of my mouth when speaking to a supportive colleague of mine. Although, I guess it’s not too surprising since I relate to so much of what you write.

    So my question for you and others: What do you do when you feel you’re in the minority? When those around you don’t understand the types of thinking kids are capable of? When those around you seem to be able to name all the ways to show a kid you care, but can’t get those same kids inspired to be active learners because they just shove a fill-in-the-blank worksheet at them? When those around you constantly come back at you with, “That’s not possible.”?

    I also have been thinking about other careers lately. I’m just tired of thinking about education and what it should be. I’m tired of seeing and knowing what works and then hearing others say it doesn’t. I’m tired of comments like, “Oh, that’s right, you’re doing that ‘non-traditional’ grading thing.” Said with a look of I-don’t-understand-why-you-would-do-that. I’m tired of being asked to lead professional development with teachers who hear the message, see examples from my classroom that actually worked and then say, “You must have the smart kids. My students couldn’t handle that.”

    And another philosophical question I’ve been pondering: Are there some conceptual thinkers in our world who can see possibilities and can find ways to make those possibilities happen in a logical, effective way? And then there are some who just don’t see things that way? And if so, will we ever be able to convince those “non-seers” that the possibilities exist and they can be reached?

    Would it just be better to leave the profession instead of feeling so isolated? The thing is I love the creativity and challenge of finding ways to make sure that child “gets it”. I like teaching. And I’m good at it. But I’m not happy feeling so different than my peers. I want to be surrounded by people who get it. But would I find that anywhere I go? And where would I go?

    So I guess I’m just wondering if there others out there feeling the same way. That whole “it’s comforting to know you’re not alone” thing.

  24. How many times I have said, “We should just start a school of our own”!

    And the first question any potential faculty will have to answer is, “Tell me what you REALLY believe about kids and learning and thinking. Don’t repeat jargon. Don’t regurgitate what you learned in your education classes. Deep down, what do you truly believe about teaching and learning and the capabilties of young people?” And then I’d ask them to design a lesson and assessment that proves they believe what they just said.

    Thanks. Feeling better already. There are others who get it. :)

  25. Dave, next time I’m accused of rabblerousing, I’m gonna parry with “creating disequilibrium.” Thanks for that, and for the rest of your comment. Anytime I try to shoehorn veteran teachers somewhere, you go and complicate things with your vitality & self-reflection.

    Mindy, I feel convinced that this is a strange time to be young and to teach. Perhaps it’s always been that way in every job and I’m too self-obsessed to notice but there is something profoundly weird (and unique to teaching) about kids six years my junior calling me “Mr. Meyer” while I turn around and call people older than my parents by their first names. The gap feels extremely pronounced at the moment, with veteran teachers so assured in their instruction (deservedly so, in many cases) and younger teachers so frustrated by their (the veteran teachers’) inflexibility.

    I feel it, like you, and at the moment I’m trying to determine my threshold: how much professional alienation am I willing to cover before moving along?

    Here, seeing some light at the end of these career crises, I know my answer is: a lot. I wouldn’t think to speak for you except you say, “I’m good at [teaching],” which is a strange sort of curse, I think. Teachers who know they’ve got a natural and studied facility for this very tricky job won’t find a lot of happiness outside of education, I don’t believe. You’ve tasted the crack. What can you do about that?

    So let’s you and me and anyone else who wants in on this right here agree to a moratorium on drastic measures, on ultimatums. Let’s stay put realizing that this is a strange time to be young and to teach. Let’s stay and commit to excellence in one particular regard:

    Let’s become better teachers of teachers.

    I’m pretty sure that requires a separate credential, but there is a lot we can discuss here.

  26. dan–
    i keep forgetting that much of what’s going on here is the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of young, vital, passionate, idealistic teachers who are going through that period of questioning and self-doubt. Teachers like yourself and Mindy who have moments of blissful joy and epiphanies in the classroom followed by periods of derpession when you feel like you’re just not getting through to your own colleagues, never mind your students. When you wonder if you’ve made the right career choice. YOU HAVE! You see, I feel that that way too and I’m 2.x times older! Do you want to guess what I hear from so many veteran teachers who choose to retire at 55-60? Dave, I still love the kids, I still love the rush i get from the classroom — I just can’t deal with everything else that is being mandated and foisted on me that prevents me from doing my job! Sound familar? When I get down, I know I need to reenergize, walk away for a while, vent to like-minded people, blog (!), and get some sleep. Sleep deprivation not only affects our students, Dan! (Duh, I’m writing this before 5 AM so I shouldn’t talk!).
    Now I have to share some reflections of my 18 yr old, a senior in high school. She doesn’t speak for anyone but herself but she is absolutely clear in her beliefs and I respect her opinions more than most. When I raised your concerns about the relative importance of ‘caring’ and some of your comments, here was her reply (I’m paraphrasing): “First of all, you can’t use some movie as an example of teachers who connect with kids. Having dance parties and getting that close is absurd. But, here’s how it is for me. If I don’t feel the teacher cares about me, I will not care about him or the course. I will still do the work and get the grade, I just won’t give a ****. I won’t open my mouth in class, I won’t get involved at all. That’s me. It is very important for me to feel comfortable in the class, to be able to joke around and talk freely. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect that teacher. I means that he respects me enough to allow this. He doesn’t put me down. I want to come to that class. I thought you knew that, Dad, but if you don’t understand that, then there’s nothing I can say to explain it…

    Dan, I’m not suggesting all students feel this way but, from some of the other insightful comments above, SOME STUDENTS ABSOLUTELY FEEL THIS WAY! No need to analyze why, just is…

  27. So let’s you and me and anyone else who wants in on this right here agree to a moratorium on drastic measures, on ultimatums. Let’s stay put realizing that this is a strange time to be young and to teach. Let’s stay and commit to excellence in one particular regard:

    Let’s become better teachers of teachers.

    This makes me uncomfortable, but in the good way, the way that makes me want to stay up all night worrying about it. In a good way.

    I’m totally in. No idea how, but I’m in. I feel as though it’s important to find a cadre of like-minded people at your own school, people who can work together and support each other in teaching the right way, whatever that might mean, but I’m also definitely of the belief that we can use online space to form trans- or internation cadres. Hell, we could be a bloc. Or a movement. Or fired.

  28. Upon revisiting that call to action and feeling a little weird about it, I should add what I hope was already tacit: “only if we’ve got something worth teaching.”

    Which isn’t a given. It’s just that when we do have something valuable, it’s clutch that we’re able to achieve that tricky mix of academic salesmanship. Having been the new teacher pitching something totally foreign to a group of older colleagues, I’m painfully aware that sometimes the ideas are the last element that our audience evaluates, long after the pitch itself has either repelled or attracted them.

    Which is kind of scary, right?

  29. Hey Dan, spit out that thesaurus you swallowed.

    I would have loved this post, if I didn’t have to interrupt my reading every other line to look up one of those 25-cent words you sprinkle on your prose, like a salt-lover overdoing it on popcorn.

    “self-abnegation?” “hagiographic?”

    Are you kidding?

    It all makes you appear a bit erudite (how’ya like that one?).

    I must admit, though, I do love “visa-a-vis.”

  30. I guess I don’t understand the cynicism. Erin Gruwell made kids’ lives better. Why not just leave it at that?