Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What ARE we teaching?

They arrive at 9 a.m. and leave six and a half hours later. Instruction, conversation, art, worksheets, questions, quizzes, homework, assignment pads, tests... what did we accomplish?

Sometimes we teachers drive home at night thinking... "great day! Yes."

Then there are those other days. Every new teacher is certainly told about those every experienced teacher has had. There are days when it seems no matter what was attempted, the end of the day brought frustration. All the planning and forethought... all the ingenuity we hoped they'd experienced... all effort -- to no avail. Those are the days we go "well that didn't work... now what?"

But I, a career switcher, know from first hand experience that other professions have their ups and downs too. No matter what the workplace may look like, sometimes one's drive home is happy... sometimes depressing. I think it's fair to say that the difficult days make teachers say... "why do this?"

So I had a student teacher a few months ago. She did a great job. Finished up her undergraduate experience in my class. What an ending it was for her. Watching from my desk and sitting on my hands, as they say, trying not to interrupt... I realized all over again -- teaching is tough. We are expected to do so many things well.

We plan outside of work hours. We grade then too. Teachers are asked to become experts in areas that they teach. In elementary school that's defined as language arts, science, social studies, and mathematics. If every student doesn't understand the concept, we're asked to remediate until they do -- regardless if the student even wants to understand. We need to both understand and identify learning disabilities. We are asked to differentiate instruction depending on an individual's strengths. And of course we need to be sure that everything that occurs in class ties to district goals. And there's lots more... but there's one important lesson worth noting more than others.

You know... they don't teach you how to motivate in teacher preparation courses.

They do mention that how your students do on the state assessments is how you're evaluated... where teacher programs fail is that those assessments don't have a check off box for the child to check off: "I didn't give it my all" or "I really don't like math so I don't care about my score" or "there are so many crazy things going on at home, I really couldn't concentrate on school". More on this one again.

Yes I know. Construction is tough. Accounting is tough. Firefighting is tough. Nursing is probably tough too. I suppose everyone will argue that they've decided on a difficult profession.

But I'm molding human beings here. I'm not selling widgets so determining success can't always be quantitative. Saving lives as a doctor or rescue worker certainly is important work -- rewarding too I'm sure. But for close to a year I not only meet the expectations set forth by the state, I try to also meet those of my parents, colleagues, administrators and... my students. It can be quite the tricky balancing act.

And there is no better feeling than when students return after continuing on to the next grade and they tell you how the zany things you did in class... actually made a difference. How my origami lesson that frustrated them so really showed them importance of details and perseverance. Or how a difficult subject was made easier because of something I said or did. Those are moments for another post.

In ending, I don't think a state assessment score really equates that I've been a successful teacher. Sure, seeing those pass advanced scores in print feels good. But after five years of this... I think that's just the beginning. What about the rest of the student?

Have I successfully encouraged them to go beyond what they thought possible?

Teaching is like overseeing 24 little nations (the current number in my class). Sometimes they get along, sometimes they argue and want nothing to do with one another. Sometimes they just want to be acknowledged. And each day is different.

I hope that when students leave my class after a year. They will remember me as someone who cared enough to be honest. Who was able to challenge them and they in turn met the challenge. Most of all, I hope I taught them that success is not determined by the degree of genius within... it is in fact determined by persistence and a desire to accomplish what they desire.

I call it a life lesson. Something that I think we definitely ought to be teaching. Can we please assess that too? Now how do they put that on a multiple choice form?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is Being a Food Snob A Bad Thing?

I enjoy a good meal.

I think there should be craft invested in my consumption. I think there's value in understanding cheeses which I still don't. I think culinary school are important. I think an innovative chef ought to be rewarded financially. I think about what the White House chefs must have to create for midnight presidential hunger pains. I'm impressed by our newly opened Fresh Market grocery store and the way their bakery selections have an obscene variety of goodies.

I can even appreciate a deep fryer, however I think both doctors and gastric connoisseurs would agree that it should be used carefully. Of course I tend to think more about the food experts advice than the medical one.

But the timer beeping at the local hamburger joint does not make my mouth water and its attendant rushing to raise the fries from the fat does instill my love for what's dripping with fat.

Perhaps it's because of my father's genes which possess him to think of the evening meal upon waking in the morning. Apparently he stares at the ceiling thinking not of work or difficult world issues unresolved, but of what combination of meats, vegetables and starches would be perfect to end that day's events. This skill admittedly, I am far from perfecting.

Or maybe because my mother cooks without a measuring cup. She bakes without one as well. I've seen the infamous Paula Deene give fellow cooking experts hell about not using measuring spoons and cups. My mother does not follow Paula's advice. Instead I have seen her apply seemingly random dashes, pours and combinations to create consistent yummy dishes. I am not so gifted. I do however tell her that this lack of skill is entirely her fault as childhood memories do not include much, actually any, cooking as a youngster.

Despite my lack of hands on training, I've managed to move on with occasional success.

I am happy to report that I have made many a chocolate chip pancake for both college roommates and my children. Both my roommates gained weight while I worked that pistachio enameled stove. And I am happy that they gained weight... forgive me but it still sounds like success.

Speaking of college, a favorite memory is hosting a party at my apartment that did not, solely, center on debauchery... but on creating a jambalaya so spicy that the first few seconds of consumption pleased my guests until the fire within the dish surfaced a full 5 seconds later. I still smile remembering their rush to extinguish the flames in their mouths. I am still proud of that multiple pepper combination I created like an experiment in a separate bowl. I will add that I underestimated how quickly that keg of beer was consumed. I also remember that everyone in the townhouse seemed happy. First "dinner party" - success.

I've known people unfamiliar with foods not labeled on an overhead menu. Those golden arches pass my by without a moment's hesitation. I don't appreciate the fast in food.

I do appreciate the effort spent on each item on my plate however I am not referring to the way a hamburger is expertly wrapped in milliseconds by a teenager in the food prep and wrap station. while I wait in line like a cow in the milking barn. I dislike those lines. Now I understand the necessity of waiting and the virtue of patience. I question the worth of patience in this situation.

I prefer instead to wait in line at the butcher's shop in a sleepy little German town. From my occasional trips to the home of my ancestor's I appreciate the banter between the housewife and the butcher. Now is the conversation the wife's attempt at getting a better cut of beef and the butcher's opportunity to flirt I know not... but I appreciate it enough to eavesdrop from the corner. In my desire to take in the atmosphere I often forget to make the vital decision about cold cuts or cuts of pork... I try to return to looking at the selection under glass. Hmmm... maybe a smoked sausage link that I can nibble on while I continue to the next merchant.

All this brings me to wondering whether appreciating a good, dare I say small portioned, meal outweighs one in which endless amounts are available at the local buffet. I completely understand that good is defined subjectively thereby the issue.

For some it is defined by the most available for the least purchase price. For others it isn't so much the smallest portion for the highest price but appreciating each bite consumed. Is this the food snob I have become?

I know the latter sounds healthier and I might even pull out the healthy card in my defense.

But there's this meal I'm thinking of now. A mere two hours after I've risen from bed while I sit here typing with a steaming cup of coffee beside me.

I've introduced to my household a dish referred lovingly as Moco Loco -- another college memory. Macaroni served alongside sticky rice which is covered by a beef patty hidden under a fried egg submerged under brown gravy. Oh, and perhaps a large slice of New York cheesecake.

Now wouldn't you also like a "healthy" portion?