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Crappy Lessons, Quarterbacks, and Giving Teachers Space to Experiment

This week, I'm featuring a guest post by America Achieves Fellow and high school math teacher John McCrann. True to the mission of the America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals, run by the nonprofit school-improvement group America Achieves, John brings a voice informed by multiple sides of the education debate. He is able to take his fierce loyalty for students into complex conversations, and his thoughtful work in the classroom is matched by a keen take on education policy. If you have the chance to meet John, you will first be struck by his friendly and relaxed demeanor, and then suddenly be pulled into an intensive discussion on current education policy and social justice. I enjoyed (and related) to this post, I hope you do as well.

Guest Post by John McCrann 

I just taught a crappy lesson.

I am generally a hard working and successful teacher. I am in the 10th year of a career in which I received a great deal of positive feedback from supervisors, colleagues, students, and parents. I have been honored with several awards and fellowships and am generally thought of as leader in my building. You would, however, not have known this if you had been in my room a few days  ago at 9:00 in the morning.

I was at the front of the classroom, drenched in sweat and wearing a fake beard and cloak flanked by two students in similar outfits. The other 24 students in the class fidgeted in their seats, stared blankly into space, or actively tried to engage with their friends.

"What is the claim that Michael's character is making?" I asked, breaking my own character in an attempt to get some students (literally anyone would have been nice) engaged in what we were doing. 

"That he's a slave?" Angela, a particularly grade-motivated student, hazarded a guess. She really wanted to know what I wanted her to say. Sadly, she had no clue.

"Oh snap! She called you a slave, Michael," shouted a chorus of students, the blank stares disappearing from their faces, though not exactly for reasons I wanted. Michael is a particularly volatile student and everyone in the room knew that this would set him off.

"Shut the..." he started, moving toward a particularly loud student.

"And scene," I shouted above the ruckus as I moved Michael into the hallway to calm him down, "Everyone write down what YOU think Michael's character's claim is on your handout.

The lesson was supposed to be fun. Michael, his classmate Kate, and I were acting out a scene from Plato's Meno dialogue in which Socrates guides a slave boy through a proof involving the area of a square. It is a classic text and an interesting proof, presented in a way that I thought would be far superior to the way I learned to "do proofs" in high school Geometry (see page 6 at this link if you haven't been in a geometry class in a while). In some ways, this lesson was a creative and inspiring idea about a new approach to teaching reasoning in math ... but only in some ways. 

Costumes off, and with Michael and Kate back in their seats, class resumed. While my outfit was different, the outcome was not. The students still had no clue why we had read the dialogue or how it was related to the kinds of problems we had been working with. They frittered away the final 20 minutes of class trying (or in some cases not trying) to say something that sounded smart about the "claim" or "evidence" presented by Socrates in the text. No one could articulate the main idea of the text and no one came close to reaching the day's objective (which, for the record, I had dutifully written on the white board before class). "Students will be able to apply Plato's ideas about reasoning to prove congruence relationships in triangles."  

At times like this, I am reminded of a Malcolm Gladwell article from 2008 in which he compares the difficulty of predicting who will be a good teacher to the difficulty NFL scouts have predicting which prospects will be good quarterbacks. The essay ends with this comment by an NFL scout about a player he was scouting:

Maybe that interception means that Daniel won't be a good professional quarterback, or maybe he made a mistake that he'll learn from. "In a great big piece of pie," Shonka said, "that was just a little slice."

The debacle that was the Meno dialogue lesson was made even more problematic by the fact that my principal happened to come in for an unannounced informal observation right in the middle of it. She watched as I struggled—and failed—to guide students toward some understanding. She took notes as students fell further and further off task. She recorded that little slice of lousy pie that was my lesson.

There are 3.3 million teachers who each teach for 180 days a year about 6 hours a day. That's about 3.6 billion hours of teaching that supervisors could evaluate over the course of a single school year. I am fortunate to have a principal who understands teaching and supports staff members. We discussed the lesson, but she was not interested in judging me as a teacher by this one lackluster lesson. I am also fortunate to teach in a system with a strong union that ensures any teacher receives due process before termination. Not all teachers are so lucky and there is growing movement of powerful people who would like to take these things away from me too.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is the latest journalist to suggest that we have reached the point that we know who the bad teachers are and that we can simply fire our way to a better teaching force (she wrote her story in Time Magazine). The article is bad for a number of reasons, but is worth reading if only that the great hypocrisy of the article (and the entire anti-due process movement) is nicely positioned within her piece. In the final section, Edwards informs us that a "growing number of studies appear to support" the idea that we in fact do not know how to sort good teachers from bad with any reliability. In other words, the final paragraphs of the story completely discredit the rest. Quarterbacks throw interceptions and teachers teach bad lessons, but these single acts alone do not necessarily indicate anything about their skills as professionals.

The notion that we can just get rid of bad teachers and then we will have a great school system is not only ridiculous, it is dangerous. I am a great teacher precisely BECAUSE I work in an environment that allows me to try new things. Sometimes those things do not work, but the fact that I have the freedom to do them keeps me engaged and gives me the chance to find the techniques and strategies that will make a difference. Due process rights enable us as teachers to experiment and refine our skills in new ways that truly put students first. Providing all students with excellent educators is a goal we can all agree on, but robbing teachers of due process rights deprives us of the freedom we need to grow and destabilizes our profession.

I love teaching because of the wonderfully complex problems I get to try to solve in this job. It is exciting to try something for the first time and learn alongside students. I have not given up on using Meno to teach proof, but exactly how to marshal this old text effectively is a problem that I have yet to crack. I think I will get there though. Meno has been around for a couple millennia and—thanks in part to my union job protections—I can be confident that I will be back next year and the year after that to give it another try. 

John McCrann is a high school math teacher and an America Achieves Fellow.

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