School Daze


When I started this blog, I assumed that the bulk of my entries would be about education. That remained the case in its early years, but as my time away from the classroom grew, particularly during Covid, the focus shifted toward more personal and political musings. But every once in a while, I’m drawn back into the world that was my home for more than sixty years. Two recent events returned me to where I lived so happily for all of my work life.

The daughter of a friend is a first-year teacher in a school in our area. I knew she had been struggling, but in a recent conversation she revealed that she was considering not returning next year and was now questioning her choice of profession. I have heard this lament from hundreds of novice teachers. It was, in fact, familiar from my own experience. I landed in a classroom without any training and with very little support on site. The prospect of returning each day brought on a wave of nausea, until I cobbled together some strategies that got me through the year.

My young friend, let’s call her Sara, said she felt completely overwhelmed. There were too many things happening at the same time when she was confronted by a classroom full of energetic second and third graders, too many decisions to be made instantly. She is an admirably self-aware young woman who recognizes that her processing time feels too slow to deal with the pace of what unfolds every minute of every classroom day. She says she knows what she should be doing to remedy the situation but can’t act quickly enough to actually do it.

Teachers are fond of quoting the finding that they are called upon to make thousands of decisions daily and the resulting level of stress on the job is similar to that of an air traffic controller. Sara loves kids and wonders if she would be better suited for a job which allows her to work one-on-one in a setting where the stimuli are more pared down and the decisions come at a more manageable rate. She may be right about that, but it’s worth considering first the training that placed her in this perilous position and whether there are any fixes possible before she decides to move on.

There are basically two models ofpreparation available for aspiring teachers. The traditional model, which has ruled the day in colleges of education for ages, involves a period, usually ten weeks, in the classroom of a mentor teacher. The second, a residency model, which can be found both on campuses and in free-standing teacher preparation programs, involves a more extended period in the training classroom, frequently an entire school year. 

In the student teaching model, which is the one Sara experienced, the ten-week block is situated to meet the needs of the college calendar, not the rhythm of the school year. They almost never include the opening days of the elementary or secondary school year. Therefore, the novice teacher enters the classroom after all the routines and agreements have been established that enable the community to engage in the work of teaching and learning with a minimum of disruption. Sara never had a chance to witness the painstaking work of building that community — of learning to push your chair in whenever you leave your table; of staying in that chair, waiting for the teacher to come to you, rather than charging up to her desk, begging for help; of gathering for morning meeting at which students can talk about the difficult personal and emotional issues that arise in any community.  Without these early interventions, seemingly innocuous bits of behavior morph into major disruption when multiplied by twenty or twenty-five.

For this reason, the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago which I helped found, was designed to begin the week before the children arrived, so that the novice teachers could witness the steps their mentor teacher took at the very opening to insure a positive start to the year. They kept a journal of the moves the mentor made during this crucial start up period, so they could refer to it at the beginning of the following year when they were, at last, ready to launch their own community. It’s embarrassing to proclaim this simple design fix as a major breakthrough, but it continues to be absent in most programs. It’s as if surgical residents were to begin their training with the patient already intubated and incised, without ever witnessing the preparations that preceded this stage. Absurd when you think about it that way, isn’t it?

Even with this preparation, first-year teacher quickly realize that they’ve overlooked some opening moves that they will be sure to include in their crucial second year start. Sara is already aware of many of those, even without the benefit of that critical modeling. Year 2 will definitely be better than what she is enduring right now, but whether it will be better enough to keep her working at it is something she will have to decide. She’s still weighing her choices for next year.

The second thing that propelled me back into my teacher/teacher educator/school director mode was a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Emphasizing Discipline, England is Going Old School: Tying Achievement to Tight Regimens.”  Just reading that title made me sigh wearily and wonder whether I’ve stayed around too long. We’ve already been through several decades of “no excuses”- based school designs, always focusing on low-income children of color, proposing modes of control and punishments that would never be perpetrated on white, middle-class children.

These schools always wave their test score data in the faces of skeptics and critics, until somewhere down the line we learn that those numbers are inflated by forcing out students who would depress them or learning that following the products of these Dickensian systems into their future lives exposes some glaring weaknesses in their ability to perform autonomously.

“At her (the founding director’s) school, many students expressed gratitude when asked about their experiences, even praising the detentions they received, and eagerly repeating the school’s mantras about self-improvement.” Maybe, but am I alone in sensing a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in their praise. I maintain my belief – which I’ve seen working – that if you treat children respectfully, introduce them to nourishing and engaging learning opportunities, and nurture the development of identities which make them feel proud, you can produce a deeper and more enduring kind of success than the one represented in test score spread sheets. Although I would love to live forever, I’m glad I won’t be around to see this latest hot air balloon deflate.

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Marv Hoffman

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