Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Shazam! You're a Teacher Facing the Illusory Quest for Certainty in Classroom Practice

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Shazam! You're a Teacher Facing the Illusory Quest for Certainty in Classroom Practice

Article excerpt

The challenges to those who prepare teachers are profound, Ms. Wassermann maintains. More than answers, neophyte teachers need to be provided with tools that help them navigate the murky seas of uncertainty, so that they are not hopelessly adrift.

MARY Dare Hitchcock taught human growth and development, three credits, to sophomore students in the university where I was learning to be a teacher. She was a southern lady who spoke in the soft, drawn-out vowel tones of Geo-jah, and the musical cadences of her voice were sweet to my ears. What puzzled me most about her was how she managed to look so cool and unruffled on those beastly hot and humid days that insinuate themselves too early into the East Coast spring, while the rest of us, scraped from the mean streets of the city, were always sweating and grubby. Just looking at her made me feel less like a teacher. Did teachers never sweat? Did they never have a single hair out of place? Were they always as composed, self-assured, and untouched by human experience as this teacher's demeanor would have me believe?

From the raised platform where she sat, elevated by self-importance, she gave my class lessons in teaching. To be remembered, above all, she told us, was that children were different from one another - physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. (If we learned the mnemonic P-I-E-S, that would surely help us remember this important concept for the final exam. Dutifully, we copied "pies" into our notebooks.) And because children are different in "pies" ways, teachers must individualize their instruction. She stressed the words. There could be no other acceptable way to teach.

Teaching to meet individual learning needs was a foreign idea to those of us who had spent the last 12 years in large, urban public schools, where as many as 35 children in a class were instructed in exactly the same way, whatever our individual differences. In our school experiences, even going to the rest room was done as a group, rather than as an individual, endeavor. If there were differences among us, they were neither acknowledged nor addressed. But in our desire to please Professor Hitchcock and, of course, to receive a passing grade, we took to heart what she said without question, without even mentioning the obvious and flagrant discrepancy between what she told us about individual differences and the way she taught. For our professor sat on her platform, day after blah-blahing day. We sat, too, in straight rows of tablet armchairs, listening, taking notes, and collecting our three credits' worth of human growth and development.

It should not come as a surprise that I would remember my first day of teaching as clearly as I would have remembered sailing on the Titanic. Learning the "correct answers" not only had not equipped me for the complex and confusing world of the classroom but, even worse, had led me down the garden path. Implicit in what I had learned was that teaching was merely a matter of stockpiling certain pieces of information about teaching. If I only knew what the answers were, I would be prepared to face the overwhelming and exhausting human dilemmas that make up life in classrooms. Unfortunately, I had been swindled. My training in learning the answers was as useless as yesterday's pizza. I was entering a profession in which there are few, if any, clear-cut answers, a profession riddled with ambiguity and moral dilemmas that would make Solomon weep. Even more of a handicap was that I became desperate in my search for the answers - certain that they were out there, somewhere, if only I could find them. So feverish was I in that quest that I was unable to perceive the real needs of the profession: how to use knowledge to deal effectively with the human dilemmas that teachers face from moment to moment on the job.

Life in the Uncertain World

Of Professional Decision Making

The drama of classroom life is a multilayered, multifaceted fabric of experiences that, to the untrained outsider, must seem like a crazy quilt. …

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