About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, June 4, 2010

To New Teachers: The Graduation Speech You Won’t Hear, But Should

This is a slightly longer version of an Op-Ed that appeared on the Los Angeles Times' Opinion page this morning.


Let me begin by celebrating your calling to join one of our society’s grand professions. What is more important than to play a central role in the development of young people’s lives? Cherish this calling, for it will be tested.

You are entering teaching at a troubled time. For all the political talk about the importance of education, a number of cities and states are trying to balance their budgets through cuts to schools. You will also hear conflicting messages in the national conversation about education. Teachers are universally praised as the solution to our educational problems and simultaneously condemned as the root cause of all that’s wrong with our schools.

What underlies this bipolar craziness is an ideological battle to define what teaching is. And while there’s not much you can do to affect the economy, you can be tough-minded and vocal about what it means to teach.

As is the case in so many spheres of modern life, there is a strong push to define teaching in technical and managerial terms. Education policy is increasingly being shaped by economists who have little knowledge of classroom life. Curricula are “scripted,” directing the teacher what to do when. Student learning is reduced to a few scores on a standardized test. The teacher becomes a knowledge-delivery mechanism whose effectiveness will be determined primarily by the scores on those tests.

You hear little from either the federal Department of Education or the local school board about engaging young people’s minds or about teaching as an intellectual journey. You don’t hear about the values that brought you into teaching. So let’s talk about these things now, for they are the mind and heart of the work you will be doing.

Teaching is a profoundly intellectual activity, and this applies to kindergarten as much as to Advanced Placement Physics. Most people will grant the brain work in physics, but what is neglected is the intellectual chops it takes to teach any subject to any age. The good primary school teacher knows about child development and how to engage young people across a range of subjects. She takes in a room full of kids at a glance to see who needs help, thinks on her feet, knows how to respond to a wrong answer and provides the apt example or comparison to guide a child toward clearer thinking.

You might not fancy yourself an intellectual. New teachers sometimes say that they’re going into teaching because they “like kids.” But remember, this is a special kind of caring, a relationship focused on children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. This is way more than affection; you are using your mind in the service of others.

Teaching, then, is a special kind of relationship. You’ll need to learn about the young people in front of you, where they come from, and what matters to them. This will call for special effort if you – like many teachers – are a foreigner to the communities in which you teach. Listen to your students. Try to understand the world as they see it. You will be both troubled and inspired by what you hear. And you’ll be smarter for it.

Don’t expect things to be reciprocal. Kids will not always respond, will even shun you. But stick with it. Show them that you’re serious and available even when they’re not. This will register. Young people are hyper-alert to betrayal and consistency. A veteran teacher I know tells her beginning teachers, “Don’t think that because a kid can’t read, he can’t read you.”

Get ready to fail. A lesson you slaved over will flop, or your understanding of a kid’s problem will be way off base. This will happen during your first year or two, but, believe me, it happens to all of us through the years. Education, wrote W.E.B. DuBois is “a matter of infinite experiment and frequent mistakes.”

For some of you, this will be the first time you’ve failed in a classroom. It will be painful and disorienting. So it is essential you know how to handle failure, for at those moments you will be vulnerable to your own insecurities and to those who are cynical about young people, some as close as the Teachers’ Lounge.

It is imperative, then, that the minute you walk through the schoolhouse door, you start figuring out who the good teachers are. Buy them coffee. Get to know them, for when you fail you’ll need them to help you make sense of things, to convert those failures into knowledge rather than doubt and bitterness. Learning to teach well is a long journey, full of deliberation and self-assessment. You don’t want to make that journey alone.

You’ve surely noticed by now that I haven’t given you any advice about what to do on Monday morning. This takes us back to the issue of what teaching is. Knowing the nuts and bolts of running a classroom is hugely important, and if your training was any good, you’ll have some plans in place. Furthermore, you soon will be swarmed with advertisements for products that promise to make your classroom hum.

I’m more interested in the way you think about what to do on Monday morning. Every good teacher I’ve known, regardless of grade level, subject, or style has the equivalent of what musicians call “big ears”; they are curious, open, on the lookout for anything they can use in the service of some larger goal. They possess a mindfulness about materials and techniques and have their fingers on the pulse of their students, figuring out if and how something will work with them. That is what it means to think like a teacher, and that thinking defines the work you are about to begin.


Kathleen said...

I sent this right off to my daughter Rosa, who will start this fall as a fifth-grade teacher in an Oakland public school. I hope every new teacher in these crazy times will see it--they need us all at their backs. Thank you, Mike!

Nancy Flanagan said...

Bravo. Lots of wisdom packed into a few paragraphs.

I gave the commencement speech for the Michigan State University School School of Ed a few years ago. It was about the art of story-telling--how all the data collecting in the world means nothing without a narrative line. It was also a great excuse to tell stories.

Here's what I wondering: what's the inspirational send-off for 2-year Adventure Teaching "Corps Members?" The kinds of human skills you're writing about take humility and time to develop.

Mike Klonsky said...

Short & sweet, Mike. Just the way grad speech is supposed to be. I'll post it.

lucy said...

I love this post Professor Rose! I wish things were different and I had gone to graduate school, but it's never too late and this has inspired me even more!

Liz Wisniewski said...

Thank you - I am a teacher in my fifth year, getting a bit frustrated with the political discussion - this greatly helps.

Erika said...

Hi, Mike. Thanks for the inspiring reminders and wisdom. It does get disheartening to constantly hear the public discourse of "blame the teacher." And there are few things less conducive to creating an engaging classroom than the solution of requiring a teacher to simply deliver curricula scripted by someone else (or some corporation).

Your voice, is as always, much appreciated. Keep up the good fight against the marketization of education!


Heather said...

I am currently a student of education at Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, NC. I work for the local school system in a special education classroom and will graduate in May of 2011 with duel certification in regular education and special education. I recently read your book Why School: Reclaiming Education for All of Us and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found your book very easy to read and I appreciate the experiences you included from your life. I was touched by the story you included about Anthony and his desire to better the life of himself and his daughter and all the small vignettes throughout the book.

One of the chapters that I connected to the most was chapter one, In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling. On page 28 you discuss poverty and the relationship it has with education. This is my favorite quote from your book.

“Poverty does not necessarily diminish the power of one’s mind, but it certainly draws attention to the competing demands of safety and survival: the day-to-day assaults of the neighborhood, just the tense navigation from home to school. The threats to family stability: illness or job loss—tough for any family—can unmoor a poor household. A student’s own health problems, often untreated or inadequately managed, can shrivel a young person’s sense of hope and the future.”

This made me think about the students I work with and see on a daily basis. Some of these students are living in poverty stricken homes and unsafe environments. They come to school hungry, tired, and scared. I want to be able to teach students that education can better their lives and change every aspect of life as they know it. My question is how can help these students know that once inside the school doors they are in a safe place and a place of learning.

Thank you for dedicating your life to educate others.

Bob Martinengo said...

Sorry - this is off-topic for this post but relevant to Mr. Rose's other work:

More college-educated jump tracks to become skilled manual laborers

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Stephanie Griffin said...

Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your wisdom and experience with me, Mike. I am currently a pre-service teacher aiming to be in the profession by 2012. I am always on the lookout for reading material like this, and this post is definitely one I will reread over and over again both before and during my teaching career. I am about to start your book Lives on the Boundary and cannot wait to expose myself to your wisdom in there as well. I've heard nothing but great things about it.

Bill said...

I have been trying to "understand the world as [my students] see it" for the past five years. It is why I started blogging. My struggles with digital literacy give me an insight into their struggles with academic literacy. What remains constant is that my students do posses a literacy. They are very adept at their literacy. Just because they are a basic writer in my class, does not mean that they don't have advanced literacy in other contexts.