Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Role of Experienced ELA Teachers

The more things change the more they change. 
We need to stop pretending otherwise.  One thing that is changing slowly and steadily is the preparation and background of ELA teachers, at least in the public sector.  Certification requirements and the curricula of education programs focus on teaching, as they should, but education courses are not the same as subject rigor.  I know - I have taken 33 graduate education credits, post MLS and BA (literature) degrees.  Although one course had me reading YA novels, I read them only to experience them, not to study them.  The same was true of writing across the curriculum, of grammar and language, of edtech classes.  The focus was always on how to use the pedagogical content in the classroom, not on learning new subject content.  For that, I have been on my own for 40 years.  Thank goodness I learn best, and choose to learn best, on my own.  But I am afraid that I am a vanishing breed.  Alas, the current generation of new teachers seems to know a bit about what-to-do but not a lot about what-to-include or how-to-include-it.  Moreover, they do not seem to be especially inclined to teach themselves what they don't know. 

Wait - that doesn't make sense.  Here we are restructuring education so that the students of today can do what they do best (and supposedly want to do) - structure their own learning.  But it seems to me that we have a lost half-generation of teachers standing in the way of their success.

If you rely upon being given bread, you will not learn how to bake it, or even where to purchase it.  

Yesterday I read a plea from an in-service teacher who had to teach the research essay, but who had never written a research essay herself.  An extreme case, but OMG!  On a daily basis I read requests from novice teachers for lesson plans, activities, vocabulary lists, reading lists, grammar activities...  These are not extreme cases, they are normal. The requests range from HELP! to Hey, anyone have... I suspect that education professors send their students to EC Ning and other teacher-focused social sites just to do these searches, for there is a rash of new members with every new term. I suspect that many in-service teachers and certification candidates are seeking help with course assignments.  Many other posts are, however, from young teachers feeling pressure in the classroom. 

I understand that ELA teachers may not be prepared to teach the material they have been hired to teach.  Often, the curriculum has been designed by educators with significantly more content knowledge and with a much wider and deeper reading experience (albeit it may have been learned by teaching from a good anthology for 15 years).  I understand also that the social media generation is now beginning to teach.  Turning to ones Circle, Group, or Friends for help is second nature.  In my online graduate classes, this was required. It was wrongly labeled "collaboration."  The fact of the matter is that, unless the professor deeply followed discussions, for at least one member of each group the experience amounted to cheating.  It bothered me then, it bothers me now.  What we do repeatedly becomes habit. 

The requests for HELP from novice and in-service ELA teachers that bother me reflect a mindset consistent with searching for restaurant and purchase recommendations.  They begin with "I need" and they are consistent with easy. And too often it is easy - experienced teachers make it so.

The old role: The Experienced Teacher as Giver and Sage

I can tell the difference between the experienced, knowledgeable ELA teacher and the novice. The former writes posts offer up details of his or her own unit, and asks the community for comment, extension, or simple conversation.  The latter simply asks for materials on a plate. Not for advice, mind you, but for a complete unit or activity.

It is ironic, isn't it, that the less tech saavy are using the social media platform to collaborate, whereas the tech natives are using the platform to avoid using the platform.  Note to experienced teachers: It is a monster of our own making.

It distresses me that so many experienced, successful ELA teachers (I understand that these two qualifiers do not always go together, but only the successful have the confidence to hand out materials freely) hand over their materials eagerly.  Rarely is there a hard question asked in response to a give me query.  Rarely is there a challenge from an experienced voice.  Most of the time, experienced teachers simply share their materials, and text lists.  I do this too (at least with suggestions and text lists), but I try to also recommend that the novice teacher read the books, go to the library, and that suggestions be adapted for the students and class. I provide l-o-o-n-g lists so the novice has to investigate and do some critical decision-making.  Only once have I been thanked - I conclude that my responses require too much work (that may be why there are never Comments on my posts to this blog...).

A novice asking me for a unit will not have a success.  But she will get a unit from another experienced teacher.

It distresses me is that the outcome of these "successful" searches is the failure of the young teacher to learn - the methods, the grammar, the construction of essential questions, the literary terms, the structures of narrative and poetry - and the failure of the young teacher to deeply read and analyze the texts.  Nothing promotes educational failure more than making it easy.   I ask, how then will these teachers be able to guide students to do these same essential tasks and develop these same skills? 

Ultimately, it is the student in the classroom who loses out.  Loses doubly if funding is eventually guided by assessments based upon a rigorous CCSS, for which he will not be prepared. Loses triply if he becomes disaffected with a worksheet, programmed education and drops out of it.

It is one thing to ask a student to be a successful independent learner, it is another to know how to guide him in that process.  I am worried that today's novice teachers are not learning how to be guides, because they are not themselves being guided.  It is a lost half-generation.

The new role: The Experienced Teacher as Guide for Other Teachers

The experienced, successful ELA teacher must step up and and play a new role within the school and online learning community.  That role is to say NO to requests for answers.  That role is to say Here is a place to find information for answers.  That role is to say Here is a model, here is advice - construct and create your own lesson plan and design your own activities.  That role is to say Take a risk - if you fall down, I'll help you.

Isn't this what "teaching the individual student" is all about?  Experienced teachers must be the guides of novice teachers as they are of their students.  They must begin to guide and drive those novices to learn for themselves what to include in curriculum and how to approach it. Experienced teacher-guides must have high standards and they must insist upon rigor from the novices.

I understand that this may be a difficult role for the experienced ELA teacher, who may be most comfortable playing the role of the sage. It is a role that most have assumed would be played by the teachers at teachers' colleges.  But just as iPads and mobile devices must now become part of the ELAs teacher's toolkit, it is time that this new role within the school, the teacher's lounge and the online communities becomes a part of the experienced teacher's toolkit. 

We need to stop giving it away.  We need to begin to teach our young colleagues what we taught ourselves, so that they can do the job of teaching that they are called upon to do.

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