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A Messy Business

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TEACHING IS A MESSY, UNCERTAIN business. No wonder: It happens inside a wild triangle of relations--among teacher, students, and subject--whose dimensions continually shift. What should I teach given all that I might teach? How can I grasp it myself so that my grasping may enable theirs? What are they thinking and feeling toward me, toward each other, toward the thing I'm trying to teach? What are they really learning anyway?

Clean evidence is rare inside the triangle. Snarls and smiles mix disconcertingly. Right answers fade into wrong, and vice versa: a matter of interpretation, of how one construes a gesture or an attitude, of how much energy one has at the moment for believing in the kids, in one's own work. Meanwhile, technique-- however proved by research and practice, however skillful the application--is always hostage to so much else: the appearance of spring in the air or a bee in the room, the complicated chemistry of a roomful of humans constructing meaning together, the extent to which the conditions of their lives outside the room weigh on any of them that day.

Beginning teachers are astounded by these complexities and may try to pretend them away. When I finished the first class I ever taught, I asked my supervising teacher what he thought. He said he thought I had taught as if I were speaking from the next room through a tube. He was a good coach. With a single sentence, he pushed me inside the triangle, forced me to see the real kids there in all their messy complexity, to feel how my subject feels there in all its ambiguity, and to begin to know myself there in all my uncertainty.

It was a good, if ungentle, orientation. Go for the muck, he seemed to say. Learn to live with it.

My friend Jay Featherstone compares such good advice to the advice the old riverboat pilot gave the young Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi: As hard as you think it is to learn the river, it's harder because the river changes every day; all you can do is stick with it. Luckily, as Twain revealed, craft emerges from a long-term and resolute engagement with the river. So it is with teaching, too. Maybe 10 years after I started teaching, I finally began to get the hang of it. Somehow, in all my messing around, I learned how to use myself to connect with students. In fact, I invented a teaching self that could be at once tough and vulnerable; it was not quite me, but enough me. I also somehow learned how to read my students, how to anticipate their moves and accommodate my own moves to theirs--when to give clutch, when gas. Finally, I learned enough about my subject to be, at once, both a good guide and an amazed visitor.

Now, still another 10 years later, I have come to realize that the point at which the muck finally begins to clear is a point of great danger, as well as opportunity. The opportunity is that one may now enjoy teaching--not just being a teacher or being with kids but teaching, the whole crazy ride--and understand it better. The danger is that one may mistake this acquisition of craft for some impossible acquisition of control--as if one had at last found a way to suppress the mystery of kids, the ambiguity of a subject, and the ambivalence of the teaching self.

I think what we call teacher burnout may often be a failure to recognize a newly emergent craft in teaching as a tool for working with uncertainty. Too many teachers think this emergent craft means they now have control over formerly uncertain matters. Then, when the inevi- table frustrations recur, the circuits blow. It can happen one morning as the teacher hums along too confidently. The surge suddenly hits: a product of the students' restlessness maybe, their assertion of difference, some shift in the world. The teacher blames the school, lousy parents, the changing demography, the fact that kids aren't what they used to be. Anything.

But actually, the only problem is overconfidence. Some short while before, the teacher mistakenly decided that he or she had at last achieved a set of right answers to the endless questions of teaching. In fact, experience makes me no surer, in any authentic sense, of what I ought to teach, though it helps me trust my own judgment. Nor can experience ensure that I know kids better than I ever did, nor that they will understand me better than they ever did, but it enables me to pursue them more tenaciously.

Ironically, the best way to avoid burnout, I think, is the opposite of what my old teaching coach taught me. Stay in the same room with the kids, he said, and that was good advice for 10 years; thereafter, he should have added, learn to step outside. Only by seeing the whole triangle-- holding a mirror up to practice--can a teacher understand the true beauty of the moment when the muck begins to clear.

There are doubtless many ways to step outside while teaching, but I will recommend three simple ones. First, talk with other teachers about teaching. Share with each other stories that illuminate life inside the triangle. Avoid well-rounded stories. Instead, share the puzzling ones and puzzle over them together.

Second, read teachers' published writing about teaching. Avoid the writing of the curriculum-based journals, the celebratory writing: "How I Solved the Problems of Teaching Quadratic Equations,'' etc. Go, instead, for writing that shows the muck--and the muck clearing. Eliot Wigginton's Sometimes a Shining Moment, which captures the real thing even in its title, begins with a paean to muck, an epigraph from Aunt Addie Norton:

I tell you one thing, if you learn it by yourself, if you have to get down and dig for it, it never leaves you. It stays there as long as you live because you had to dig it out of the mud before you learned what it was.

Finally, write about teaching. This may be the most important step. I call it "raising a teacher's voice,'' and I think of it as a crucial political act. Why? Because it is not just burnt out teachers who wish to deny the permanent and productive uncertainties of teaching. The ranks of educational researchers and policymakers are full of people who would impose on schools and teachers false certainties that will end up hurting kids. Nobody but teachers can stop them.

Joseph McDonald, a 17-year teaching veteran, is a senior researcher for the Coalition of Essential Schools. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Teaching: Making Sense of an Uncertain Craft, published by Teachers College Press. Copyright c 1992 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

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