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How Teachers Fail—and Thrive

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In two quick days, I finished Thomas Newkirk’s new book for teachers. Like a long drink of water, it was just what my parched spirit needed. Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones just might get me through 2010.

This school year has been a tough one all over the teaching map. With our school system facing budget cuts when two teachers left our department, the decision was made not to replace them. Despite the increase in student load, the pressure to achieve AYP has not abated. Each year the achievement bar is raised another notch and the inexorable pressure to do more with less has made the stress palpable every time I step outside my room.

After nearly a decade of high stakes accountability, the meetings, data collection, pre-tests, post-tests, required lesson plans, reports, and more reports have diluted my view of what kids really need to be “well educated.” Newkirk has written a good reminder.

His book, subtitled Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For, is something of a manifesto on behalf of quality instruction—recalling for us the basics that good teachers know but may have lost sight of: Keep the curriculum simple, use what kids already know, let kids write a lot.

The review of essential teaching practices is welcome. But in these most difficult times of my teaching career, I think I needed Newkirk’s cheerleading even more.

In Chapter 8, “Finding a Language for Difficulty: Silences in Our Teaching Stories,” Newkirk reinforced for me that I am—all the way to the bones and beyond—a teacher. Obvious, you say? Perhaps. But there are those days when I leave the building feeling like much less than that.

Newkirk acknowledges that all teachers live with a deep insecurity that we either learn to accept or ultimately ignore for self-preservation. He argues that the profession needs to embrace an awareness that all teachers struggle with regular failures: students they can't reach, lessons that fall flat, explanations that are met by blank stares. He eloquently describes the inevitable class where—because of the time of day, or the season, or the odd mix of personalities—no one appears to have the energy for learning, and the teacher feels mired in lethargy as well. He reminds us that no one is a super-teacher 24/7. Some failure is a natural consequence of the tremendous challenges we take on.

I needed to hear that. I’ve been feeling the failure most keenly of late. Hitting the new round of government goals means that every discussion centers on students who are the hardest to engage. We are asked: Who might fail? What are you doing to ensure this does not happen? What remediation is occurring—with or without system support? Teach harder, we are admonished. Teach harder. This is the message from all corners. It’s a demoralizing one, according to Newkirk. I concur. I’m dancing just as fast as I can.

Newkirk argues that “harder” isn’t the answer. What teachers need is each other. We need to be sharing and discussing student work, bolstering and supporting each other through the inevitable failures, collaborating in manageable small communities, inviting each other into our classrooms. We need to witness daily the great teaching that is already going on inside our buildings.

Newkirk eschews the teacher-hero we all know from the movies. The idealistic views portrayed in these self-sacrificing wonder-workers only undermine the confidence of real teachers who regularly must face failure in their practice. Too often, Newkirk says, teachers deal with the fact of failure in isolation. The true hope of reform lies in a teaching culture where we are expected to share with colleagues, where we are routinely given the time and support we need to find ways through and around failure together. We need to slow down, not speed up the teaching act.

Remember the old chestnut: Put two teachers together, and all they do is talk shop? And why is that? Because we are never permitted time to do it on the job. Because no one else knows what it's like. Because grown-ups need grown-ups. We can't subsist on a diet of all children all the time.

At some point we need to articulate the long view. We need the perspective of many eyes and many ears so that we can survive to teach another day. And even prosper. However, these practices are supported by policies that make us the objects of reform rather than the co-creators.

This idea of co-creation is the hoped-for change that will sustain me through the years beyond 2010: that teachers may one day wrest control of their work from others. If it happens, it will happen by bits and pieces, but it is the most important “good idea” I cling to in this time of very bad ones.

I hasten to say that there are many other excellent reasons to read Newkirk's book. I have several new ideas for informal writing with my students, for instance, and a list of notes on the flyleaf that will no doubt lead me to other good practices. But if you have hit that low place in the school year (or perhaps in the decade of “No Child Left Behind”), you will especially appreciate Newkirk’s offer to help us find “a language for difficulty.”

There is redemption in confession. And here is the affirmation that teachers need to make for and about each other: Our work is hard. And messy. And fraught with the pitfalls of failure. We see it daily and without blinders; we know what is working, what is not. No one grasps the consequences of failing to make forward progress with a student better than a classroom teacher. It is a despair we live with, inseparable from the joys of teaching. We should be able to work on it together.

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