Academic journal article English Journal

The Art of the Impossible: Professional Study and the Making of Teachers

Academic journal article English Journal

The Art of the Impossible: Professional Study and the Making of Teachers

Article excerpt

A culture . . . where the first rule of success is that there must be something to be "measured" and counted is not a culture that will sustain alternatives to market driven "creativity."

-Sue Halpern, "Are We Puppets in a Wired World?"

These days I feel pretty angry about the state of education. In the 40 years I have taught high school English, led faculty development workshops, and prepared Brooklyn College undergraduates and graduates to teach English in secondary schools, I can't recall a time when so many teachers felt so besieged and so worn down. My master's students, some of whom are new to teaching and others of whom have been teaching English for four or five years, strain against their loss of autonomy and bemoan the constant surveillance and emphasis on test scores and number crunching. Many talk, often tearfully, of leaving teaching. Retired princi- pals and assistant principals, now working as ad- junct professors at Brooklyn College, tell me that if they were young today, they would not go into teaching. "Why would I," a retired English AP asks rhetorically, "when it's all about test prep?" Those of us who look to our professional organizations for support often find a leadership obedient to the new- est mandates and compliant with the regnant belief in value-added measures and the salvific magic of classroom techniques. These are indeed dark times.

But many of you know that. Critique is easy. The question is how, in the face of such bleakness, do we support new teachers and work with experienced teachers? How do we keep alive our passion for teach- ing? How do we preserve our professional dignity?

It certainly won't be easy given today's domi- nant vision of professional development and exper- tise. That vision tells us that teacher effectiveness should be measured by "impact" on student learn- ing, predominantly defined by performance on standardized, high-stakes exams. Such a vision is essentially one of stimulus-r esponse, that is, if teachers learn to do X, students will do Y. Exper- tise becomes a matter of acquiring specific meth- ods meant to produce compliant behavior and the right data. The expert teacher, as Guy Benveniste writes in The Politics of Expertise, "first and foremost [has] a penchant for problems that can be quanti- fied" (6) or, to put it in today's terms, knows how to use "data-driven instruction." This is the expert teacher whom Doug Lemov describes in Teach like a Champion, as having mastered "the tools . . . neces- sary for teaching in inner city public schools" (2; italics added).

But teaching is not like plumbing. It's not a constellation of tools that, if one learns how to use them, will unclog students' brains. Nor is teach- ing like medicine. Anesthetics and antibiotics work regardless of whether the doctor is a bigot or the patient went to bed hungry. And teaching is cer- tainly not about numbers. This is not news to most teachers. Teaching is always contingent on another human being or human beings and on the context in which it unfolds. Thankfully, there is no sure- fire way to control what another person thinks, and the innumerable forces existing outside our control undermine the purported scientifically based effi- cacy of any method meant to raise test scores. Even if we appeal to more nuanced criteria for success- ful teaching, such as whether a particular student is writing more and better or speaks up in class or tries out for the play or attends class more, we know that what works with one student may not with an- other and that those criteria themselves fleetingly materialize only to vanish in our hurly-burly life in schools, or in comparison to students with more or fewer resources, or in the glare of standardized test results. The best practices or methods, so much a part of professional development, can't guarantee student success or school improvement, no matter how we define these.

Please understand, I am not claiming that learning different activities or strategies or meth- ods is unimportant. …

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