'It Won't Be Easy': An Interview With Author Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher, author of the new book, It Won't Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter To Teaching, agreed to answer a few questions.
Tom Rademacher is an English teacher in Minneapolis. His writing has appeared in EdPost, MinnPost, and on his blog, Mr. Rad's Neighborhood, and he speaks about teaching at universities, conferences, and TEDx events. In 2014 he was honored as Minnesota's Teacher of the Year:
LF: You write, "...if you're going to be good at [teaching], you're not going to do it alone." Can you elaborate on what that means—practically speaking—for teachers?
Tom Rademacher: In the book I spell out a lot of ways that teachers can, and should, connect with each other. For some teachers, they came to the classroom out of a sense of activism, they see teaching as an act of resistance and of love. If those are your values and you feel like you are doing them alone, then every hard day feels way too hard, and it's impossible not to take it personally. We need to connect with each other, within our buildings, but also regionally and using social media. In our buildings, it means working to know and build trust with each other, being able to lean on and challenge one another. Some of those connections come through the work, but it also means making an effort to be social. Sometimes, happy hour is the best thing in the world you can do for your students.
LF: You also write, "...there is no right way to be a teacher except authentic...There's no way for you to do it right except the way you do it." That passage reminds me of the cautions Roxanna Elden has described when talking about "best practices" in teaching. How would you explain this point to critiques who say that plenty of research and meta-analyses point out the "right" way we should teach?
Tom Rademacher: I think anyone relying too much on data like that doesn't know enough about people. How many people really are out there that understand the craft of teaching well, that know what it means to have 30 kids in a room with their own motivations and needs and also someone just farted and, but also have an understanding of what kind of data is useful and what the numbers mean?
Another question: I've been in a ton of meetings where we looked at numbers on engagement or focus or growth, but none where we've questions how we were measuring any of those things. So, yeah, in general, I'm a non-believer in much of this current obsession with data and studies because I don't see how they've added a lot of value to what we've done. I think there's a move to distrust teachers, or at least enough worry about the kind of power a teacher has to really shape their room that we want to standardize the whole profession. It's not going to work.
LF: Speaking of Roxanna Elden, I think reading her writing and your book are the only times that I have often laughed when reading books about education. What's with the lack of a sense of humor in teacher books (and I'm including my own in that critique)?
Tom Rademacher: I've noticed this too, and it's really too bad. I mean, teaching is a lot of things. It's challenging, it's excruciating sometimes, and it requires this incredible amount of focus and thought and reflection. I think we take writing about teaching so seriously because we are all so serious about teaching. But, when we do that too much, we neglect the fact that teaching is freaking hilarious. I have never, ever laughed as often or as deeply as I have while teaching. That's one of the things that chased me right back into the classroom after only a year of coaching teachers. Adults don't make me laugh like kids do.
LF: You don't shy away from issue related to being a White teacher to students of color, including the privileges that are accorded to you because of your race. What is the best advice you could offer to the many of us in similar situations as we try to be more aware of, and act upon, race and racism in the classroom?
Tom Rademacher: It's tough, to be sure. If it weren't, we would have figured it out a long time ago. After a year of workshops and books and long discussions with colleagues and kids, I felt like, "yeah, I get it now." Two years later, I felt like, "ok, before I didn't get it, but now I do." This is right about the time that a lot of White people these days become "equity specialists" or some such thing. I'd be awful at that. What I tend to write and talk about is the journey. I screw something up, and I figure something out, and I am constantly, constantly learning from my students.
But, look. It's hard work, and it's constant work. Know that. Also, ignoring it doesn't make it go away. If you are a White person walking into a classroom or school for any reason, your Whiteness is coming along with you. So, the work of figuring out what that means and what to do about it is hard, but it absolutely needs to be done.
LF: You write about one of your colleagues who was subjecting herself and her students to constant and pointless worksheets, point systems, and ineffective assignments: "It's possible Jenny had never met a problem in life that was not solved by working harder, but teaching is just such a problem. Teaching is like trying to shove a couch that is too wide through a door. No amount of pushing harder is going to help until you figure out that you need to flip the damn thing on its side."
It seems to me that this illustrates the dark side of "grit" and how it has the potential of it being used destructively by teachers to themselves and to their students. How do you think teachers can avoid this pitfall and, instead, recognize that they "need to flip the damn thing on its side"?
Tom Rademacher: The term "self-care" is pretty hip these days, and for good reason. None of us can be our best if we are exhausted, physically or emotionally. Patience is probably the number one tool you need on any given day of teaching, and when you work obscenely long hours grading and planning and grinding yourself down, your patience is the first thing to go.
When we have a bad day or week or month, we start to feel defeated. We start to ask ourselves what's wrong with the kids or the school or, even more than usual, ourselves. Those are the times we really need to flip the couch. When you feel what you're doing isn't working, and doing that thing harder just seems to make it worse, give yourself permission to do something totally different the next day.
LF: Can you talk about the "Google Test," including why you use it and how it works?
Tom Rademacher: Being smart is a different thing now than it used to be, at least in the context of schools. I remember studying for a big U.S. History test as a Junior and doing everything I could to cram dates and places and names into my head. My ability to remember those things and repeat them was largely what placed me in honors classes. But, that kind of smart doesn't matter nearly as much anymore unless you're out playing trivia. Now, we need to be able to access, analyze, and synthesize information then apply it to problems.
So, the Google Test, which is sort of a question I ask myself about my lessons, is "Can Google Do This?" If I'm asking kids questions, or asking them to write essays or do projects, that can be quickly copied and pasted from the internet, then I am begging them to do exactly that. But, if I can ask them questions that, with access to technology, still make them think and make and do and discover, then I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to do.
LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share?
Tom Rademacher: Just this: I'm in my 11th year teaching now, and I can point to one year specifically, maybe 3/4ths of a year, that I've felt like I totally belonged here. Teaching can be an incredibly lonely job, which is crazy considering how full of people it is, but I savor every moment where I am talking to or reading or connecting with other teachers who are passionate and ridiculous and joyful and angry in the same sorts of ways I am. That's where this book comes from, from a sincere hope that it will reach teachers who feel too often alone in the work they do, and let them know there's at least one other weirdo like them.
LF: Thanks, Tom!