BRAD CLEMONS: The perils of teaching seem more obvious every year

Monday, September 26, 2011 | 9:30 a.m. CDT

As I’m settling into my 10th year of teaching, I've noticed a few things about the profession.

I know now that if teachers are going to make it more than a couple years, they have to measure student progress over long spans of time.

Looking at daily test scores or a room of blank stares is a horribly misleading measure of human development. It's like watching corn grow when you’re getting paid to make tortillas.

Rookie teachers come in, after watching a great teacher movie like "Lean on Me," with an assumption that all a struggling school really needs is an idealistic protagonist and two hours.

During my first year teaching at my first school, I gave a quick quiz to ascertain a good starting point and came to the quick conclusion that no other teachers were doing their jobs. "These kids don’t know anything!"

Nine months later I was going to the other teachers, begging, "OK. I give up. Help me! How can I be just like you?"

I found out that when the students couldn't find a verb on the first day, it wasn't because the previous teachers hadn't taught them parts of speech.

I, myself, taught the same material over and over throughout the year, and in May I still had to put the verbs in red and white stripes and tell the kids we were playing "Where’s Waldo."

My colleagues helped me understand that all young brains are wrapped in a thick coating of Teflon. Either it must be worn down over years — usually at least 18 — or it must be scraped off with the fork of fear and the chisel of charisma.

Educators must quickly become one part bully and two parts cheerleader.  

Even then, teachers with a healthy, long-term measure of success find themselves staying or leaving, based on one question: "Are the students better off with me or without me?"

To answer that, these teachers must look not only at a student's mastery of the given content, but also the moral and behavioral development of the student.  

Rookie teachers inevitably panic in the first few years when they realize what hypocrites they are. They start to believe they aren’t qualified to be examples of maturity.

Rookies think, "Good golly! Did I just improv my 'Always Be Prepared for Class' speech? I’m such a loser."

I often save my "Never Procrastinate" lesson for days when I haven't prepared anything else.

So, like overweight doctors and private-jet-flying environmentalists, we have to callous our consciences from the guilt of hypocrisy. We must realize that the value of our message is too high to sacrifice for our own pride.

We are also habitual over-committers. 

I'm currently coaching a soccer team, directing a play, leading a small church group, teaching a college prep curriculum (at my second school), reading a book on how to say "NO!" and, even right now, writing an article when I should be grading a stack of essays. 

When my kids find me at home, it's like a celebrity sighting.

"Mom, guess who I saw today just eating like a normal person?"


"Really! Did you get him to autograph your form for school?"

"No. I didn’t want to bother him. I’m sure he gets that all the time."

I emphasize the importance of a good night's rest when I’ve gone to bed at 1 a.m. and gotten up at 6.

(Don’t judge. Many of you are reading this at work right now in a cubicle, sitting under a motivational poster.)

I tell my classes to be kind, but my favorite show on TV is "Bully Beatdown."

I train students to follow through on their commitments, yet I'm fully prepared to renege on my commitment to care for the family dog if any expense exceeds $200.

(Speaking of hypocrisy, have you ever noticed that animal rights people only want to save the cute or fun animals? And I'm pretty sure Bob Barker cleans bugs off his windshield with a clear conscience.)

I want the students to exercise to reduce stress, but the only parts of me in shape are related to stress.

Through years of frowning, I now have a six-pack on my forehead, and my jaw muscles are ripped from grinding my teeth while I sleep. I have a number of wrinkles named after the students that caused them.

Students can tell the day of the week by the degree of redness in my bloodshot eyes.

Overall, I think the kids are better off with me than without me; thus, here I am after 10 years. The goal is to keep finding better forks and chisels.

Just like parents, teachers hope to brainwash kids well enough and long enough that by the time the youngsters realize the teachers are full of bull, some of the material has made it through the Teflon and stained the child.

See, if we only teach students about the areas of life we have mastered, the world would be on fire. And how would we design a curriculum we could all agree upon?

Apparently, some fools believe that putting on the toilet paper so it unrolls from the top is morally relative.

No, educators must become fully impassioned hypocrites because society only advances on the hypocrisy of teaching each generation.

Brad Clemons lives in Columbia and is currently writing the non-fiction version of "Stand and Deliver."

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Charles leverett September 26, 2011 | 10:01 a.m.

Always enjoy reading your articles.
But I did find one thing that was wrong in the article. I'm not sitting under a motivational poster.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 26, 2011 | 8:12 p.m.

I sit under an old Dilbert cartoon, where the PHB is interviewing an applicant...

Applicant: How do you reward your top performers?
PHB: I keep increasing their workloads until their performances become average.
Applicant: So... why would anyone try to excel?
PHB: I use only the finest motivational posters.

And, of course, a version of this:

The only quibble I've got with the article is the assertion that kid's brains are coated with teflon, i.e. very hard to penetrate. This has never been my experience, *outside* of a classroom. Kid's brains are like sponges, they soak up almost everything. Except, of course, anything to do with anyone else's agenda. There, it's like an impenatrable force field. That exception includes 110% of anything that's presented in school.

It seems like it should be easy to capitalize on children's natural curiosity, but in practice it's difficult. It's like a game of whack-a-mole, except your mallet is only allowed to move at half the speed the moles do.

(Report Comment)
Brad Clemons September 27, 2011 | 6:38 a.m.

All the books say motivation is the biggest driver in learning, so that's always the first goal. The real power of horrible devices like repetition and homework is that they make the kids "motivated" to learn just to ease the pain. Some would call it brainwashing, but if that's what it takes, wash away, I say.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 27, 2011 | 1:27 p.m.

Capitalizing on creativity doesn't scale, at all. Statistically speaking, out of a classroom of 35 kids (isn't that about the size of today's classroom?), maybe one is mentally in the right place at the right time for the rigidly time/age-locked curriculum being delivered.

I'll concede it's probably the best of all the bad alternatives. But for the kids who are already ahead of that point, there is no learning. It's just busy work. It's not in any way motivational. The fork and the chisel inflict pure damage. That's the corollary.

I think kids should be allowed to test out of homework assignments. If you want to talk about motivation, I think that would be a pretty powerful incentive to get kids to learn the material as quickly as possible.

That would also free me up, as the one-on-one teacher, to capilize on the curiosity at home, rather than being forced to do the school's rather pointless bidding. I honestly resent the fact that the school system thinks they know how to utilize my time with my kids at home better than I do. They don't.

My fam may be atypical there, but we end up being held back and punished for doing, and having done, the right thing.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock September 28, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.

"I think kids should be allowed to test out of homework assignments. If you want to talk about motivation, I think that would be a pretty powerful incentive to get kids to learn the material as quickly as possible."

I did that in my classes a few times. It was pretty effective but it requires more work on the teachers part to track everything. Of course when they test out natually you have to give them more challanging work. Which of course refers to your comment about how the boss rewards his top performers. Some kids are self motivated and of course others must be motivated. I found that it was best to have a selection of things that meet the school learning objectives for the kids. Then the kids picked what they wanted to learn that was still a school objective. Then they have ownership. It also motivated other kids to learn the material faster so they could do the "cool" projects that the advanced kids were working on.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 28, 2011 | 6:41 a.m.

Is the number "35" for students in a classroom somewhat accurate or just a number grabbed out of thin air?

When I was a student the "optimal" number of students in a public school classroom was considered to be 22. That's a considerable difference from 35. Of course there were fewer students then than now. (The entire population of the United States, adults and kids, was significantly smaller.)

Where my granddaughters attended high school (private) students with high grade points can choose not to take one of their semester final exams. That's very popular.

(Report Comment)
Brad Clemons September 28, 2011 | 8:56 a.m.

At my school, the classes run from 25 students in the elementary to about 15-22 or so in the high school. I like the idea of testing out very much, and for me it wouldn't require more work overall because it would make the classes more evenly stacked. One of the biggest challenges for small schools like mine is to meet the needs of the students wherever their abilities are. It's not uncommon to have National Merit Scholars sitting next to students that are struggling to keep up. Bigger schools can separate the students on interests and abilities, but schools like mine could benefit from having some testing out.

And Derrick, I understand entirely with your last bit that parents can do better job and you would be surprised at how many teachers agree with you. I'm very uncomfortable with having a state-controlled curriculum, but it's not going to change anytime soon. Most people don't even know or care that there are much better ways to do education than our current model, because they've never known any different or felt the true weight of consequences from a poor education. Until very recently, an American could get by with mediocre skills and still anticipate a comfortable lifestyle. But I'm afraid those days are over.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 28, 2011 | 9:02 a.m.

@Ellis: Far worse than merely grabbed out of thin air; grossly overstated for dramatic effect!

Here's the actual data forCPS:
Entire district: (19)
Ridgeway: (17)
Derby Ridge: (18)
RB Elementary: (19)
Smithton: (15)
West: (19)
Hickman: (23)

To view a school's data, go to:
- Click on the "Schools" menu at top, drill down to school
- Click the "Data" tab for that school
- Click the "Student Staff Ratios" link, 2nd from bottom in list

I've spent time in the schools and classrooms. After bothering to look up the actual data, I can tell you my perception is *way* higher than the actual numbers. Everything always seems so crowded when I'm there!

Another salient point from the DESE tables: CPS has about 20% fewer administrators per student than the Missouri average.

(Report Comment)

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