Trusting Teachers

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I wrote recently about some troubling trends in education in New Hampshire where my children spent a significant portion of their school years and where I taught for a decade. Last time the focus was on the legislature’s passage of a bill prohibiting teachers from exposing their students to ideas or materials that would “cause discomfort.” By my reckoning, that places everything but the weather out of bounds for classroom study and discussion. Come to think of it there’s lot about the weather that has the potential to cause discomfort. I also touched on the arrival of charter schools in towns small enough so that their presence would endanger the economic viability of the local public schools.

Now some additional laws are under consideration whose origins lie in the same fears that have driven the anti-CRT hysteria. Parents are afraid that they are losing control of their children who are being indoctrinated by left-wing ideologue teachers. HB 1015 specifies that educators “provide parents and legal guardians not less than two weeks advance notice of curriculum course materials to be used in classroom instruction.” This display of materials is to be accompanied by a minimum of two weeks of lesson plans from which teachers would not be allowed to deviate. Some states have raised the bid and proposed law that requires the filing of a full year of lesson plans in advance.

Now, a friend more savvy than I in the ways of state legislatures points out that all sorts of crackpot bills are always on the docket without any possibility of passage. In fact, seven NH representatives recently introduced a bill calling on New Hampshire to secede from the union and form a separate independent country. Still, bills like HB 1015 have their parallels in many states, and their existence reflects a growing distrust of teachers coupled with parents’ fears of losing control of their children which is being nourished and exploited by forces on the right who see the issue as a guaranteed vote getter in the next election cycle.

Suddenly, teachers who were so recently hailed as heroes for staying the course in the face of virtually insurmountable physical and emotional obstacles are now being vilified as undercover purveyors of dangerously radical, even communistic ideas. I’m reminded of the perennial survey results which reflect a low opinion of Congress in general, but much higher ratings for people’s own Congressmen. Do parents really believe that the caring teacher with whom they recently conferenced is a secret agent dedicated to “causing discomfort” to their children? In fact, I’ve often found myself wishing that more teachers were bolder and more outspoken in introducing their students to the complexities of the American story and the heroism of individuals and groups working to create that more perfect union. Teaching has been a profession that is more likely to attract people, especially at the elementary grades, who are compliant with the demands of authority and reluctant to make waves. I am proud to know many of the brave souls who are the exceptions.

So, with all this in mind, let’s look back at that bill requiring the submission of lesson plans and materials anywhere from two weeks to a year before their implementation. Anyone who has been within a hundred yards of a classroom since their own student days recognizes how misguided and misinformed these demands are. The reality of a teacher’s work is less like performing a symphony where every note is prescribed than it is to playing jazz. The notes and chords may be suggested but the teacher is always riffing on them as the situation and the inspiration demand.

In my own teaching I approached each school year with a general framework in mind – what books we were going to read, what historical periods we were going to focus on, what scientific fields and concepts we would cover. Every “Bloody Sunday” I would try to hack out a plan for the week. Both this plan and the overall plan for the year often went through radical revisions as I gauged the interests and engagement of my students, the speed with which they connected with the ideas and concepts I was introducing, my own interest in what was emerging, the emergence of side strands to the original path. Then there were the external forces that wrought havoc with the plans and forced changes – assemblies, scheduled visits by partnering arts organizations, natural disasters and other acts of God. Any successful teacher must embrace flexibility. Absent that quality, schools are designed to drive them mad.

 I challenge one of the legislators behind these draconian bills to survive a single day in a school at any grade level and try to match the thousands of decision points all teachers navigate through on even the quietest, most trouble-free day. What they are proposing with their “set in stone” lesson plan demands is like trying to drive a car with the steering wheel in a fixed position without the ability to make the fine adjustments to the curves of the road or the gross adjustments to a crossing animal.

I need to make two things clear. Teaching can’t be an act of improvisation. Planning is critical. The teacher education program I was proud to be part of prided itself on graduating teachers with strong planning skills. They needed to know what were the big questions that their unit of study was attempting to answer, how they were going to assess what their students had learned along the way, what materials they needed to implement their plans and, finally, what their daily plans of action would look like. None of this sophisticated process is represented in the ignorant demands for rigid daily, weekly and yearly lesson plans.

Second, I agree wholeheartedly that parents have a right to know what their child’s teacher has planned. Every successful teacher I know is in constant communication with parents through phone calls, conferences and weekly newsletters. Many even give parents advance notice that they are about to enter territory that may concern some of them, in which case the teacher is prepared to offer alternative readings or assignments. Like most teachers, I have taught students whose families had political or religious views antithetical to my own. Yet I tried to hew as close as I could to the belief, especially for younger children, that the parent is the primary conveyor of values to the child. The story becomes more complicated for high school students who are far more capable of reaching their own conclusions about what teachers present to them than many adults give them credit for.

This kind of commitment to open communication with parents is qualitatively different from the micro-managing that legislators and activists on the right are promoting. When you propose that the monitoring of teacher behavior include the requirement that teachers wear body cameras (I didn’t make that up!) that is an unmistakable sign of broken trust. The compact between teachers and parents needs to be built on a bedrock of basic trust, the belief that everyone is operating in the best interests of the child and to a dedication to that child’s success as a student and as a caring and responsible human being.  That compact is under ferocious attack, driven by political opportunism, which, along with the drive to erase major portions of our history, threatens to plunge us into a return to the Dark Ages.

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Marv Hoffman

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