I play with a rubber ball…do you?

Here’s the deal…this post is long.  So if you have time, please read from beginning to end.  If you don’t have time…skip to #10.  If you read #10 and then read the last paragraph after #10, you’ll have to read #2 in order for the last sentence and the blog title to make sense.  Got it? 😉

Here are some things that I was thinking about this week:

#1-I was reading a critique of the US Soccer team written before the World Cup started. The author wrote about the USA team’s lack of creativity because unlike many of the world’s other players they are coached from the beginning of their life and taught the same very specific drills that tell them what to do and how to react in certain situations. They simply have never had to think about what to do, just always rely on their training.

And I coincidentally read a book about baseball after the article in which the author wrote something eerily connected to the soccer article…

#2-He was writing about the influx of highly talented Latin American players into the Major Leagues. He told stories about the players not being to get into “proper” leagues and buy “proper” equipment when they were kids so they had to invent, play pretend games, throw various objects for practice, and sometimes the best they could do was to bounce a rubber ball against an alley wall and catch it with their bare hand. They had to learn to react to unpredictable events, and figure out how to do things on their own. No one came to them and gave them the perfect equipment or proper coaching and methods. No one taught them how to catch–what mattered was that they caught the ball. They learned different ways for different types of hit balls and did not rely on one coached method.  Again, what mattered is not how they caught the ball, what mattered is that they did catch the ball. They react and make plays, they don’t “follow the directions” and rely on training and sequential steps to make plays.  They can adjust to an odd bounce, because that’s what happens when you throw a rubber ball against a wall–it opens you up to making many mistakes, exposes your weaknesses, makes you vulnerable to errors and forces you to overcome them with your body and mind…not equipment.

Maybe you can predict where my mind started to wander next …

#3-I started to make a connection to the training my student teachers received. When they do something that they were trained to do that does not work they don’t react and make changes. They look for a formulaic, proven method that they can get from someone else–or they keep going with it…or they don’t even notice something is going wrong. They don’t react, invent, and survive unpredictable moments. It becomes more about trying to make the formulaic steps they were taught work, instead of inventing something new.

That led me to think about my kids…

#4-When my kids come into my class in September they are programmed little machines. They have been coached how to learn since at least 4 years old, and many of them even before that. They are also taught to rely on the “coach” to tell them what to do. They might be able to “run a play” but don’t know when, why, or how to do it unless it is done for the specific situation they have been trained for. They act like those people that got stuck on the escalators 😉

Then I started to think about the teachers who teach their kids into zombie states…and where did they get their classroom ideas from…who told them it was ok?

#5-Colleges spend a lot of time teaching folks “how to teach.”  But only let them teach for one semester, and obviously how much they get to “teach” depends on the cooperating teacher.  Kind of like joining the football team freshman year and only being able to play in the fall of your senior year…4 years after joining.  Yes, some take a class that gets them into a room to observe, and maybe they get to teach one or two classes.  Again, imagine trying to be a football player by only watching, and getting into two plays before you have to play for real.
Or…would you want to have surgery performed on you by a doctor who only observed and had a couple practice tries before taking over the room you were having your surgery in.

That led me to think about the type of advice we give these new teachers, or any teacher with any kind of question…

#6-Much of the advice I hear and see being given is procedural.  Do this, try this, change that.  One thing that I realized this year with both of my student teachers is that no one can be as successful as I am with my lesson plans.  I cannot be as successful as you with your lesson plans.  Each lesson and activity I do with my kids is deeply personal…or the way I get them to choose their own path is deeply personal.  I cannot give you my list of “procedures” and expect you to have the same success.   This year I did a unit that was awesome.  If someone tried to use my lesson plans they would have flopped.  I wrote it specifically for me and my kids.

As I was listening to a baseball game that led me to think about…

#7-Of all the sports, baseball might be the most like teaching.  It is highly skill based, and there are so many different skills that you have to put together to be successful.  You can go from college to the pros in football and basketball.  You can’t in baseball (don’t go and name the few exceptions).  Even the very best prospect in baseball often spends years in the minors.  When they are in the minors great players soak up the knowledge from those around them–they practice, practice, practice when they are not playing.  Even when they get called up to the majors, they spend more time practicing, practicing, practicing and absorbing information from those around them…and from those that have retired.  I see too many teachers come out of college thinking they know everything and never ask a question.  I think in twenty years I might have only been asked a question twice by another teacher…and they were both respected veterans.   Remember, most teachers have had less than  10 weeks of “playing experience (student teaching)” before they reach the “major leagues.”  They should be banging down doors of other teachers to connect and absorb what they know. Why has my door NEVER been banged on by a beginning teacher…or any teacher for that matter.

After thinking about all the previous seven points, I wondered what others would say if I shared them.  I know that many others would blame the system.

#8-It’s the system that created these teachers?  We should show some pity?  Oh poor teachers?  Does a minor league player who doesn’t make it to the majors or a soccer player who gets cut from the team blame the system?  How does the system (including social networks) help folks starting out, or those who want to start.  Do we provide answers? or Do we make statements and questions that allow teachers to come to their own personal understanding of how to invent, overcome, imagine, and create solutions to their problems.

That all somehow led to:

#9-Is it me? I have been using the various biggie social networks a lot less recently. I have been trying to figure out why (besides the fact that I am totally enjoying the extra time with my family ;). I think that I have noticed a trend…please call me on it if I am wrong. I have noticed many fewer original thoughts. There seem to be many more links being shared, and simple observations about sports, shopping and hobbies. I thoroughly enjoy reading them, and I share the same…but, I am wondering if there has been a decline of original ideas and questions being posed throughout the day, and if we have moved into a recycling stage, or building a better mouse trap era. I think I have also noticed the trend in educational blogs…again, please call me on it if I am totally wrong or if it is just the blog posts that I tend to follow and pick-up from twitter. It just seems as though there is more people writing about what they have found instead of what they are their original thoughts and what they have done. So I wonder…I wonder if people share what is popular…what will be “popular” at the risk of not sharing their “deeper” thoughts. Maybe not to overexpose themselves…feeling too vulnerable??

So yes…#10 is…

#10 Is the root of all problems in education and the stagnant nature or reform in education due to people not wanting to feel vulnerable? I have noticed a trend that when people reflect on their classes they tend to reflect on procedural items and create coercive measures to fix the procedural problems instead of getting to the root of the problem–the core, the trigger, name it what you’d like.  I know that whenever I have a problem in class the ultimate problem is never the procedures I have in place or the kids–the problem is always me.  How can we start to solve problems until we start to deal with ourselves first?

I have been doing this teaching thing for twenty years.  My first ten in the toughest school imaginable, and the second twenty in an average suburban district.  Every year I have gotten better.  My first 10 years I got better because each year my procedures grew stronger and tighter.  Lesson plans, assessments, grading system, classroom management, class discussion, etc. In my last ten years I have improved because each year I become more vulnerable.  First it was in private, finally with the kids.  I haven’t focused on looking for better lessons or procedures, I have focused on how to improve myself.  As I have become a better a more vulnerable person, my classes have become increasingly better places to live for 186 days each year.  It is hard to be vulnerable, especially in a culture in which we are always suppose to look like we have it together.  We want dearly to appear as though we are successful in every way.  But does this bring us closer? or does it separate us more.   Who do you feel the need to always show you have it together?  What kind of relationship do you have with them?

It is a vicious cycle.  We want to appear as though we have it together…we pass that on to our kids.  We complain about kids in school not wanting to make mistakes, not wanting to be wrong…we try to push them and give them support about how it’s ok to be wrong…it’s ok to make mistakes.  Stop and examine what you are talking about next time you do that.  They are almost always simple procedural things.   Not about who the person is, but what they do.  Training them to be able to make mistakes is as easy as it is to train them that it is not ok to make them.   Changing what they do is easy through procedures and coercive management systems with rewards and punishments.  Changing who they are…well that is very difficult.

If teaching was just about what we do, it would be easy to fix. Unfortunately it is not about what we do…but who we are.  In order to change who we are, we all need to be more vulnerable.

I play with with a rubber ball…do you?

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