On an earnest theory in education

 I have a fascination with timbres of voice and I often will listen to someone speak because I like listening to them. The poet N. Scott Momaday comes to mind. I saw him speak once at Cal Lutheran University where I was a student and I was mesmerized by both his poetry and his voice.

So when I heard Marco Pierre White for the first time, on the late great Anthony Bourdain’s show, I had the same feeling. The British accent added to it, of course, but the timbre of his voice had this gravelly clarity that I found so compelling. So I listened.

And it was while listening that he said something that has spurred a revelation for me that I must write here before I lose it. It’s too important to sweep it away.

As a chef, White said that he learned over-time that nature is the genius. Nature is what provides the best food. “I’m just the cook,” he said. “Start with beautiful produce and keep it simple.” He drew the small analogy of artists who often say things like, “I just drew what I felt was on the paper or the canvas or in the stone,” or whatever the medium. 

In the midst of hearing this, I have been contemplating 28 years as an English teacher. I confess that I have moments of clarity that force me into the realization that I no longer love the career. There are bright and shining moments in it, but the bureaucracy and the politics, the absurd state and Federal agendas, the pay that is almost worth it, but not quite–it gathers up on me now and I sometimes have regrets. 

I have no greater argument with my chosen profession than this: The current mantra in education is “Data drives instruction.” It may well be the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. It breaks down this very human pursuit, full of all the imperfections and idealism and heroism and cowardly, sinister behavior of people into numbers on paper or screens. Nothing, really, could be further from the truth.

What drives instruction is us–human beings. We drive instruction. My students will no more learn from me if they don’t like or at least respect me than they would an axe murderer. Why would they? If I walk into each class thinking, “it’s the data that makes this class relevant,” I may as well simply go do a much simpler job where I could make no pretense about passion, commitment, love or curiosity. The bright and shining moments are the ones where kids light up with curiosity, discovery, passion or understanding. That’s human and it doesn’t come because of data. Nature provides the ingredients, as White would say. Nature provides the humanity. My job is to provide the opportunity for growth. 

Mind, my job is not to make the students grow–rather, it is to provide them with opportunities for growth, to coax out of them as a cook coaxes her ingredients. If the ingredients are at their peak of freshness and taste, then the dish has the opportunity to be at its peak. But if not, then there is only so far it can go. Time is needed.

And if we’re honest, as we rarely are in this profession, we know that many students at whatever age won’t be ready for growth until they’re much older. That makes them fragile while they’re in our classrooms and the very last thing we should be saying to such students, to such people–is that data drives what we do for, with and to them. It does not. Saying so won’t make it so. I won’t equivocate. Data informs instruction? Sure. Data provides information for instruction? Check. But drives it? Without question–no. It does not. And if you are among those who believe it does, I beg you to leave the profession now–or at least, go to a university and do research where data will provide you years of solace. If you stay in the classroom with that mindset, you are part of the very big problem being made worse every day by standardization, testing and driving education into a piece of data used to measure human beings without anything resembling a heart or soul.

As for me and what I do for the next couple of years as I finish this portion of my career–my profession–will be an honest humanity, a kind heart as often as I can and a hand willing to reach out to my students and provide opportunities so that they can become who they are meant to be. To be at work for any other reason as a teacher is to throw away the very heart of the relationships we build. I won’t do that.


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