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What the hell are we doing here?

There’s a bit of a stir about Natalie Munroe’s blog. (Sure, it’s been deleted, but the cache lives on).

For all the handwringing about how a teacher could say that about a student, that’s not what concerns me. I’ve heard similar in every faculty lunchroom I’ve been in. I’ve heard the same sorts of justifications for ineffective teaching bandied about at union meetings every time the topic of teacher evaluations comes up. She certainly gets enough commiseration in the comments (of her earlier posts, at least). And I wonder if these people all have completely different job descriptions than I do.

I watch the news (well, not all that much really). Or I read articles. Or I see other popular media opinions about teaching (coughWFScough). And they seem just as alien to what I do in a classroom every day. I don’t even know where to start a dialog, because the presumptions about what teaching is are either based on fantasy, or ideas out of the middle ages.

I see teachers fresh out of their credential classes going nuts because they don’t even have the basic tools to do their job, and have been thrown off the deep end to learn to swim. They’re at the “Is there a worksheet for this I can use?” stage. I know they want to be at the “I know all the different misconceptions a student can get while learning this, and have a store of problems in my head that will illuminate those fallacies without actually doing any of the explaining myself” stage, but I’m sure I can’t show them how to get there. After having had a whole load of professors and coaches whose alleged purpose was to facilitate that, I don’t think anyone else has a surefire way of doing it either.

And on the flip side of the spectrum, I can walk into three different teachers’ classrooms, who are by both subjective and objective measures better than I am, and see a range of styles that you couldn’t blend with a Blendtec. That’s nice, but I’m at a loss to describe to someone who doesn’t do this job what it is that makes them effective, and those other teachers not so much.

How can I feel so clueless?

How can people who know nothing at all be so sure?[1]

I’ve had this growing feeling for a while now that whatever professionalism there is in this job is a sham, and it’s just turned into another resource to be mined and discarded, like the mortgage market was, or the energy market before that.

The only bright spot in my mind in all of this is that I feel none of this cynicism when I’m in the room with my kids. Then it’s just me and them against the world, and every day we get just a little bit closer to kicking its ass. But as soon as they leave, the suspicion that I’m just a cog in a big giant sham creeps back in.

1 I keep meaning to do a post about this paper. It’s informed my teaching and my life on a number of different levels, so much so that I keep getting hung up because I can’t do it justice. Read it yourself, maybe it’ll hit your head like it did mine.

{ 8 } Comments

  1. Pat Ballew | February 10, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Nice Job… How strangely alike and yet different (I hope) her story is from a recent blog of mine .

    I don’t think teachers who make jokes about the despair and frustration they find themselves in are very different from other professionals… doctors who joke about death to ease the pain of losing a patient for instance.

    You nicely point out how hard it is to recognize that evasive quality that engages students in real learning as opposed to the very similar looking activities in the classroom next door where very little is actually learned. The strange part is that both of them will be evaluated far too often by an administrator who was not as good as either of them in the classroom.

    So I’m not sure the lady was a bad teacher…more likely a caring one who was frustrated by behaviors of her students that she saw as self destructive… this is not the action of somebody who couldn’t care less if they learn or not…. some folks have to “rage against the dying of the light”.

  2. Sue VanHattum | February 11, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    From the blog: “The first semester of this school year, when I had a parade of whiny, entitled kids run to the guidance department to tell on me for giving them the low grades they earned on their shoddy papers, sort of scarred me.”

    I see that she was in Bucks County, one of the richest counties in the nation, I think.

    I think teachers are between a rock and a hard place, being pushed to teach to the tests, when reaching kids is based on sometimes opposite approaches. (In the post I read, she described how she was teaching them to write papers – papers that had all sorts of rules. That sure wouldn’t inspire me to write my best stuff. But maybe she was required to teach that…)

  3. Paul Hawking | February 11, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. You gave me much to think about and reading it inspired a blog post that just got wrote. Don’t know if it’s proper netiquette, or appropriate for any “author” to recommend his/her own work, but here’s the link regardless:

    http://challenge-of-teaching-math.blogspot.com/2011/02/waiting-for-green-lantern.html

  4. Dan | February 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciated the pointer to the article “Unskilled and Unaware of it” – a great read.

    Why does everybody think they know how everything about teaching (except for those who’ve actually tried it)? Because everybody’s been to school: “in order for the incompetent to overestimate themselves, they must satisfy a minimal threshold of knowledge, theory, or experience that suggests to themselves that they can generate correct answers.” Or, as Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Criticism:

    A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
    There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.

    It sounds like your deep draughts are keeping you sober.

  5. cheesemonkeysf | February 13, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    The thing that really struck me was the contempt she expressed for her students. Over and over, she talked about how much she loathed them — and felt a deep rage and despair about her situation.

    It’s sad that she blogged these feelings instead of seeking out support or a change in her situation. Staying stuck where you are miserable is never a good idea.

    That article “Unskilled and Unaware of It” is a huge gift. Thank you for pointing me to it.

  6. Mr. K | February 16, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I think the gist of this goes back to my review of Teach Like a Champion: For all of the words written about teaching, we really don’t even have the language to discuss what it takes to do it well, much less convey that information to others who might want to do that.

    Every thing I see in blogs or in the media reinforces that.

  7. Booker | February 16, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    “it’s just me and them against the world, and every day we get just a little bit closer to kicking its ass.”

    And how does any of that spirit get built into the larger environment where the class takes place? Administrators don’t see it, nor do parents or even fellow teachers (who are ideally busy ganging up along with their students to kick the world’s ass). The criteria for success differ completely within the classroom, in the teacher’s lounge, during interactions with school administration, and during school board budget sessions. Dunning-Kruger seems mostly a matter of perspective to view what goes on in a larger context, but each level seems invisible to the other.

  8. Amy Zimmer | February 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Hello Mr. K,

    I’ve just discovered your blog. As a 25 year veteran…yup, I have been teaching Math 2 years longer than my Beginning Teacher has been alive,
    everything you say is dead-on. Yet, more these days than ever before, I feel like I am kicking my student’s asses. I have 6 (6!) Juniors in Algebra 1. Not a one of them is doing well. They are smart enough…but they are so DUMB about school. Or is it their parents that are dumb about school? The list of S**T my 16 year old got for her C- in chemistry (regular, not honors) made my students wince. Why, because she has access to help, support, and has big dreams. It is my and my husband’s responsibility to ask her about those goals and plans and keep her on track. You know what she said the next morning, “Thank you, and I love you.” (wince, I mean NO FACEBOOK or texting until her grade goes up…mean). The thing is, I am doing more parenting these days than teaching. I am a good parent, a really good parent…I am not so certain about being a good teacher….I will read the article link. What is keeping me going these days is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.
    Warm Regards, Amy in Nor Cal