Preparing for this final essay has involved far more thought and examination than is perhaps necessary. Teaching well or attempting to, requires a mindset and specific world view depending upon the type of person involved; i.e. what one is truly trying to convey. Many times a teacher gets caught up in the concept of mere dissemination of facts and methodologies; while others are more concerned with what I term a holistic approach: to crack the intellectual doors that open into a wider understanding and the tremendous possibilities that our world holds. Teaching not just what, but how one is to grapple with established ideas; integrating them into a conceptual context that brings a new mind into the present culture. Getting students to realize that there are certain foundations of knowledge that will be critical, readily accessible, and trusted- providing a firm sub-floor that can be built upon in the future.
For example: I have a very bright young girl in science class who has a goal of becoming a successful beautician. She did not understand the need for all the “dry science” as she termed it. So how does one integrate this subject into her world view as a valuable resource? There are ways to arouse her consciousness, opening an important gateway for a more fulfilling life. The first task here is to make it as “real” as possible- which I call “tricking” them, and it goes (went) like this:
“Okay- you are working in your beauty Salon, and doing great work. One day a super handsome young man walks in; the man of your present dreams. He mentions that he is a petroleum engineer, and needs to get ready for a big meeting on a project he is heading. He is smart and kind, and eligible. Wouldn’t it be nice that you had at least some remote idea about what he does? How it relates to the world, in order for you to engage in conversation that will showcase that you are not your average everyday beautician; but in fact the bright, curious and discerning young woman you actually are? What else are you going to talk about- hair products? Topical subjects are fine; but they will not get you into his head and let him know what an intelligent discriminating woman you truly are.” I finished by laying out several possible outcomes of this scenario, where she would be able to use knowledge drawn from her past secondary education in order to make connections and build relationships that will advance her future into a positive outcome brimming with possibilities.
Now to most “educators” this is a coarse and low form of communicating the importance of an education. The kicker here is, it works. She does now understand, and is much more willing to do the work it takes to truly discover things. There are things and experiences in the classroom that at least for now seem unimportant; but someday they might make a real difference in her life. Perhaps this is a crass and lowbrow way to get a crucial message across. Nonetheless I find these types of techniques effective, regardless whether or not those who are swept up in their own fantasies of modern education wish not to besmirch themselves with such base methods.
One of the reasons teachers become teachers is because they love the idea of Knowing: Knowing for the sake of Knowing. This is where we come from, but we do not take into account the fact that there are many highly capable people in this world who do not feel this way; and it is our real job to show them that Knowing is a valuable ability to have- no matter what the area of expertise. I went into this field not to get, but to give; and if I find a way to have students accept what I have to give I will utilize it. With no aims towards future accolades, book contracts or consulting fees, I am a teacher, not an educator— in like manner I wish to be treated by a physician, not a health care professional. There is a difference- one I am passionate about; and the following will hopefully give some insight into my quest of teaching, which did not start when I entered a formal classroom, but when I held the first of my four precious children in my arms, so many years ago.
Being a product of the Northern Plains Transition to Teaching has resulted in a unique path; different enough that my co-workers are from time to time reminded that I have not traveled the same road they all have in University. My Superintendent tells me often that the reason I find some things very strange in this profession is due to this. Fortunately he does not hold this against me as an employee (some do- trust me). However as comrades in arms within this theatre of struggle there are times that things seem to be slightly “out of focus” in my view This while due to the path taken to get here, is not necessarily an obstacle. In many ways it is actually beneficial to be able to see things from a perspective that is not one of what I think of as “careerist”. Let us take the Danielson Framework for example.
Entirely new to me until recently, the framework has some fine attributes. I must admit that it does refine matters into a clearer focus in order to concentrate upon specifics within professional development. Being an organizer by nature, its aspects are appealing in that there are ready ways to identify and categorize professional practice, giving a clear picture into what needs to be worked on and when to do it. I think of it symbolically as a bolt bin; with a bag of mixed items, one can set them out and place them in their proper places so when you need them, they are at hand. The niggling at the back of my mind however is that there are lots of guys who have really immaculate shops, with everything in clearly marked places- nothing is out of whack, yet these guys are the ones who get the least amount of work done because they are so concerned about keeping everything just so. They neglect the actual practice of their trade- and that practice is to produce something. If one can catch this poor analogy, one can see where I am aiming at. If there is anything about teaching that drives me to distraction and despair it is this: the emphasis on process over the product. Education it seems to me has become the domain of system analysts instead of teachers. This leads to failure in so many areas.
During WW2 there were a number of men who were in many ways the unsung heroes of the conflict. These were the logistics guys who harnessed the industrial might of the United States by getting stuff from the factories to the front. It was the rise of these system analysts that contributed to the victory; so much so they were given the sobriquet “the Whiz Kids”. Henry Ford saw the potential in these guys and hired them for his auto business, and they became demigods. These men did not escape the notice of the government, and when the Vietnam conflict started and developed into a full-fledged war, the best of them all was given the post of Secretary of Defense. And so Henry McNamara the logistical wizard was put in charge of not a logistical process, in which he excelled, but a war. This war was supposed to produce a product- victory over an implacable foe. McNamara failed so miserably at this job due to his focus on process and procedure. The product he produced was the exact opposite of the desires of his superiors: a defeat so spectacular and ignominious, that it impacted an entire culture for generations.
We are in the same fight but upon a far different field of battle: ignorance indeed is a far more implacable foe than any idealistic Third World soldier; and I believe that at least in this far flung corner of the conflict, we are hanging on by the skin of our teeth due to the same reasons that America lost in Vietnam. We cannot win with graduation rates (read body counts), graphs, consultants, and statistical modeling. We will not prevail by treating our enemy as an amorphic monolithic entity, the same everywhere, vulnerable in the exact same way in every battle. Most of all, if we continue to ignore the metaphysical aspect of our struggles we have no chance of making any headway at all.
I have read far more books on education than I can remember- and this should be a bellwether to the entire profession. There is a never ending stream of methodologies, best practices, taxonomies and statistical contortions that consume so many teachers for far too much time. There are more pitchmen for more different educational gadgetry than there is on late night T.V. for cutlery. Every one of them has the same mantra; if you just keep staring into the expanses of their new Gnosticism, you will perhaps be lucky enough that this secret gnosis held within inky depths of never ending analysis will be transferred through some sort of new age aeon- and you will be saved.
The latest read in my involuntary literary expedition is Brick House by a man named Danny Hill. Now don’t get me wrong- there are some good insights in this book- but that’s all they are- insights. Inspiring anecdotes where teachers have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert of futility. I have had teachers tell me that this book is IT! Just like all the other books I have read– not to mention the high paid gurus I have had to sit through. When you ask why I am so hesitant to drink from the Flagon with the Dragon (It has the brew that is true!!) I will give you the straw that broke the back of my belief that short term teachers and long term talking heads can give me insight into the challenges we all face daily.
Last year we as a staff attended a two day conference on practices, with three highly touted, published consultants who were here to help us reclaim our educational battle flags from the enemy. One humble man was quite good and resonated with most of us at our table. This man was on the same wavelength as I am, and he was encouraging and supportive. However he paled in comparison to the other highlighted speaker, whose bombast and self-assurance, while met by the educational party cadres with acclaim and fervor, reminded me of a Leni Riefenstahl film of Nazi Party Rallies.
To paraphrase, but not to in any way misrepresent, this is what he said:
“Besides being a bestselling author and highly paid educational consultant, do you know that for the last three years previous to this gig that I was the head of ALL education in the Chicago School District? I was the third most powerful man in the entire city…. Why they could not even start a bus without my express consent! And do you know what? In half a year, the entire Chicago School District (tens of thousands of students by the way) increased their reading levels by THREE GRADES!! IN JUST HALF A YEAR! Now I tell you my listeners and followers, if you just follow my methods, you can have the same success. By the way don’t forget to sign up for my very reasonably priced information; the link is on the screen. You will be celebrated as I am. Did you know that the Chicago School Districts reading scores have practically leapt off the charts! And this is all because of me!”
People were mesmerized; he had a great charisma and was a brilliant speaker. Unfortunately for him, I knew the Force has a great effect on the weak minded, so I resisted with all my will power. Being old fashioned, I turned to a younger colleague and asked if I could use his smart phone; easy enough to verify his claims and to join in the choir of veneration. Taking his phone and searching the data to support his statements I was surprised to find that the data from the US dept. of Education, and the Chicago School system told quite a different story: Chicago School system reading test results had not shown any significant improvement over many years (over a decade if I recall). In fact the trend line was downward. Things were not getting better; things did not get better even for a while. Things were getting worse.
I sat there stunned at the audacity. Even more so, after a few moments what really angered me was our overall gullibility; there were three hundred and fifty teachers more or less in that room. Every single one of them had computers, smart phones, and all the latest techno-gadgetry hooking them up to the internet. Now I am quite sure I was the only poor slob in the room without a smart phone- and it was I, the old fashioned, out of touch relic from the past that had the silly idea to actually look up the data to see if he was selling snake oil or not. This was the most startling aspect in all of this; enlightening to say the least. All of my colleagues who were interested in my findings (and there weren’t many) looked at me as if I was Toto, pulling the curtain away from a side hall and exposing the real Wizard of Oz:
“What? You’re kidding!! Let me see that!”
“Hhumph!, is this the only site you have found this on? Or are there others?”
“There are? Where?………. Whhhoooaa!”
So many of us are searching for and buying:
“Maps to California!! Step right up to get the latest information to the Promised Land! Including all of the latest short cuts, and the equipment you need to get there (which we of course can provide you with for a very reasonable sum)!
That very few of us are asking the hard questions such as, “Find me someone who has been there using this map, and let me talk to them!”, among other pertinent questions. If any one of these new practices or techniques were truly the across the board panacea we are all so desperately seeking, then all of the newer and more current discoveries would fall by the wayside. And they are not.
There is hope yet; for within the blather and static which clouds the mental faculties of everyone who promotes their own unique brand of snake oil, there is still within even the most brazen pitches the faint whiffs of what truly best practices are These whiffs are of the ingredients within which on their own will work for any teacher, on most any student with basic cognition and rudimentary character. These are contained within every one of these books commentaries and “teacher shows” that we all endure.
Camouflaged or mutilated, they yet still can be detected like a scarce rare ore within a stupendous heap of slag. They exist hiding in plain sight in the open domain- easily understood; and they have been the basis of education for the last thousand years or so. The fundamental framework and principles that have advanced learning for centuries until discredited as antiquated, and disposed of by the rise of the Post Modern age and characters like John Dewey. What are these hidden gems? They are not shiny, they are not fast, they are not endowed with technology; nor are they so obscure that it takes a consultant to purchase or decipher them. They work and they do so all the time. They require effort however, hard work, and virtue on the part of those who wish to use them to unleash the inherent power they hold. They have done so from the dawn of the University movement ten centuries ago, through the Scholastic movement, into the Renaissance and beyond to the establishment of scientific method, the very foundations of modern civilization. It all comes down to that term doesn’t it? Civilization and our desire to have those in our charge take an active part in it, extending it ever further into the world. Thinking is necessary here; critical thinking and proper use of reason in order to maintain and defend this very system: a civilization that has been developing over the many millennia of human endeavor. This is our true goal as teachers, to teach what we know to be true, and to pass it on to those who do not, so they may use these lessons to their advantage and pass them on beyond.
So what indeed are these best practices, or perhaps from whence do they spring? All methods spring ultimately from principles so we must refer back to antiquity as well as the medieval period. These hinges, from which every successful door of intellect has ever hung, are the Four Cardinal Virtues. First formulated by Socrates, defined and commented upon by Plato and Aristotle, then finalized and perfected through examination by Thomas Aquinas, these foundational principles are the basic guide for any method, framework or educational taxonomy. It matters not at what end of the cat you start skinning- for we all know there is more than one way. All we need is the basic principles and a sharp knife and we can get it done.
The Cardinal Virtues are:
- Prudence (wisdom)
By instituting these four Cardinal virtues, one can achieve best practice and flourishing educational environments in almost every situation. Of course those unfamiliar with Natural Philosophy (which is unfortunately at variance with modern educational thought- mores the pity) may find at first unfamiliarity bordering upon the bizarre; however all effective instruction flows from these principles. It takes a mind willing to learn from what has gone on before us, not one willing to embrace newness for its own sake. Upon these cornerstones have I laid the foundation of my trade. If one needs references, there is Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, and of course the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. I prefer St Thomas as he has completed the work of those before him.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the use and ramifications of the Cardinal virtues in the educational context, but it does not take too much imagination for anyone who is searching for the answers to our plight to see after some reflection the inherent value of these, and the intuitive nature of it all. I will be the first to admit to the fact that there are many times when I fail; but the failures can always be traced back to these virtues, and my lack of proper application. We humans, dealing with other humans under our care can only show the way, however imperfectly; it is ultimately up to the will of our students to either accept what we offer, or reject it. Without the use of these virtues, our highest intellect, will, and memory will fall far shorter than we ever imagine in our crusade for what we believe in.
I have perhaps gone on too long, but reflections always seem clearer the more we study them and adjust our focus. I have thought greatly over this, whether or not such a tack would be appropriate. In any case these are my truths. With regards to where I have decided to take my stand in relation to how and why I go about teaching, these are the far lonely hills upon which I have planted my standard. If this is to be my Alamo then so be it, for one is never so content to fall, when he is convinced of his cause.
April 18, 2020