Saturday, November 28, 2009

Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones

Just finished this new title by Thomas Newkirk - in just two days. Like a long drink of water, it was just what I needed.
Chapter 8 reinforced for me that I am, all the way to the bones and beyond, a teacher. Duh, you say? Well, for some of us, teaching was not a first choice. Newkirk's chapter on what teachers need confirms the deep insecurity we all live with and either learn to accept or must ultimately flee for self-preservation. For someone who came to the party late, it is reaffirming to discover that all teachers struggle with regular failures: students they can't reach, lessons that fall flat, explanations that are met with by blank stares..... And then there is that inevitable class he describes so eloquently that, because of the time of day, or the season, no one appears to have the energy for learning, and the teacher feels mired in lethargy as well. No one is a superteacher 24-7.
In this chapter, Newkirk argues that we need each other - sharing and discussing student work - to bolster and support ourselves in manageable small community. And, we need to be around grown-ups!
Newkirk eschews the teacher hero we are all so familiar with in the movies. (This has been a recurring discussion at the Teacher Leaders Network). Those idealistic views of self-sacrificing wonders only undermine the confidence of teachers who regularly must face failure in their practice. And generally, teachers must deal with the fact of failure on their own, in isolation. He sees a necessity for teachers to share with their colleagues as the true hope for reform.
Ah, don't we all?
It's the old chestnut: Put two teachers together, and all they do is talk shop. Because: we are never allowed to do it "on the job." Because: no one else knows what it's like. Because: grown ups need grown ups. We can't subsist on a diet all children all the time. Because: we need the perspective of many eyes and many ears. Because: we may all survive to teach another day.
There are many other reasons to read Newkirk's book--I have several new ideas for informal writing with my students for instance. But if you have hit that low place in the school year, you will especially appreciate the chapter entitled "Finding a Language for Difficulty."
There is redemption in the confession of just how hard, and messy, and un-hollywood-like, this work can be.