What can’t be taught

Among the signs she [Margaret Atwood] saw that day, her favorite was one held by a woman close to her own age; it said, “I can’t believe I’m still holding this fucking sign.” Atwood remarked, “After sixty years, why are we doing this again? But, as you know, in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had the pushback, and now we are going to have the push again.”

Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker “Margaret Atwood, The Prophet of Dystopia” (17 April)

No matter the teacher training, you don’t learn how to deal with cliques and private conversations and being ignored until you get into the classroom.

You don’t learn how to dance around malfunctioning equipment, missing equipment, no equipment until you’re in the classroom.

You learn nothing when you’re introduced to the students.

I had the 11th year students today on this, the last day before the Easter break, and I gave them the assignment of standing in front of the class and telling the class why he or she, as a candidate, should not be elected mayor.  It’s a silly game, a way to say “I’ll steal your money and spend it on clothes” (or a car or whatever), but more importantly it gets the student in front of the class, talking to a group, impromptu.  They didn’t want to do it and they were reluctant. Then I asked them, “why do you think I’m asking you to do this?” No one offered an opinion. So I asked them, “what do you have to do next year?” “Oral exams.” “Yeah. So, I’m starting the process of getting you ready for that.  Every other week, I’ll have you get in front of the class to talk about something. To get comfortable about thinking on your feet, talking about stuff you haven’t been able to prepare for.” And then I had volunteers, not everyone of course, but they got it, they saw I was on their side, that I wasn’t there just to bore them. They don’t teach that in teacher training.

They don’t teach you that you’ll have to sift through a lot of crappy stuff to find what you think is the perfect video or quote or book or … whatever … to illustrate a bigger point, something that could be important, something they might want to investigate on their own … and you find the internet isn’t available that day or the students have no interest or don’t get it. And you might have a tendency to feel pissed or crushed or disappointed, but then there’s that girl or that guy that asks the perceptive question and you learn that the scales, the balance, the equation of teaching works something like this


where that one insight from a student makes all the chaff worthwhile, that the jokes and the banter and the passing of cell phones, the little messages traded while one’s back is turned is somehow balanced by the gleam in a student’s eyes, the smile of understanding that breaks across her face, or as the relief of understanding the message settles across his forehead.

I also had a class of 9th graders today who were facing a test from one of the more demanding grammar teachers, a woman who knows her stuff and who knows how hard one has to work to “get it.”  She’s well spoken and she wants her students to be successful, more successful than she herself is. They were afraid of this test, and so they asked me about the conditionals, how to use them. They gave me some examples like “when you have x, then you use the past perfect” and I told them. “I don’t know! When we speak English, we don’t think about grammar – when you speak Hungarian, do you think about the grammar?”  But we started breaking things down and along the way, one of the students said “Ms. X says that we won’t be able to speak English without understanding this,” and I replied “you can’t speak English because you don’t speak English.” And we then started repeating the pattern

If I have the money, I will …

“Stop right there!  I don’t need to know what you’re going to do with the money, I just need to hear the pattern of the words.  Listen to the pattern.”

Around the room, each student.  Come on now, faster.  Again. See, you’re speaking English.  We did the same with other conditionals.

If I have the money, I am going to…

If I had the money, I would…

If I had the money, I could…

If I had had the money, I could have…

Speaking English. Using the conditionals. Without formulas. The rules are important except when they get in the way of your goal. To speak.

I was so ready for this little Easter respite from classes.

In the halls Erica, the Assistant Principal, and I passed one another and she said, “after the break, we need to talk about next year.”

You probably already knew this …


One thought on “What can’t be taught

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s