Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pulling down other teachers to get ahead?

There's a facet of Australian society called the Tall Poppy Syndrome, in which successful and/or popular people must be pulled down to be like other people. Bill Clinton calls our Prime Minister one of the smartest leaders in the world? Better make a joke about Kevin Rudd's big head. A scientist helps to find a vaccine which prevents cervical cancer? Report each and every adverse reaction to the vaccine. It's supposed to be related to Australia's equality . . .

The same syndrome seems to be ever present in teaching. Over the last two or three years I've read books by popular teacher-authors such as Nancie Atwell, Rafe Esquith and Ron Clark. I haven't always agreed with everything they've written, but there is a lot there I like. I've tried a lot of their techniques in my classroom - some have been a huge, raging success (Reader's workshop, levels of behaviour), some which have needed to be modified for my students/classroom/state requirements/country, and some have had to be put aside for further reflection/rethought. Most of all I have liked the way that these teachers have made me think, and have made me feel that it's ok to be passionate about teaching (or in Nancie's case in particular, teaching reading).

But I've noticed, whenever I've turned to the internet to learn more, that forums and blogs seem to want to tear down these teachers personally. They complain that they have specialised circumstances which would never work for the rest of us. They complain that these teachers are setting unrealistic or insane expectations which is just unfair. They nitpick every little detail, using the one or two things that don't work for them to dismiss the whole concept altogether. They call them 'super-teachers' (not in a nice way) whose ideas are instantly dismissable by mere mortal teachers 'just wanting to collect their paycheque'

The critics always leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, because at the root of Nancie and Rafe and Ron's work I see an absolute passion for teaching and a belief that education is a pathway worth following. And I can't, for a moment, understand what it so wrong with that. If you don't like part of what they do then adapt it, or exchange it for something that will work for you. Stop blaming them for thing that aren't working for you.

I, personally, see this too(on a different scale :) ). I am blessed, after three terms of work, with a class which lines up neatly, works hard, are considerate and seem to enjoy most learning situations. I get told that this is because they're gifted and therefore well behaved, or because they're not a real class, that I don't have to work hard to get this kind of behaviour, enthusiasm or results. Unsurprisingly, I find these comments difficult. I spent a good 3 or 4 weeks constantly drilling in my expectations of behaviour at the beginning of the year. I expect them to be lined up in two straight lines facing the front, and we will practice if it's not good enough (and we have practiced). I have very high expectations of behaviour, down to requesting students walk quietly up the stairs into our classroom (visitors are always noisier than we are now). And classroom work is aimed at the level of the students, often hands on, and surrounded in the expectation that the students can do well at it (and celebration when they do well).

Don't get me wrong, things definately go pear-shaped from time to time, but because we've built up a good classroom environment, things generally run smoothly. So to be told I've had no part in that, or it can never be recreated with another group, is frankly a little offensive.

Where am I heading with this? Well, the best teachers, as far as I can see, learn from each other, not by pulling other people down. I'd like to be one of those best teachers, so I'm going to keep reading books by Nancie, Rafe, Ron and others like them, because they've given the time to try to offer something to me. The considerate thing would be to take what they offer with an open mind.


  1. Wow! I have been thinking exactly the same thing lately! Partly because I have found myself slipping into that complaining mode occasionally.Oh, the stories I could tell! But I suspect we all have those.

    I love those 3 authors! I have learned so much from them. It is easy to feel alone and put down, but thankfully we have books and the internet to find like-minded people to share with and who understand some of our challenges.

    I, too, teach gifted kids, and I think it is harder to teach them routines and expectations than a "regular" class - they get so excited about what they are learning and doing, that it is difficult to get them to slow down and quiet down when needed. So I will commend you from here!

  2. My experience has been that often gifted classes are more challenging as far as basic behavior and routines go. They tend to want to do things their own way, often have difficulty with transitions, and can be "twice gifted" meaning that they may have other issues that make them kind of quirky.

    So they don't always line up perfectly (though it sounds like yours do, and I think you deserve full credit for that because they don't just do it automatically!), and sometimes get a little loud. They're learning. They're happy. And the challenge was good for me. Kept me on my toes.

  3. I like what you're saying here! I love to read Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins to see what I can take from them and adapt to fit my kids and my class. I think many are looking for a professional resource book that will tell them EXACTLY what to do. That takes all the fun out of it! As for me, I will keep on reading the "idealists". I'm a better teacher because of them!