Teacher knows best?

teacher knows best

Obey the teacher

Despite trying as hard as possible not to follow in the parental footsteps—my mother is a home economics teacher, my father an instructor of Tai Chi—there is, for better or worse, something of a teacher in me. Call it genes, an inherited from I don't quite know where sense of patience when explaining things, or just being quite the know-it-all, it seems I am in spite of myself mysteriously suited to the role. Mysteriously, because my parentally garnered inside knowledge has taught me at least one thing—taking up teaching professionally would be sheer insanity!

I am reminded at this point of a maxim common but worth repeating. It is said that the truly wise are wise only in the knowledge of how little they truly know. Let's just say, wise or only partially, my meditation practise reminds me of this knowledge every day.

In my job, or rather former job, I reached a senior level, which meant it was actually in my employment description to help out and train juniors, keeping an eye on their work and showing them how they might do something a better way. Quite the power trip it was not, because no matter how knowledgeable the teacher—an open question in my case—you need receptivity in your pupils, and those who are less experienced, less knowledgeable, and in particular of wounded pride, sometimes aren't. In saying that, people were usually glad to be helped, especially when the help is given without haughtiness, impatience or over-complication (I do try on all three counts), but I should admit that every now and then there was a "pupil" to whom I deliberately neglected my contracted responsibilities.

And just in case a mistaken sense of power ever did go to my head, there were the senior designers, whom, in the manner of a biology class food-chain—a top to bottom design studio hierarchy where I was above the bottom but below the top—had it in their job descriptions to oversee me. The Art Director in particular took extra pleasure in wielding his design oversight power, frequently deploying a personally abusive cross-banter that we both secretly enjoyed. A notoriously blunt person, I would have been highly offended had I mistaken he well-aimed barbs to be serious—a caveat to which many other people were humourlessly oblivious. The volley of good-humoured abuse was only on matters relating to design mind you, an area where I was paid to know my subservient place. Should technical matters ever get the better of him, the tables were instantly turned...

"Hey Mr. Art Director, where did you get the idea to load 6,000 fonts onto your computer from a network server—did they teach you that at design school?" It can be good sometimes to let off steam...

Returning to the point, I do have a vaguely formulated interest in teaching, although more at a philosophical level than practical, thought about rather than practised, which is why the following article made such a mark upon my mental blackboard. Anyone who thinks children come remotely close to realising their potential in the modern school system must have, as they say, drunk a little too much of the canteen kool-aid, and there is more than my own unpleasant matriculation memories to back up this particular truism.

In 'I'm a Saboteur.', an interview with award winning New York teacher John Taylor Gatto which I came across serendipitously today, the question is asked, in a time when brainpower seems more important than ever, why does the public school system (in America) seem more backwards than it has ever been before? Of course I would add that what our schools really need is heart-power, but splitting of hairs aside, Gatto is very much in the upper quadrant of the teaching bell-curve, a statistical anomaly of individual common sense and compassion working in an often dogmatic, one size fits all profession, as he relates in the following personal anecdote:

The second life-changing experience came at a school on 103rd or 104th Street and Columbus Avenue. I was assigned as a sub in a third-grade remedial reading class -- an easy assignment. You could write stuff on the board, pass out worksheets, and then sit there and read the Daily News. A little girl named Milagros Maldonado came up to the desk and said, "I don't need to do this. I already know how to read." All I wanted to do was finish the day, but I said to her, "Well, you know, these things are done by people older than you who are looking out for your own best interest, and they think you're better off here." And she said, "No, I can read anything."

There was a reader on the teacher's desk, and she grabbed the reader and said, "Ask me to read anything." I cracked it open to a story called "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which is an extremely difficult piece of American Victorian prose. And she read it without batting an eyelash. I said to her, "You know, sometimes, Milagros, mistakes are made. I'll speak to the principal." I walked into the principal's office and the woman began shrieking at me, saying, "I'm not in the habit of taking instruction from a substitute teacher." I said, "I'm not telling you what to do. It's just that this little girl can read." And she said something to me that, at my dying moment, I'll still remember. She said, "Mr. Gatto, you have no idea how clever these low-achieving children are. They will memorize a story so that it looks as if they know how to read it." Talk about an Alice in Wonderland world! If that little girl had memorized "The Devil and Daniel Webster," then we want her in national politics! The principal said, "I will come in and show you." After school, she came in and put Milagros through her paces. The little girl did well. Then she told Milagros, "We will transfer you." And when Milagros left, the principal said to me, "You will never be hired at this school again."


Read it: I'm a Saboteur: an interview with award winning New York teacher John Taylor Gatto