For Real Teachers In Our Toughest Schools
Monday January 22nd 2018



All Teachers Are Assumed To Be Bad, But What If Everything You Do Works?

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The most annoying aspect of teaching, to me, is the continual assumption, by almost everyone I come into contact with in and out of the world of education, that I’m not doing my job. It is a weird place to be. It is like I walk around with this dark shroud around my shoulders that hides from everyone the fact that what I do in my classroom just might be working. It is an assumption of worst intentions—not best.

This troubling undercurrent is also perpetuated by our own colleagues. Teachers are very, very skeptical of other teachers. If they are popular, they are thought to be too easy, or too close to the kids; if they are rigorous there is a sense that they have all the good kids, or that an AP schedule is much easier to teach; If you teach sheltered, low-performing students, you are looked at as a low-performing teacher (especially by testing standards) because your kids don’t perform well on anything. Teaching is a damned-if-you-show-up profession.

You can see this quite clearly in the attitudes of new teachers. Let me ask you a question: How do other lawyers treat a first year lawyer? How about on Wall Street, how do they treat the new guy? I’ll tell you how: they make him get them coffee and sandwiches and don’t listen to a word he says until he’s been there a few years. They tell the new guy to close his eyes, and when he does they spit on their fingers and jam them in his ears. They treat him like the scum of the earth. The reason being that the people who have been doing it for decades are assumed to be the experts and the newbies are barely worthy of being in their presence. This is not so in the teaching profession (not that I’m saying it should be so extreme, mind you).

When new teachers come into the profession, not only are the veterans supposed to welcome them as equals, but rarely are the veterans looked upon as repositories of knowledge by new teachers. Again, it is because everyone around here is assumed to NOT be doing their job.

There are so many odd things about being a teacher, but this is perhaps the most important because teaching as a profession suffers from a PR problem. Education is looked upon by the American public as being a failure. People have it in their heads that things couldn’t get any worse when in fact things might actually be better than they’ve ever been. That is what Diane Ravitch’s last book was about: We’re actually doing a better job of educating EVERYONE than at any point in human history.

Get it? This just might mean that when I say I am a teacher, what I mean is that if you walked into my room you would be amazed at how well everything is working.

The Washington Post reported this week that black, Hispanic, and American Indian students have been graduating at increased rates over the last three years. Their Wonkblog also shows that while graduation rates as a whole are also going up, it is especially pronounced amongst those groups. What that means is that the Achievement Gap, that ever-elusive Achilles Heel of education, is actually closing a little bit. Ed Week also reported that this is also true of “disadvantaged groups”, which means low-income and ELL students are increasing their graduation rates faster than the overall population—another positive sign that is very, very new.

We have to remember that things were worse in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the ‘90s black people were being shot by police for no reason, but NOBODY was talking about it but black people. In the ‘90s we didn’t even know what an Achievement Gap was, did we? There certainly wasn’t the focus on our disadvantaged minority students like we see today. Today we are making real progress in that regard.

That brings me back to teachers. I go to many professional development seminars, and every seminar has a tone that feels like each presenter is saying this: “Clearly what you are doing isn’t working, here are things you need to do so that one day perhaps your students will be getting a proper education.” Keep in mind this is usually being delivered by someone who isn’t a teacher, or was once upon a time. You always get the feeling they are telling you that one day you’ll do your job the right way, but it’s obvious, because you’re a teacher, that is not going on right now.

I always feel like raising my hand and asking: “But what if everything I do works?”

Good doctors and lawyers know they are good. It is verified by the people they work with and the people they represent. Can’t teachers also admit they are good at what they do? Let me back up by saying that I am in no way under the assumption I am the savior of education. I can name a dozen teachers without even thinking who are much better teachers than I am. Can you admit that too? I think we all should be able to say that no matter what job we do. I’m not claiming to be the best, but I am claiming that I’m damn good at what I do and almost all of my students would agree.

So here is what this post is about: I want to put forward the CRAZY notion that for some of us, EVERTHING is going right. Kids are learning, kids are excited, kids are engaged, our pedagogy is thick, our students outcomes are amazing and can be verified by test scores and portfolios.

We are teaching and it is glorious.

To be honest, this is not something I thought I would ever have to point out, but I’ve been in this profession for so many years now that I continue to be amazed by how many people simply assume that no one is teaching anything.

I want to celebrate the work being done on the front lines, because that shit is breathtaking to behold. The real work in education is not done at our Universities. Those institutions, to nobody’s surprise, do nothing but perpetuate the cycle of affluence and inequality prevalent in this ridiculous oligarchy (the United States is not an actual democracy, remember). The real work is in our public schools, and I really believe that.

So what if everything you do as a teacher actually works? Tell people, show people, because right now we suffer from a PR problem, and we need more good teachers to stand up and say, “Hey, I’m rocking this job.”

Hell, I don’t even need you to believe EVERYTHING I do works, I just can’t have you assuming that NOTHING I do works just because I’m a teacher.

Reader Feedback

12 Responses to “All Teachers Are Assumed To Be Bad, But What If Everything You Do Works?”

  1. Rick Holbrook says:

    I agree the real work and victories occur in our classrooms. It’s what you do each class each day, how you reach each student that makes the difference. It all boils down to how the individual teacher interacts with each student.

  2. Rick Holbrook says:

    I agree the real win or lose is in the classroom. What we do individually matters most. What if pd consisted of teachers that have found what works and share that with other teachers? Sometimes the presenters we get aren’t familiar enough with the situation to help. About the pr problem- in Arkansas you can teach at a charter school without a license or a degree. They have higher test scores, but then they pick their students and they sometimes have better discipline. In some public schools admin is afraid to enforce the rules and it’s hard to get anything done. What’s a teacher to do?

  3. Lisa says:

    I agree, Matt. We are doing some great things in education, and we need to celebrate that. I’m a newer teacher, but I’m older due to a career switch. What I see lacking in some veteran teachers who have a bad rep is the will to move on with all of the new obstacles in front of them. They are often being compared to the new teachers which is not fair. I feel both groups have things they can learn from one another, and we need to create a better way to do that.

    The other issue is how the system that educates teachers lacks the depth required to prepare us for the more complex issues in the classroom. Not one single education course I took even talked about teaching students who live in poverty or teaching students from non-American cultures. And even if there was, I don’t feel they would have done a good job doing so. When I go to teacher seminars, I get excited about some of the presenters on these topics only to find that they barely skim the surface. They will talk about the existence of gang violence in our school’s neighborhoods, but they don’t talk about what it does or doesn’t look like when you are in the classroom. They don’t talk about how to listen for certain cues in student conversations or how to have non threatening head on conversations with students about issues. What I often see is teachers who come from the middle class who haven’t lived like our students. In fact, they are often scared of the students. I feel lucky to come from the background that I have, because it is my biggest asset in working with my students.

    Maybe you could run one of these teacher conventions, one that actually teaches teachers something they can use. Something that celebrates their successes and helps them to brush up on areas they need a little help in.

    • You know Lisa, I’ve been compiling some best practices for a workshop I’d like to eventually run about classroom management. That continues to be the elephant in the room of every seminar I’ve seen and something that just doesn’t get tackled directly, or at least not in practical or creative ways that work in real situations. You are completely right that the biggest problems stem from a different lived experience of many of the teachers these kids get. You are lucky to have the same background, although you probably didn’t think so while you were growing up- I know because I feel the same way:)

  4. Kimberley Gilles says:

    After 29 years, all the glorious things that happen in my classroom STILL take my breath awy. DAILY! And that sparks in me is the desire for more! More! MORE! So, I design new courses, teach books for which I get to design the curriculum, and keep an eye out for the many teachers I work with who are doing the same. They are such good company!

    So much of my PD is done on my own. I assiduously avoid the workshops that promise me that I will “walk out of the workshop with materials to be used on Monday!” If it’s one-size-fits-all, I know it’s not tailored to my students’ needs, preferences, or quirks. I may be able to adpapt it, but I need more than a technique taught to me without the context of my kids, my discipline. So, I read. My new faves? THE HAPPINESS PROJECT by Rubin. I am also completely intrigued by the work coming out of Harvard on “positive deviants,” those folks who thrive when others are struggling. While neither is specifically about education, the applications are thrilling. I’m even thinking about designing a new course based upon THE HAPPINESS PROJECT — a literature based class about wisdom and contentment.

    My point is this — we teachers are the change agents. We are powerful. We are smart. We are scholars. We are GOOD! And we keep finding news ways to become still better. And in the process, our students are the direct recipients of our competencies and our joy. What a great way to be ALIVE!

  5. Lisa says:

    Matt, you hit the nail right on the head! I had no idea we were poor growing up, but I certainly knew when someone was talking down to me or behaved like they were superior in some way.

    Let us know when you create the workshop. I live in Ohio, but I’d do my best to come!

  6. pmacfar says:

    “When new teachers come into the profession, not only are the veterans supposed to welcome them as equals, but rarely are the veterans looked upon as repositories of knowledge by new teachers. Again, it is because everyone around here is assumed to NOT be doing their job.”

    I’ve beat this horse before, but I really think it’s that nobody recognizes teaching skills. Yeah, they recognize organizational skills, social skills, empathetic skills, etc. etc., but teaching skills are, in the eyes of many people, too ephemeral to perceive. For those who know how, of course, there’s nothing ephemeral about them.

    But that’s why a new teacher who is old enough to graduate college is also old enough to have developed organizational, social, and empathetic skills, and the rest. Nobody recognizes that, in addition, teaching skills are necessary, and therefore the neophyte is welcomed as “having fresh ideas” and “having great energy” or showing “great idealism,” etc. etc., which tend to trump the worn out older teachers, since nobody recognizes that the worn out older teachers perceives the teaching skills that the older teachers have been honing for years.

    Of course half of those neophytes will be gone in a few years, some for failure to develop those skills which nobody told them about, but then there’s room for even more new ones! It’s crazy.

    I often think that even highly skilled teachers sometimes don’t understand their own skills. They acquired them slowly through dogged determination and interaction with real students. But they acquired them on their own. And so they can’t always articulate what they know. It’s kind of like how native speakers of a language know how to arrange words into properly-formed expressions, but don’t always know why it should work that way.

    And, of course, the other reason that people assume that teachers don’t know what they’re doing is politics – the continual attacks from those who don’t like unions and believe that all schools should be privatized so that the free market can favor those who have the most money, and corporations who serve the educational market can cut out the middle man. Teachers must be demonized for the public to go along with that. They certainly succeeded in New Orleans, didn’t they?

    Oh, and a little more subtle than that — there’s a problem that the tests don’t provide accurate evaluations of students’ skills. And as the more difficult tests that come coupled with the Common Core are implemented, scores naturally are falling, and teachers will probably get blamed for that, too.

    All of this to attack a crisis that has never reached critical. Schools have steadily improved over the last century, and continue to do so. I only hope that the reforms that bludgeon the schools these days don’t stop that gradual process.

  7. pmacfar says:

    At last, an actual study that demonstrates what we all know concerning this issue:

  8. Gordon Wright says:

    Matt, I just discovered your blog and started reading previous posts. You’re a great writer and clearly have very nuanced thoughts about what it means to teach, especially in challenging schools.

    I’m not a teacher, but I work in education policy and communications now—mostly on the “reform” side—and this post made me wonder how you feel about accountability and teacher evaluation stuff. Of course it varies widely among districts and states, but I’ve come to believe that a fair, supportive and meaningful evaluation system would help improve these presumptions that “teachers aren’t doing anything.”

    Would love to know your thoughts when you have a moment, either in this comment thread or feel free to email me.

    And keep up the great blogging. We need more teachers like you doing it.

  9. Claire says:

    Thank you all for inspiring someone who has been teaching for 30 years. This speaks to my heart with so much truth and clarity.

  10. Faye says:

    Matt, I love what you said. I left teaching after a very brief career after being in an inner-city high school with low-income predominantly minority students in the 1960s. I and my fellow education students were completely unprepared for 17-year-olds reading at the 3rd grade level in senior English. The university profs seemed to have no clue about what public schools were like and gave useless theories about learning. I would have stayed in education had I heard from someone like you.

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