Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not Me, Coach!

Mary Rubel, petite, white-haired, and full of energy taught our 5th grade class with her contagious passion for learning new things.  I had just arrived at Henry Barnard Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma from the dusty classrooms of isolated schools in the oil patch of West Texas where my father was an engineer.  Scuffing to school through real autumn leaves (just like in the story books!) was a revelation.  Mary Rubel seemed straight out of fiction as well:  lively, smart, unfailingly cheerful and sure we could learn anything.   The next year we had Mrs. Benninghoff, tall, elegant, well-read, intellectual though we didn’t know to call it that.    Her love of poetry made the weekly assignment to memorize a poem seem more like initiation into word magic  than a dreaded chore.

Wilson Junior High was certainly nothing special to look at – none of Barnard's beautiful red brick or decorative tiles, but several of my teachers more than made up for the drab setting. Naomi Barnes made stories come alive and broadened our vocabulary without our really feeling we were mastering word lists.  (I do have a funny memory from that time of a friend who, for the assignment to use each new word in a sentence, wrote “I have a [insert vocabulary word] in my notebook” for all 20 of that lesson’s words!)  Mr. Beshara was an extraordinary math teacher – even for students who weren’t excited about math, and he went on to be a leader in math education.   

At Central High (scorned by the richer kids at the suburban high schools) Rex Teague led the choral music program as a welcoming and inclusive place (he even let me into choir – very egalitarian!) for all students of all races, academic tracks, and range of musical ability.  He preferred 100-voice choirs to the more select 20-voice choirs from the suburbs that his choirs would be competing against; to cut out 80 students interested in singing would to him be a loss, not a win. 

And Mary Ellen Bridges – our inimitable English teacher!  We called her “Be Specific Bridges” because her comments on our papers always pushed us to think more, dig into the text more, and explain our ideas more clearly. 

Each of these teachers was a gift to me, important to my learning and important as people to look up to then and to emulate as I became a teacher. I’m not sure any of them could be hired today.   The computerized check lists for teacher hiring are silent on the attributes that made these teachers so effective and so memorable.

And if they could get hired, I’m not sure they would be allowed to be those creative, student-centered intellectual teachers we admired – at least not in the Tulsa schools.

For reasons that hopefully someone will investigate, the Tulsa schools have bought into the de-skilled,factory-model of “teaching” as managed labor.   They're paying a management vendor CT3 that claims it can “improve teaching” with “real time coaching.”  A “coach” watches the teacher and in “real time” (should we say “unreal time”) tells the teacher what to do and when – through an ear piece the teacher wears while teaching!    Imagining Mr. Beshara get teaching pointers from an amateur with a microphone, or Miss Bridges being "coached" on ways to answer a student's question, or on how much time to take in discussing Antigone's agonizing dilemma is truly un-imaginable.  (Nor can I imagine that anyone who had read Antigone would take the job of talking into the ear of a literature teacher.)  

But here are the company’s claims:

Cutting-edge coaching that changes teacher practice through immediate, non-disruptive feedback and guidance from coaches during classroom instruction.

And here is a link to a teacher in another state who had to be“coached” from the “sidelines.”

How do we get the teachers we need? Not by screening applicants with checklists of generic behaviors, not with working conditions that script their teaching, and not with “coaches” who do not know the children, their families, the subject matter content, the teacher’s repertoire of curricular resources or instructional methods.  A coach who by having taken the job reveals tragic ignorance of the relational and creative dimensions of teaching that awaken in children the awareness that they are learners -- in the fullest sense of that experience.

I hope someone does an analysis of what the budget for this silly coaching system contract could have paid for that the teachers and children of the Tulsa schools actually need.  And I hope tax payers and voters figure out which school board members and which administrators thought this system would "work."  Maybe it's the people who approved the contract who need someone to whisper caution in their ears the next time a vendor full of ridiculous -- but expensive -- promises looks to solve a problem that only professional teachers, working with educated principals and engaged parents, can solve.  And that's what they'll need to do when this "coaching" thing gets sent back to the locker room.

To share your thoughts, click on the word “comments” below.

1 comment:

Linda McSpadden McNeil said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Please start a conversation.