For 99 cents you can buy the best book by a teacher on teaching in recent years: 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip. The book comprises reflections from the pseudonymous “Spotted Toad” on his ten years (2000–2010) teaching science in public schools in New York. Spotted Toad has a blog and is famous on Twitter for his public-policy insights, but until reading the book and hosting him on my podcast, I didn’t realize he also had literary talent and a penchant for reflection on the situation in which young teachers find themselves.
The combination makes for fascinating reading, especially given his experience with countless education-reform initiatives, whether ideological or technological, state or federal, Democratic or Republican. He started with the Teach for America program, an effort to send top graduates from non-education fields to teach for two years in poor neighborhoods, which is as ambitious as it sounds and gets vast amounts of money in donations. This is America; we hope to do well by doing good — and conversely, we put money behind idealism. Unfortunately, idealism doesn’t take “no” for an answer, or even “not until you’re good at what you’re trying to do.”
And fixing schools for poor kids is very, very hard. Despite our wealth and technology, our schools are failing as institutions. True, international test scores look all right if you break them down by community. Chinese kids in America compare favorably with Chinese students in the various Asian countries taking the same tests. So also with other communities. But that means some communities on average do great and others poorly. We all want the best for our children, so this is a big political problem. If education — applied Enlightenment — is the principal path to success in America, and vast numbers of people fail at it, what comes next?
Moreover, school means very different things for poor people and rich people. We expect too much of schools in poor communities. The book shows how we attempt through education to replace communities and save children from poverty. The worse off the community, the likelier that the schools have to teach everything about being an adult to children, rather than focusing on academics. Schools have few punitive powers, and the worse off the kids are, the higher the chances they don’t even have a father. What does authority mean then, if anything?
Equality and excellence are different things, always pulling education in different directions. Worse, the book shows, equality itself separates into different things, friendship and authority, so that the wisest way to educate children is not self-evident, despite the therapeutic pieties of our times. Authority is about who is singled out for praise or blame, which turns out to have serious consequences. But friendship is about everyone feeling the same, including a remarkable degree of equality between teachers and students. And our teachers have to deal with these problems without guidance. There’s not much learning on the job, either, since a teacher in a bad school cannot simply mind his business and teach the curriculum. So many other problems beset him, all coming fast, unpredictably, and aggravated by his idealism.
Given this situation, it’s wonderful to read an honest yet gentle book that shows how these problems actually play out in schools. An author’s character always matters, but especially when it’s a matter so fraught with hope and heartbreak. To experience much failure and remain charitable is hard, but it is necessary in order to tell unpleasant truths without turning to bitterness or despair. Perhaps it’s even harder to witness the pious cruelty of bureaucrats who harm kids for the sake of education fantasies. I came away from the book not merely having learned about unpleasant realities, but with admiration for a combination of Stoicism and charity much needed, I think, in our public discourse.
More, the book helped me learn what it takes to achieve these virtues, without any bragging or boasting of methods and ideologies. What it means for a young man to dedicate himself to becoming a good teacher, all too aware that he’s a bad teacher to begin with. It’s hard to teach young college grads to be teachers, because they become incredibly conformist the more successful they become — they are students not merely in fact, or legally, but in their minds, too. They follow authoritative guides and so know very little about knowledge — and nothing about the mysterious beginning of reasoning for children. The book got me thinking that, in associating success with knowledge, expertise, and elite higher education, we have forgotten that education should strive for self-knowledge.
The book deals with this problem by mixing reflection on education in America with autobiographical notes. You don’t get a jargon-laden theory, much less a self-help book, but instead a beautiful picture of love of teaching and the often-mute suffering that comes with failure. It owes much to American traditions going back to Emerson and Thoreau — reflecting on experience in order to understand what America is going through and what promises of freedom amount to now. How to live with ambition and disappointment — to square with the fact that Americans resist the change idealism always requires of them. Everyone’s seduced by the American Dream, and it often comes true, but for that reason it’s shocking that some people seem locked out of it.
The children described in the book range from the impressive to the banal to the amusing to the infuriating, and every now and then there’s a catastrophe that stops you in your tracks. It is very difficult to write well about communities so unhappy and unable to help their children. So the problem is rarely acknowledged publicly, which makes it harder to act in common, in public and private, to help the worse off among us. To speak in strong terms, for the sake of clarity, both self-government and the federal government have failed when it comes to schools for poor Americans. This likely causes vast social and political problems.
The ideologies and organization of the public schools are legitimated by the promise that America takes care of the poor and allows them to do better. This is what drove our young protagonist to teach, as with many others. There’s something noble in public education, since it involves everything from the civil peace to Enlightenment.
It’s also important for us as a nation. We are willing to defer our partisan showdowns if we have enough in common and enough hope that things will improve in the future, which the schools promise. Otherwise, it’s our way to seek a reckoning, revenge, and destruction. This is what we’re doing now as a nation — everyone is shocked at what goes on, when we are mere spectators, but most of us also take time to participate in the shocking partisanship.
But from the point of view of the teacher in a school, it’s less a fight between our two parties and more of a conflict between populism and elitism, conducted in such a manner that both sides lose, which probably holds more lessons for us than the usual partisan slogans do. From above, teachers face a new wave of elite enthusiasm for some theory of education on more or less a yearly basis, with little regard for common sense, implementation, or adequate observation of the consequences.
Idealists find it easy, it is apparent, to become tyrannical once bureaucracy empowers them. If someone somewhere gets the bright idea that each kid should read his own book and talk to the teacher about it, why not? Surely it’s good for individuality and free choice; never mind that the teacher now has vastly more work to do in the same amount of time, trying to talk through all the various stories and thoughts they elicit. But the real catastrophe is denying children the opportunity to discover things together and forcing them to be even more isolated, alone in the only social situation where they constantly are together with adults and children both. Orderly learning is reduced this way to chaos, change without predictability or reason. The schools themselves experience ideological changes the same way.
Then there’s the problem coming from below, from the parents. They expect that the school will deal with the children — but they offer no political support for the teacher. So teachers no longer have any authority, which means classes are often chaotic, and kids find it hard to concentrate even if they want to. Kids who make trouble themselves might only need some discipline to go back to studying, but instead everyone lives in chaos.
Perhaps the most important observation in the book is the most obvious: Children are live human beings, and the abstract knowledge our colleges impart vanishes into thin air when confronted with them. The constant problem of disciplining children — getting them ultimately to discipline themselves and each other — stems from a lack of self-control that’s both natural to human beings and especially problematic for learning. This hurts boys worst, since they’re more spirited than girls. The restlessness, trouble-making, and eventually anger put one in mind of a colt that hasn’t been trained.
Kids are distractable in the best of circumstances. But add the social and family problems of poor communities and you will see chaos brewing soon. The beginning of wisdom in the book is: Do less. What children need is not a lot of bright ideas, however well-meaning or expert, but instead a lot of boring repetition — that is, clarity about what’s expected and how to do it. Discipline is the ground of choice, not its consequence.
Children are imitative. We adults are, too, but we obsess over our individuality to the point that we forget or deny this basic fact of life. School is supposed to show them what to imitate about adults and about each other. That requires a lot of regularity and a certain form of humility — a willingness to accept what’s doable over what’s ideal.
The important thing is to be a teacher, an adult, responsible for the children. “The teacher — who is powerless in her own classroom in many ways, and maybe made still more impotent by administrative mandate and intrusion — retains this single great lever of influence, that she is the organizing principle around which the buzzing, bumbling confusion of two or three dozen children or adolescents coheres. This is, no doubt, in part the result of the natural hierarchy of age, and is probably intensfied when the children see themselves or who they would like to be reflected in the teacher’s mannerisms or diction or gaze. But it is also a simple result of our desire to organize ourselves around an individual.”
In a strange way, elites are experimenting, through the public-education system, on poor Americans. They want to save the children from their families, their communities, even themselves. Even people who think these sufficient, even compelling motives have to face the dire fact that schools are failing to accomplish much.
The trajectory of the book is explained by the title, recalling Wallace Stevens’s poem Thirteen Ways Of Looking at a Blackbird. We start with the preparation to teach and the failure to do so properly. Then we have a new beginning — an attempt to see what’s actually going on in a school. This is not merely criticism, because it explains what children do and, to an extent, why. The unique quality of the book is an insistence on observation over argument, as a cure for ideology. To be willing to see what’s in front of one’s eyes, however disappointing to one’s hopes, is also to begin to love these children as they deserve.
The possibility of learning counts more than pride; it offers any teacher the simple dignity of saying this: “The greatest thing about being a teacher is that you get to keep doing it. No matter how badly or well a lesson or schoolday goes, there’s another one coming after it. The second greatest thing is that what feels like failure is often a secret success. Often, the best response to kids’ having no idea what you said yesterday is to say it again today.”
This goes beyond acknowledging that children are not at fault for their situation. It’s about teaching in that situation without either requiring fantastic transformations or giving up on the job. Gradually, the desire to become a good teacher reveals itself as the desire to be good at being human. To learn from behavior what nature is like in each case. To say that this is rare would understate things.
I don’t mean to overpraise this book. If you want to learn about education in our modern world, it’s still best to read John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. Spotted Toad cannot compete with the great political philosophers of democracy. But they’re not popular, and we certainly need to become willing to face the situation as it is now. To match love and learning and experience is very difficult, but as Aristotle said, all noble things are difficult. And there is nobility in this book, whose style is almost lyrical at times, even though it merely describes events and conversations and work.