Learning to Teach (Superhero Perspective)

I recently spent four weeks teaching in a comprehensive high school in Sydney’s south. It was my first ever teaching experience, and it was intense! Two things that hit me early on:

  1. lot of preparation goes into each class (e.g., lesson plan, PPT slides, finding resources, making worksheets, designing activities, etc). I’m sure it does get easier over time as you build a portfolio of things to draw on. It also depends on whether you want to be great, or whether you are content with being mediocre.
  2. lot of things are happening all at once inside the classroom. In addition to ‘delivering’ the content, I’m trying to familiarise myself with names/faces, monitor behaviour, formulate questions to ask students, respond to input from students, keep track of time, keep track of environmental factors — good teaching requires expertise in multi-tasking.

What I also began to realise as the weeks went on is that the process of learning to teach is like being a superhero who begins to discover and explore my superpower. Teachers have tremendous power over students, both in terms of how they learn and how they behave. Think about it — we have the power to control people. “Line up outside, two straight lines.” “Open up your books and write this heading.” “Turn around now. Look at me.” “Write down three things you learned today.” “Pick that up. Put it in the bin.”

Being an effective teacher requires having the confidence and capability to exercise power over people. This brings me to a really great quote from Haim Ginott, a child psychologist and author who wrote this about the power of teaching:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Lots of things have being proposed to improve/reform the education system — money, syllabus, testing, technology, parent choice; the list goes on and on. Ultimately however, learning happens in the classroom, as facilitated by teachers. Developing the knowledge, skills and motivation of teachers is paramount; and also, I would suggest, their character. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

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Grit Is Not (Necessarily) A Virtue

I’m currently studying in the field of education. This is an interesting area in that everyone agrees that it is important, yet there’s so much variability in its delivery and outcomes. Even in the brief time that I have read about and visited schools so far, my encounters have ran the gamut from inspiring and heartwarming to infuriating and depressing. The system muddles along with so much that needs to be improved.

A while back I saw this short TED talk where researcher Angela Lee Duckworth spoke on the importance of grit to success:

To summarise:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

As with most TED talks, it is slick and persuasive. I remember silently assenting to this obvious and important truth. The implication for education is clear: we need to teach grit to children so that they can be more successful. Sounds about right?

Not so fast. A couple of weeks ago I was going through the archives of Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who is an outspoken critic of the testing culture in schools. I came across an article, “Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad,” that gave me pause. Kohn makes several arguments against grit, including, for example, that it may be pointless (and even harmful) to persist with something, and that grit unduly focuses on the “how” at the expense of the “why” (e.g., fear, approval seeking, genuine interest, etc.), which may be the more important consideration.

For me, Kohn’s most noteworthy objection to proponents of grit goes to the heart of their conception of students in the education system. Proponents of grit place the emphasis on young people’s inner character—their grit, resilience, perseverance, and so forth. However, Kohn argues that the more we focus on these personal qualities, the less likely we’ll question the big picture, including problematic policies and institutions. For proponents of grit, underachievement is to be explained by internal character flaws, such as “failure to exercise self-discipline”, rather than structural issues such as class and privilege which in reality play a significant (and often determinative) role in economic outcomes.

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Perhaps, as Kohn points out, the problem is not with kids who are lacking in their stick-to-itiveness. Perhaps they tune out because what they’re asked to do is not particularly engaging or relevant. There are educational reformers who are on a mission to make pedagogy more constructive and imaginative, and less focused on memorisation and testing. Kohn notes that for Duckworth and other proponents of grit, they look at the status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?

When you put it that way, grit doesn’t sound so flash anymore, does it? Grit is nice. Grit is important. But we can and should also do more to change a broken system rather than simply get kids to adapt to it.