Sunday, May 5, 2013

You're Doing It Wrong

I knew a whole lot about teaching before I'd ever tried it. Like most students, I was fairly good at observing a teacher and figuring out what he was doing wrong. I could discern the precise moment the lesson went off track. I clucked my tongue as a teacher tied herself into knots explaining a complex topic. I sighed as the entertainment factor began serving as a distraction rather than a motivator. I shook my head as I noticed that he was riffing on a topic on which he wasn't entirely confident. I made the logical leap to the assumption that if I could see these problems, I could certainly do better.


To gauge your own potential for this, try this little quiz:
  1. Do you sometimes ask the teacher questions to which you already know the answer, in hopes that this will refocus the lesson and/or enlighten others in your class?
  2.  Do you sometimes remind the teacher of an assignment that is due, careful not to tip off others to what you're doing?--"So, I was taking my dog, Stoichiometry, to the vet the other day..."
  3. Do you have a collection of topics that are more-or-less guaranteed to get the teacher off on a tangent, rant, or pointless story.--"Do you have a daughter? Does she play the violin?"
  4. Do you sometimes steer discussion topics (ala #3) in an attempt to distract the teacher from collecting an assignment that you haven't done?
  5. Is there someone in your class with whom you tag-team to utilize these methods? Have the two of you found that your running commentary is especially enjoyable and rewarding with this person as your audience of one?
If you answered yes to all five questions, you may already be an education major.

Speaking of education majors, I have somehow become a fairly regular student teaching co-op--which means I've kinda gone pro with this whole critique thing. It's a good gig for me, as I have lots of opinions about teaching and stuff--75,000 words worth of Slacker Guide posts may have clued you in to that--and these people are pretty much forced to listen to me. Through this work, I have seen that for many, student teaching is the first time they are confronted with the divide between what improvement potential one can see in others, and what can actually be accomplished in themselves.

Here's the thing: It is much easier to notice that something is wrong than to correctly diagnose what that something is. It is much, much easier to diagnose something than it is to devise a proper course of action. It is much, much, much easier to devise the proper course than to actually follow through on that forever. A friend who also frequently serves as a cooperating teacher says, "I can make them better than I am, because I can make them do the things I would do if I were willing." For me, I too often say,  "I don't actually do it this way, but you should try to...."

You may have stopped reading this by now if you are one of those rare eccentrics who has always seen teaching as a science, an art, and a difficult profession. Perhaps you are among the majority of people who fear speaking (glossophobia) in public more than death (necrophobia). Perhaps you've never begrudged any teacher his fancy wardrobe from Kohl's, ten-year-old Honda, daily access to Maxwell House Select French Roast, or carefree summers of part-time jobs and grad school. Even so, I hope you're still with me, because once you discover this whole thing about the limits of criticism you'll see it in other aspects of life as well.

Like government and politics--and not just the class Government & Politics but, like, the actual thing.

The GOP has discovered our little trick here, and has shifted strategy accordingly. Their most common method these days is simply shooting down others' ideas, rather than devising any of their own (for an awesome rant on this, see also: here). One example is that we've seen thirty-six attempts to repeal Obamacare (at a cost of $50 million). At one point, they were advocating what they called "Repeal and Replace." Apparently that was way too difficult, as they have more recently settled for "Repeal and ..."

The fact is, the Affordable Care Act is a mess, as all things produced through compromise tend to be. It is, however, a fixable mess.

That is, if fixing it were actually the goal. Unfortunately, it's not anymore. As a result, they can't even do things that a vast majority of Americans find it to be fairly sensible, if a small but vocal minority says no. Instead, things only seem to function when members of congress may not be able to fly home on the weekend. The goal is no longer to do stuff, it is to win.

I hate to put it this way, but it all comes down to "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours." This sacred covenant is built on the foundation of mutually assured humiliation. It is a contract in which both sides accept some vulnerability in exchange for something. If one side reneges on the bargain, that side wins by virtue of having the solitary means of critique, criticism, and shaming. Democrats have been whipping out their ideas for a decade now, and keep meeting with the same outcome. We can't even accomplish anything when we basically start with their ideas, like chained CPI, banning assault weapons, and ruining education.

Half of our major political parties is now a group of kids sniggering in the back of the class, critiquing the efforts of the poor guy standing up there doing his little dance. So far, this method has been fairly profitable and successful; thus, they seem truly committed to the effort. However, trying to run a country with half of its brain tied behind its back is clearly not working. Tell us what you really want to cut from the budget, how you would actually fix the healthcare problems, and how you're going to improve the financial world as experienced by the majority of Americans. Then we'll tell you how wrong you are.





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