Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Thing

Nothing strikes fear into a teacher's heart quite like the prospect of another day of PD on the New Thing. There are all these programs, based on the presumption that you're doing everything wrong, and trying to get you to correct yourself and do everything right. Right there you've already lost. It's like you're five years old and someone is telling you to drink castor oil for your own good.

First, no one wants to do anything for their "own good." Doing something for your own good is virtually always synonymous with doing something you don't want to do. More importantly, the people who claim to know what's good for you, well, they're often way off base. The implicit assumption of a whole lot of PDs is that we don't know what we're doing. I sat for several hours a few weeks ago while some highly paid corporate functionary told me what is and is not a good story.

It wasn't as bad as the first time they came, when we compared and contrasted crap with good writing, but all in all it was not a productive use of my time. I'd argue that if I, as an English teacher, were unable to distinguish between cleverness and crap there would be something amiss that a three-hour workshop would be unlikely to correct. The assumption that I don't know the difference, though, is insulting, and that's what you get from a lot of PD.

At a friend's school they simulated a sweat shop and had to make things. I saw pictures of baskets they created. This might be a great activity for a social studies class. In fact, given that I teach immigrants, it might be a great activity for my class. This is the sort of work my grandparents had to do when they came here. For all I know, this is what my students' parents are still doing. And in the US of A in 2019 working newcomers are reviled for doing work a whole lot of Americans wouldn't dream of doing. It's great to see someone break out of the New Thing Mode.

I wonder why PD can't consist of us going somewhere and doing something, perhaps as a model for something we'd go and do with our students. I once took my students to the Tenement Museum in Manhattan. It's pretty remarkable to see how people used to live. There's a Queens Museum a few miles from our school. I don't think I've set foot there for decades. Maybe we should be letting students know about their own neighborhoods. Maybe we should do walking tours. Maybe it should be the students leading us.

PD is, for the most part, the flavor of the week, or more accurately, of the year. Every year there is some New Thing, touted as the best and only thing, and we spend all year like dogs chasing our tails running after it. It doesn't matter whether or not we catch it, because next year will be the Newer Thing, and that will be all the rage.

PD sessions are almost invariably given uncritically by people who've accepted the New Thing as tantamount to the Ten Commandments. They believe in the Thing fervently, and the only possible way to be an effective teacher is to use the Thing on a perpetual basis in your classroom. There are good reasons for this. One is the only way to claw your way into the ranks of supervision is to be guided by the New Thing, whatever it may be. This is accompanied, of course, by an absolute willingness to drop the Thing in a New York minute once the powers that be come up with a new flavor.

We career teachers continue our work, even as supervisors continue to ponder why we fail to jump up and down at the prospect of each and every New Thing. Because they're 100% devoted to the Thing of the Week, it never crosses their mind that we may just as well have seen the Thing 15 years ago with a different name, and that 14 years ago it was discarded as trash, left in the pile with each and every other Thing of the Past.

We teachers just keep going. It's important that we remain critical and continue to ask questions, not matter how much that disturbs the powers that be. After all, our prime function is as role models to children.
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