Lesson from the Butterfly Man

We were at the county fair yesterday, and while I was assisting impromptu with a clay demo, my husband was visiting the butterfly exhibit, a beautiful screened enclosure full of fluttering butterflies. 

ImageThe place was crowded with children, parents, visitors of all kinds. You could walk around or sit and contemplate the butterflies.

My husband chose a bench and sat down; he thought, “I am going to send out love to the butterflies. All you butterflies, you are safe with me.”

All of a sudden, he was covered with butterflies landing on his shirt, his head, and his bermudas, even his shoes. “Look!” said the children all around, “He’s the butterfly man. They are landing all over him!”

How did those butterflies know they could safely land on him? Like all living creatures, they could feel the love and they knew they’d be safe. If butterflies can sense this, don’t you think that a classroom full of seventh-graders can feel it as well? Kids have perfect radar for what’s going on emotionally. Most of us teachers can tell the stories of when they’ve arrived at school with a headache, with money worries, with stress over a family illness, and students will come up and say, “Are you OK, Mrs. W?”

It’s still summer and we’re still in the sunshine, feeling good. School’s not far off, though, so here’s a gentle message of friendliness and love from the wife of the Butterfly Man.

Student Teacher in Rural School

You could say my school is low-income, rural, and somewhat multicultural. If you want to translate that into real-world terms, you could say that my students might be just as culturally deprived as low-income urban students, with the added deficit of being located too far from any cities to learn from museums, centers, or performances, especially with budgets being as they are, so buses for field trips are basically gone.

This isolation creates an unusual problem when student teachers come into the classroom, because plain practicality makes it difficult to interface with the student teacher’s teaching professor, who typically has the onerous assignment of traveling all over the state to rural schools with student teachers from his or her university.

ImageFortunately, I very much liked our professor (could it be because she and I agreed on most things?) and felt easy about discussing my student teacher with her.

At the same time, I felt that my written feedback about the student teacher didn’t particularly help anyone–the professor, the student teacher, or me. Distance, I think, did indeed keep us distant.

Fortunately, I’m a longtime teacher who realizes that student teachers are still students and if we are lucky, we can open up to them and help them improve and they can open up and learn from us.

It’s not always easy to do this, of course, because people have their styles and personalities. I know in my case, my student teacher was super-independent and self-assured, a real Millennial, so I was never sure whether my intended help was any help at all.

Perhaps I was the same when I was a student teacher :).

Nonetheless, we rural classroom teachers are more on our own, I think, than our urban counterparts. I know that my principal hardly ever intervened in the process. It’s all something to keep in mind when we rural-ites take on a student teacher.

The One Thing You Never Learn from Teacher Training

OK, I admit it: I’m a snoop, and even worse, a speedreading snoop. So when my student teacher left open a document about her experiences teaching with me, I read it–swiftly, irrevocably. In my defense, it was open on my classroom computer (I’m not that snoopy, like reading it on her laptop, say).

Her main problem with me was with discipline. She felt she should be able to give out consequences, to punish students whom she perceived to be disrespectful, uncooperative, or unproductive. She disagreed with what she perceived to be my system without consequences, but she said, “I have to go along with it to avoid complete chaos.”

Oddly, my main worry about her as a teacher was her disciplinary style. I thought her voice too strident, her threats of punishment too hard to follow through on, her one-up banter a dangerous way to deal with junior-high kids.

What then is my disciplinary style? Fortunately, it’s the same as my principal, who said it this way. “You want to keep kids moving in the direction you want them to go, so you don’t aggressively confront them, but you help them see what they’re doing wrong and help them course-correct. The main point is to help them learn to behave well, not punish them for misbehaving.”

Well, yes. This after all is education, and we learn many things, not just academic ones. These days, many parents aren’t teaching how to behave well, how to ask for things nicely, how to be polite, how to interact appropriately with adults, how to follow through on tasks…and many other behaviors we want to see in our students.Image

Our school has a formalized disciplinary system for clearly-delineated, simple rules, and of course, if a student breaks any of those, we proceed through the proper method to hold students accountable. Outside of those rules, inside of our classrooms, we have two roads to take: one punitive, the other instructional. What I work for is a friendly, cooperative classroom.

How you do that is the one thing is something you never learn in teacher training, but you can spot it anytime you see a master teacher, who smiles, uses a modulated voice, keeps her directives simple and positive, and most of all, exudes an unspoken dignity and authority that most students naturally do not dare to cross.

How do you learn that? Can you learn that? Yes, I believe that you can. My husband tells the story of his high-school choir teacher, a diminutive woman who could get her singers to achieve high excellence in music and in behavior, just by standing in front of them with this pleasant, immutable air of authority. I think that like many of us, my husband learned how to be that person partly from being taught by such a teacher.

I have high hopes for my student teacher. She got a great job, and I see in her the understanding and compassion for students that may overcome her initial impulse to isolate and punish. At the same time, I hope that she–and other new teachers venturing out into the world–can someday, somehow imbibe that one thing you never learn from teacher training–how to bring students along to a high level of behavior without consequencing them to death.

My Choice-Based Classroom This year

I read about Teaching for Artistic Behavior for two or even maybe three years before I actually tried it. I wish I had not delayed that long, but I had one big concern:

If junior-high students were given true choice and autonomy in my classroom, would they not just coast along and do slipshod work, or even no work at all?

I didn’t trust the true and noble impulse that we share as humans, to create! to make art! and I was wrong…junior high students are humans, just like the rest of us (lame joke, I know). They cherished the idea of choice in our classroom.kid art

Instead of hanging back, doing little, lamely mimicking my short weekly demo, they launched into passionate, focused, quiet and productive artmaking. Indeed, sometimes I felt that they barely, politely tolerated my demo so they could get back to the work they were deeply doing.

I was stunned that they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and it wasn’t often the easy way out. Instead, they took on projects and processes that seemed to me very hard (painstakingly carving and sanding a little wooden joined action figure, for example, a project that took one of my boys almost a month!). They would go out and buy stacks of canvases, because I only have canvas board, so they could pursue a series of abstract paintings.

They would teach each other, so that small groups would often be working on similar projects together. They would troubleshoot on their own without always turning to me. They used real tools, sometimes dangerous ones–but this year, for the first time, I never lost one X-acto knife, because they innately knew that they needed to guarantee good use of the tools if they wanted to keep using them.

I had a student teacher this year, and I am grateful she had a whole semester with me in TAB Art. I hope she has the courage to keep on with it next year. I left my stations in place, so there’s a good chance.

“Teachers, There Will Be No More Teaching!”

If you had heard that in a meeting, would you believe it? Image

It happened to me! During the afternoon, I teach in a juvenile corrections classroom. I chose this job over a full-time college teaching job because I felt that here I could make a true difference to kids in tough situations.

For many years, I did! Using a cross-curricular approach and an arts-based pedagogy, my incarcerated students and I had a super experience together, and I can say that in many cases, it made a difference in their lives. Many of them still come up to me and tell me they’re still drawing or still practicing playing their recorder, thanks to our work together.

Then came a new administrator who did not like it, Sam I Am. She only wanted students to do homework from the schools, six hours a day. She had to keep reminding me :). The came the mandate from the state that there would be no more teaching in the classrooms. 

Instead, we were to make students do their assigned homework from their schools six hours a day, as before, and if they had no work or finished their work, they were to do worksheets and tests from textbooks, all set up by the state.

She actually said, “Teachers, there will be no more teaching!”

What was I to do then? I was to sit behind the desk and get up and walk around and make sure everyone was doing their assignments, by gosh! And they were to be punished if not. And if they needed more worksheets run off, then oh joy, I was to go to the copy machine and run off more work for them.

“May I use fifteen or twenty minutes for an arts break?” I asked the administrator. She hotly and firmly told me no.

Well, I did anyway. I just called it an extension of the break we already had in place, mid-afternoon. 

Some educators see the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in the same way. They correctly infer that if we teachers are going to be evaluated, receive merit pay, and eventually, if the logic here holds, even keep our jobs based on our student scores, then our dynamic classroom teaching will indeed go by the board.

“No more teaching!”

The Only Problem This Year…

The only problem this year? I would have to look several layers up, to the state legislature, to answer that one.Image

This year, my kids were great I can say that I had few to no discipline problems with any kids this year, and that’s saying something! What did I have trouble with? Evaluation procedures from my principal. 

Notice that I said “procedures,” because he didn’t want to do them any more than I wanted to have them. And it’s not because I think I’m doing anything badly; on the contrary, it’s been a super year in my classroom, since I implemented TAB Art!

Where does the trouble come from? It comes from a wrong-headed notion that you need to have statistics, numbers, to prove that teachers are doing well. This is a national misapprehension that our state legislature has gladly glommed onto.

Only now we hit the sticky wicket: how do you get the numbers?

Our state took a strange and wrongheaded approach, which is why I call it a problem. Not being in possession of a decent assessment protocol for teachers, it adopted a book by a teacher duo about engagement strategies, Class Acts.

In itself, I don’t mind that book, but I think it is certainly limited and short-sighted as a universal assessment tool. However, our state and therefore our district bought into it as a good measure of good teaching. The districts bought a book for every educator and administrator in the state (oh, happy lady authors). They also bought an ipad program with tabs that principals use to measure whether teachers are doing the strategies in the book. 

These numbers, according to our district, should not be universally high (the old teaching conundrum that not everybody can get A’s)–even if the teachers are doing a great job. Our principal pretty much ignored that stricture and just evaluated people as he saw it, but he ran himself ragged doing all the required evaluations. I always like having him visit my room and I don’t mind the scrutiny, ever.

It’s just a wrong-headed system.


Teachers Cheat, Too!

In a school culture where we teachers try so hard to help students be honest (and not to cheat), why then do we hear of more and more teachers cheating themselves?

The answer is simple. More and more (ignorant, ill-educated, ill-informed) legislators are imposing sanctions on teachers–and schools!–where students are not performing yet better on high-stakes standardized tests.

When NCLB was the only game in town, some schools across the country were even shut down because their students didn’t show adequate yearly progress. When Obama announced the voluntary excision of NCLB from the states, we thought sure there would be more states opting out, but that hasn’t proven to be the case. I think it is because legislators still demand standardized-test proof that schools are doing well, and states haven’t come up with alternative measures for it.

I think the direction is clear. At present, many schools base performance pay on student scores. It’s a short leap to setting salaries by test scores, and a small tumble down the precipice to firing teachers based on these scores.

No wonder teachers are induced to cheat. Here are some ways they do it. 

My favorite way for adults to handle these unfair measurements is John Gatto’s Bartleby Project.  In Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the main character handles his daily grind by politely saying, “I would prefer not to.”

Of course, teachers can’t say that, but students can. I wish that Gatto’s approach would become a national movement.