Professional Development Opinion

The Menace of Mechanical Teaching

April 30, 2018 5 min read
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This year I am teaching a course I have never taught before. I’m constantly reminded what it is like to be a beginning teacher. Giant of education, Harry Wong, reminds us that even experienced teachers can enter that lowest rung he calls “survival mode” at any point in their career. However, I think he is wrong about one thing.

There is a mode lower than survival.

I have entered a mode that comes after you have already died, crossed through the threshold of hell, and are scouring the ground for change to pay the boatman on the river Styx because you spent your last few coins on construction paper. I call this Eighth Circle mode because so much of it makes me feel like a fraud.

I find myself googling phrases like:

  • What is AP Language and Composition?
  • How do you teach AP Language and Composition? and
  • Why is one of my eyelids twitching?

Quickly I discovered that, no matter what the topic, there is a teacher, somewhere, who has already broken it down into a video, made an activity, written a worksheet, and created all of the PowerPoint slides as well. Like the God of the Sistine Chapel proffering the divine touch to Adam, so John Green offered me a video lecture on the entire history of the 1920s in just 15 minutes. It was then I knew that with teacherspayteacher.com at my side I could crawl from the primordial ooze. No longer would I be the neanderthal teacher bent over my research notes, I would stand tall at my Smart Board while Ken Burns answered their questions, as nature intended.

One day a student asked if I ever read the comments on the videos. Now, I usually avoid internet comments because of a little known rule of the internet called “Godwin’s Law.” It states that the longer an internet discussion goes on, the likelihood of one of the participants comparing the other to Hitler approaches 100 percent. But I was curious, so I scrolled down and scanned the comments. Here are a few choice examples:

  • Hahaha my English teacher shows us ur vids all class, every class, and calls it teaching.
  • Who else wishes that history teachers would, you know, actually teach like he does.
  • My ap world teacher uses this guy to teach our class while he sleeps smh.

It was like walking out of a darkened theater and suddenly discovering it is broad daylight outside. The teacher I imagined myself to be was ripped away and I was forced to look at the blinding reality that I had become a mechanical teacher. I had allowed technology to replace too much of my own labor and with it to replace the soul of my teaching.

John Philip Sousa, in his article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” warned of the consequences of becoming reliant on technology in our lives:

When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?

Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs—without soul or expression?

Such is the state of too many teachers, including myself. We have become divorced from the labor of creating. The slow, methodical process of making a worksheet or of designing an activity can easily be avoided with a quick Google search. Ready-made curriculums units and “creative techniques” are packaged for sale at every workshop and districts often create websites where teachers can download pre-made units for instruction.

Sousa worried that when people could hear any kind of music they wish with the flip of a switch, they would avoid the labor of acquiring skill to play and sing for themselves, but more importantly they would lose that human bond that comes with shared expression.

We must never allow ourselves to be separated from the process of content creation.

Creating our own assessments allows us to picture our students in every aspect of creation and thus to design something that is truly responsive to our class. By creating our own activities we are forced to think deeply about the outcomes we wish to see and how best to design an exercise for that outcome. In my delivering the background information rather than John Green, my students see my passion, not someone else’s, and I model for them the struggle and labor of academic study. How can we scold students for Googling answers rather than thinking for themselves when they are simply mimicking the behavior we used to create the question in the first place?

When we create our own curriculum, we express our creativity, our passions, and ourselves. We are using a piece of ourselves as professionals to connect with our students. That is the soul of teaching and that is what we lose when we rely on ready-made lessons. Good teaching has always been about building relationships. This is the dangerous side of “best practice” centered curriculum development. Often what is best for our students is not the “best” lesson or the “best” activity, but the lesson or activity that is uniquely ours. The activity I make for my students is uniquely ours. The relationship built when I look them in the eyes as I deliver the lesson is uniquely ours. It may not always be the “best” practice, but it is always authentic practice. Like a mother who sings her child to sleep, you may not always be the “best” singer, but there is no substitute for you in the eyes of your children.

Bobbie Cavnar is the 2016 - 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and the 2018 NEA Foundation’s Top Public School Teacher. He received a Bachelor of Science in English Education from Florida State University in 1999. He taught English and journalism for four years in the Ft. Lauderdale area before moving to North Carolina, where he teaches Advanced Placement Literature and heads the English Department at South Point High School in Gaston County. In 2011 he earned a Master of Arts in English from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wherein his focus was English Renaissance Literature.

Photo courtesy of Spencer Cooper through Creative Commons.

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