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Celebrating the Human Factor in Our Work

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It's the time of year when back-to-school displays show up when you're in the drugstore looking for calamine lotion or sunblock; too early, but the clock is ticking.

It's also the time when new-teacher orientation programs start to happen--just the other day I was privileged to Skype into a fine one taking place at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. And in my own world, it's time for the annual update to our Teacher's Guide to Life and Work. Each year it gets a little bigger, each year we try to nail down a bit more necessary guidance for our whole faculty, new and veteran.

Thinking about the Bryn Mawr group, or about the ninety or so folks for whom our Teacher's Guide is written, I can't help recalling a number of conversations I've had over the years with people who are all excited about some new canned curriculum or other. To these people, and to I suspect a whole lot of others in the educational policy and educational publishing worlds, the ideal would be to create the perfect "teacher-proof curriculum."

In the teacher-proof curriculum, I suppose, all human variables would be removed. No faults in teacher knowledge, no erroneous emphasis would imperil student mastery. The material would be delivered and assessed so tidily that no student could fail to learn. And even the most ho-hum teacher could be assured of pedagogical success.

Thinking of the time we spend training and mentoring teachers and pondering all the verbiage with which we attempt to expound and explain our policies, practices, and even our school culture in the Teacher's Guide, I believe it's safe to say that not only is teacher-proof curriculum a silly notion, but that as an ideal it's a bunch of hooey.

We know intuitively that great learning is often based on great relationships, and that in the K-12 world the teachers who can get the most out of students are the teachers who get their students the most. This means that the whole idea of de-personalizing the teaching enterprise is an easy path not to success but to educational failure. A curriculum delivered devoid of the humanity of an engaged teacher is no curriculum at all; it's a Wikipedia page or, worse still, a script.

It's axiomatic that no amount of teacher orientation and no amount of carefully written explanation can prepare a teacher for all of the challenges and opportunities that present themselves, scattershot, at the start of a school year. The best prepared new teachers still occasionally find themselves feeling like deer in the headlights, not because they're not clever or weren't paying attention to their mentors, but because school is hard, up-close-and-personal work, with every decision freighted with somebody's emotional "stuff." Even the most straightforward material has subtleties requiring sensitive and responsive teaching. You can't teacher-proof curriculum, because you can't and wouldn't want to teacher-proof school.

Even the politicos and self-styled experts whose ideas of "school reform" include expressed contempt for teachers know this is true, and they tacitly admit it every time they call for schools of education to accept only academically top-flight candidates. They know as well as we do that teachers matter, and that teacher-proof curriculum is no curriculum at all.

What we need, in every sector, is curriculum that is infused with the blood, sweat, and passion of teachers, passion that turns mere "intended learning outcomes" into transformational experiences. We don't need automata in our classrooms, meting out learning in doses prescribed and prepackaged by giant publishers and testing companies. We need teachers who are confident being fully and energetically themselves, expert in designing for their students demanding, exciting curriculum that inspires and challenges and in developing assessments that measure in-depth understanding, not just rote knowledge or received "truths."

No matter how much detail I use to explain certain aspects of school policy in our Guide, and no matter how carefully we "orient" new teachers to our schools, we can never fully capture nor really begin to transmit the full complexity of just about every aspect of what we do. We can't "proof" our teachers against all the fluid and ambiguous realities of working with kids, and if we could we would lose something vital from the cultures of our schools. We can make our Teacher's Guide as detailed as we like, but we know that at best it is only a guide; it can never be a blueprint or a script.

All we can do, and all we can expect to do, is to prepare our new teachers for the big, obvious things, and then be there for them when little things and delicately shaded nuances show up and startle them. Another truism about school life, in my experience, is that very few things happen in exactly the same way twice; kids and circumstances always seem to tend toward the novel and surprising.

Instead of trying to teacher-proof our curricula and remove the human element from what we do, we need to be better at recognizing and cultivating the human connections and the human factor in our work. It is after all because we are human that we have schools at all; the human heart, mind, body, and soul comprise an engine of enormous power that we need to fully harness, not minimize, in the educational endeavor.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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