New Link: Teaching in the 408

In his New Year’s round-up of the best education blogs, Jay Matthews wrote of Teaching in the 408, “The writing about his coaching experiences is particularly good, and honest.” Matthews would later write of his May trip to the Louvre, “The auto-flush toilets are particularly impressive, and quiet.”

Whether Matthews or this noob blogger will drive more traffic to TMAO’s classroom blog isn’t up for debate. He deserves every page view, I’m positive, and for that I’m grateful to Jay, even though his is the very definition of faint praise.

Personally, I can’t decide if TMAO is a better teacher or blogger. The off-contract hours he logs with Saturday academies, coaching, grading, and planning, all of which have empowered the populations of San Jose, CA, most desperate for empowering, certainly merit a World’s Greatest Teacher mug. Or a Starbucks gift card, failing that.

But there’s an obese body of evidence to suggest that great teachers don’t guarantee great bloggers. There’s a wide separation between reportage and narrative, transcript and dialogue and TMAO positions himself on the best side of both.

Apart from some really great classroom blogging — funny, edifying stuff — TMAO is also singlehandedly creating the mythology of the young, new teacher. And before you sneer at that assertion or, particularly, at the assertion that us young, new teachers need a mythology — a John Henry-type for novice educators — check your age.

Check your age and then check how all the teachers nearabout your age are just about done. Then note all of us noobs entering the profession, banging our heads against the whiteboards, exiting the profession just as ceremoniously two years later, all the while leaving a legacy of failed students and sustaining the market for long-term subs. And then tell me that new teachers don’t need some larger-than-life icon to keep us all together.

I may have buried the lede but if you’re still with me then here: TMAO is that icon.

TMAO is ruthless and unsparing in his criticism of mediocre teachers and of himself. He hurls lightning bolts at those who claim the responsibility for student success lies at least halfway on the student and then claims no less than 98% of that responsibility for himself. He rejects the achievement gap in favor of what he rightly perceives to be the real crisis, the teacher gap, the difference between the effective and ineffective ones among us.

So many new teachers jump into this fray with a desire to “make a difference,” and a fetish for “that moment, y’know, when the lightbulb clicks on over their heads and they get it.”

This kind of sloganeering (which TMAO dubs “the glorious teacher-martyr“) is poisoning new teaching recruits. In fact, teaching’s PR department is having a serious message issue right now.  We need to push TMAO’s beer-swilling black-eyed mug onto posters pronto and tell undergrads that this is what good teachers look like.

Because if there’s any worthwhile theme to be found at Room D2, it’s that in the places where teachers are needed most, there are no lightbulbs. There are no Differences to be made. There are only these embers, a small pile of embers that just keep flickering closer to extinction, and all you’ve got is this tiny bellows, puff, puff, puff, to keep it all going, and if any of it’s going to work out it won’t be because you really wanted to make a Difference. It’ll be because you worked hard and kept working harder.

The message of his blog isn’t glamorous or exciting — not in the immediate sense, anyway. Some ed-bloggers have rebuked his message as “too real,” but damn if that doesn’t make it more essential to teaching. Time and again, TMAO demonstrates that only by digging in and scraping hard at the lowercase-d differences — like maintaining an accurate ledger of your strengths and weaknesses, like complaining less and protesting more, like demanding accountability for yourself and your colleagues, like caring (but not the patronizing, functionally-useless kind) — will we enact the uppercase-D Differences that appeal to us idealistic young noobs.

Reading and re-reading TMAO’s posts has been the highlight of my 2006 school year to date. I’d call him the Mike D’Angelo of classroom blogging but that reference would be lost on all but one sporadic reader. So for now, I’ll let it suffice to post his link twice in the sidebar and put the word out that Teaching in the 408 is without question the best classroom blog on the Internet. That still might be faint praise.

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. Nice opening paragraph. I appreciate that kind of deconstruction of language and I love the 2 sentences from Matthews you picked. Good eye. TMAO’s blog is good and deserves better praise than what Matthews spewed out. Even though I disagree with him from time to time, as I do with you Dan, he brings up issues that teachers need to think about. Disagreement forces one to consider why the disagreement is there. And here’s where mine begins:

    As hard as you try, you can’t be at top performance 100% of the time. Strive for perfection, yes, but also acknowledge that it’s not possible. Don’t be happy about that fact, but accept that fact. To be happy about that fact is to be a lazy teacher who needs to find a new job. To accept that fact is to learn from mistakes and try to improve.

    The notion that students are only responsible for a small percentage of their success is absurd, at least at the high school level. Students are responsible for their success to a large degree and to think they aren’t makes them victims. My students are not victims and I don’t have complete power over their English development. I exert a strong influence, to be sure, but I’m not the beginning and end of that development. The student is.

    And I want that. Not because I am lazy and not because it absolves me of anything (I have a back full of blame for some of my students’ failings). But because I want students leaving my classroom with the power to make up their own minds, pursue their own interests, and realize their educational fate is firmly in their hands, not some teacher’s. Otherwise, students forever feel like whether or not they get something from the class is luck of the draw, depending on which teacher they are assigned. That’s a horrible feeling and I want students to have more power over their lives than that. And I believe that they do.

  2. First off, TMAO is absolutely that icon for me too.

    I see Todd’s point, and I think it’s definitely important that we make sure students understand that they are responsible for their own learning. We need to teach them how to do that. We need to make sure we don’t let them off the hook. It’s our job.

    What I like about TMAO’s approach is that it keeps us from ever, ever using that as an excuse. I think it’s human nature to look for reasons outside of yourself when things are bad. And so to the extent that we can handle it, TMAO is telling us to look back inside and see what more we can do. And it’s not idle talk: he sets an example. That’s keeping it real.

  3. I could construct an interesting Venn diagram between Todd and TMAO, I think.

    In the middle, they both want kids to learn; they both believe that kids have to want to learn. I think they both want students to be autonomous people, responsible for the decision, “Alright, I’m going to learn this.”

    The difference is that TMAO dines regularly on a meal that Todd finds somewhat repulsive. At its strongest, teaching is an extremely manipulative art. Inferring broadly here, TMAO would never take away a student’s right to choose ignorance, nor can he blame himself when his students ultimately seize that option.

    But he knows that at his best, he can manipulate them to want to reject ignorance and choose learning.

    Once a teacher has the class management steady, has the curriculum and methodology pat, from the perspective of this 3-yo teacher, the manipulation is the last hard thing.

    And TMAO does it. Sure he makes the big speeches but he’s also got an enormous quiver with tactics going all the way up the spectrum from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive, from quiet to loud, and small to nuclear.

    His kids cram three years of literacy into one for him. They give themselves over to state testing for him. They do these things for him but think they made the autonomous choice to do these things for themselves. I think that until one gets a taste of that kind of crack, 98% is just going to seem like inglorious martyrdom.

  4. That might be just about right. Overall, I see teaching as far more than manipulation. That’s a small piece of how we do what we do, as far as I’m concerned (though, Dan, I pointed out that business card I show the kids to make my point about the importance of grammar and syntax; I consider that fairly manipulative).

    But it makes sense to mark that as the trouble I have with much of what I disagree with on both this blog and TMAO’s. Other stuff, I’m there with. But when we start discussing ways to encourage students to do well and blaming the teacher for not getting the kids on board because s/he didn’t sell the kids on it effectively, that’s where I diverge. I wonder if it’s the student population, subject area (TMAO is working with ELLs, whereas I have mainstream juniors and seniors), colleagues. We’re all pretty close in terms of intentions, it’s the fine details that vary. But you know, that’s probably a good thing for all of our kids to experience that kind of variety. Surely the best way to teach lies somewhere in the middle.

  5. And mrc, I agree with you about the importance to look in the mirror to find the problem. That is a huge part of what I like about TMAO’s stance. There’s always something I can do to improve and if I’m content with my students’ failures because I believe they aren’t my fault, that’s a problem. So, if it takes me owning a larger part of the responsibility than is reasonable in order to do that kind of self examination, I should do it. Trouble is, I do that kind of self examination when my kids are successful, let alone when they fail. So reading about the kinds of percentages here seems crazy because I’m already beating myself over the head. 98% seems hyperbolic; 98% seems unrealistic; 98% seems like martyrdom; 98% means there’s nothing else in life but your job. All of those things are what’s killing teachers in such short order. We need to be realistic, not masochistic. But we also need to bust our asses to improve despite a system that encourages us not doing so.

  6. I’ll guess I’ll have to check out this TMAO if he’s really up there with the man who viewed too much. Glad to see your sight’s getting some play. Keep it up.

  7. Dan,

    Thanks for this. I don’t know so much about that “icon” stuff, but you got Matthews good. I found out the blog made his list, and then I read it and it was like “coaching?” You liked the coaching stuff? Man oh man.


    Part of where I’m coming from is this: No one told me learning (or not) boiled down to my own personal choice. No one in my affluent upbringing full of distinguished public schools ever communicated that message to me. And yet, I hear it constantly communicated today, constantly reinforced and (terribly) moreso in low-income communities. Since when do kids get a choice? Of coure there’s the old saw about leading a horse to water, but we don’t need to tell the horse that every damn day, do we?

  8. Sorry, man. This isn’t some caucus where you can reject the nomination. You’re seven eighths of the way there, anyway. The last eighth is the posters, which I’m working on. You’ve just gotta keep writing.

  9. No one told you so we shouldn’t tell our students? No one told you so it isn’t true? Sincerely, I’m not sure where you’re going.

    Just because you hear it too much doesn’t make it any less true. No, we don’t need to tell them that every damn day, unless they simply don’t believe it. Then I think it bears repeating. Also, it’s not a shameful thing that they make their own choices. On the contrary, I celebrate that fact and don’t see it as a negative thing to say so often.

    Kids have always had a choice. I think it’s a large part of our job to lead students where they want to go and give them lessons that we know are useful (and, quite frankly, are employed to give them) by means of what they think is interesting.