Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ms. Stone and Ms. Fire: A (Slightly) Later Career Teacher's Position

I've been loving this miniseries at GothamSchools by new teacher C. W. Arp. To sum it up, Arp has compared and contrasted the teaching styles of two of his colleagues, and has been struggling with what style he currently has and which one he would prefer to emulate. "Ms. Stone" is a firm, no-nonsense teacher whose classroom, lessons, and activities are perfectly structured. She permits no deviation, whether that deviation might be positive or negative. "Ms. Fire," on the other hand, prefers a more free-flowing classroom with more of what we might call "productive chaos." He notes that both teachers' students seem to respect each teacher and do good work. So, qualitatively, can we say which teacher is "better"? More to the point--and this is where I believe Arp gets really provocative, in a good way--is one teacher better than the other? Can we even say that? And, as a newer teacher, which one should Arp try to emulate? I don't know that there is a right answer to Arp's question. Judging from his background, I think he can live with that ambiguity, in that sense. But he does need to answer the question for himself. I hope he won't mind me tossing in my two cents.

I can say that the best teachers I know have elements of both teachers. The best teachers I know are consistent, meticulous, and relentless like Ms. Stone. But I also know some of those same teachers who will, seemingly, "lose it" with kids like Ms. Fire. Those teachers can use passion, disappointment, glee, even something pretty much like rage to positively (yes) motivate their students. God only knows how they do it, but they do.

Which leads me to my next point: Ms. Fire's act is not for amateurs, for the most part. New teachers are much better off aiming for Ms. Stone. The more dispassionate and predictable you can be, the better. I've written here before that I'm a great admirer of Gary Rubinstein's eminently practical advice in The Reluctant Disciplinarian, and in that book he writes that brand-new teachers absolutely must keep instruction straightforward and discipline consistent. As you get your legs, you can let more of your true personality shine through, if you feel, deep down, that you are more of a Ms. Fire. But I think a Ms. Stone tends to make kids feel safer--not so much in the sense of physical, life-and-death safety (although I mean that, sort of), but in the sense that they will perceive your classroom to be a place where there are no nasty surprises, no "gotchas," so to speak. They will understand your classroom to be a place of simple rules and procedures that are followed, all the time, and that they, too, can master them and please you. Not that a Ms. Fire doesn't do that--it's just that it's easier to approach it from a Ms. Stone mindset.

I'm pretty much a Ms. Stone, still. I wish I were more of a Ms. Fire. But it's not good for me to try to be something I'm not, or something that I too obviously wish I could be. I like watching the Ms. Fires, though. I learn from them.

Are you a Ms. Fire or a Ms. Stone? I'm going to be posting the link to this post in Arp's guestblog at Gotham, so feel free to add your veteran or newbie perspectives in the comments.
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