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The Forest And The Trees

Confession: I didn’t like high school. I went to a good school, in a highly ranked district on Long Island. I liked some of my classes, I had some great teachers and some good friends, but on the whole, school was not something that I enjoyed.

Mostly, I just resented having to be there. I liked reading, I liked learning, but I didn’t like being told when and where to do these things. Like many teenagers, I wanted to make my own decisions about how to spend my own time. I didn’t like math; I didn’t like biology. Spending my days trudging from classroom to classroom, studying subjects that I had no interest in and having adults tell me it was all somehow good for me. … I just wanted to be outside, or back in bed.

Still, I learned. History, English, biology, calculus: I retained stores of knowledge in all of these areas, despite my best efforts to resist. It sounds corny, but there’s something magical there. Some part of the mind wants to learn, even when other parts want to do anything but.

Now I’m a high school special education teacher. Every day, I watch tired, distracted students study Homer’s “Odyssey,” the principles of trigonometry, the French Revolution. Some of these students are not simply battling their teenaged willfulness and the rush of hormones in their bodies; they’re struggling with autism, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder. Yet for the most part, they learn. Even the students who forget or refuse to do the work will surprise me with an insightful comment about Napoleon’s fall from power, or a comparison between Odysseus and Harry Potter.

There’s a lot of talk about teachers these days, about how important we are and the difference we make in our students’ lives. To a degree, I think that’s true; we play an important role in the learning process. Certainly, I do my best to make the material interesting, to convey enthusiasm, and to make the classroom a comfortable environment. I feel a bit sheepish, however, about taking credit when my students do great work. Sometimes the lessons I feel worst about work for the students, just as the lessons I feel best about often fall flat. Sometimes, a lesson goes terribly during its delivery, but students retain the material. Sometimes a lesson is planned and executed brilliantly, but most of the students were up late watching the Yankees game and are too tired to function. Sometimes students are hungry, heartbroken, or scared of a bully. All these things come into the classroom with them. Learning is complicated.

In these posts, I will describe, dissect, and analyze what happens in the classroom, day by day by day. I hope to offer a more nuanced view of the teacher-student relationship than the one offered in the current discussions of education reform, where students are portrayed as hapless, helpless Tiny Tims waiting for a great teacher to save them. Finally, I hope to convey some of the humor, drama, and energy that bring me back to the classroom every day. Beautiful, wonderful things happen in the classroom, and students learn things every day that aren’t a part of my lesson plans. When reformers focus solely on quantifiable outcomes like test scores and “value added,” they are truly missing the forest for the trees.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.