Pedagogy, Lesson Plans, Instructional Materials—and Politics

This is a blog about Teacher Stuff—the pedestrian daily tools of successful instruction. The boring and ordinary instruments of professional work that teachers, from kindergarten to AP chemistry, use every day.

A story: Several years ago, I was facilitating an on-line mentoring program for career-change teachers, who had previously worked for a Big Well-Known Corporation.

BWC decided to off-load a layer of expensive senior employees (those with 20 years or more) by giving them an exit ramp: Go back to school (on our dime) and become certified teachers. We’ll even subsidize your student teaching. Then resign, and we’ll replace you with cheap recent graduates.

That last line wasn’t actually in the program description, but everybody involved knew the score. BWC promo-ed the program on their website—Giving Back to Your Community!–and added an additional sweetener: BWC would provide e-mentoring, through a national non-profit, for the novice teachers’ first year, since they understood that public schools were filled with terrible teachers who couldn’t possibly be of assistance. After all, their (too-expensive) employees were masters of applied STEM content, who could probably teach veteran educators a thing or two.

It was an interesting gig.

A lot of the work was just dealing with misconceptions. Like the woman who was upset when she was told by the university where she was taking ed classes that she couldn’t have a student teaching placement as a ‘third grade math instructor’ because the job didn’t exist in most places. She could student teach in a 3rd grade, but would also have to teach reading, social studies, science and accept bus and lunch duty, which was a deal-breaker for her. She left the program.

One of my mentees had just started a job as a chemistry teacher in a suburban Connecticut high school. He had been assigned four sections of chemistry and one of AP chemistry. In our first exchange, he was panicked because he had asked for the lessons plans to go along with the texts, and was told they didn’t exist. He checked with his official on-site mentor (the other chemistry teacher at his school) who told him that books didn’t come with lesson plans because you have to tailor lesson plans to the students you have.

Which my mentee thought was not just rude but ridiculous. You mean I have to make up ten separate lesson plans each week? How inefficient! At BWC, all the work was pre-organized. You just followed the templates. This is why public education is such a disaster, yada yada.

If you are not an educator, it might in fact be surprising to suddenly be immersed in typical pedagogical practice where what initially appears to be ‘inefficiency’ turns out to be more effective in the long run. I’m thinking here of those little flip-top heads on a conveyor belt, receiving ‘content’ in ‘Waiting for Superman’–director Davis Guggenheim’s conception of how children learn.

My point here is that the other chemistry teacher was spot-on: Good teachers structure learning goals, lesson plans and instructional methods to meet the needs and quirks of the students in front of them. They also pay attention to results in real time (meaning—you don’t have to wait for test scores), and re-adjust when things aren’t going well.

Peter Green recently wrote an accurate (and amusing) blog that summarizes why teachers will never completely outgrow the need to plan, also listing a half-dozen ways that required lesson plans can become a pointless power struggle or an example of planning theatre.

I spent thirty-odd years planning the week ahead on Sunday nights, with a glass of wine. My plan book was where I scribbled notes when I had a brainstorm (or a failure). The plans were always messed up by mid-week, but I had five preps, and absolutely couldn’t teach without them. But nobody ever fly-specked my plans to make sure I wasn’t inserting CRT or SEL or any other acronym into the pedagogy I saw working for my students, on a daily basis.

Alfie Kohn takes this discussion about teachers’ daily work a step further, reminding us that it’s not just curriculum and lesson plans that the (well-funded) right now wants to control. It’s the way we go about teaching—our pedagogical practices, including things like the pre-eminence of phonics in the Faux ‘Science of Reading’ wars.

Just as social conservatism is all about religion, so religion — or at least this version of it — is all about not only order and obedience, but also faith (which means belief without evidence) in the conviction that Truth resides, fully formed, in certain texts. Carole Edelsky, an emeritus education professor at Arizona State University, has explained that “the far right’s love affair with phonics” reflects their “universe of moral absolutes,” the goal being to decode “what is ‘there’ [and to affirm] appropriate hierarchies – the authority of text over interpretation and ultimately of (the Christian) God over man. To the theocratic right, promoting phonics is a tactic for asserting Christian control of schools.”

That one made me stop and think.

The great irony here is that obedience and faith are what certain politicians want—but not the blue-chip businesses who will be hiring our graduates. Education Week just surveyed ten such companies, asking: What problem-solving skills do you want to see from early-career job seekers that tend to be lacking? And what should K-12 schools do to help bridge those skill gaps?

Corporations said: Flexibility. Cooperation and collaboration. Soft skills. Real-world applications. Learning to fail. Curiosity. Appreciating diversity. Service learning. Teamwork. Creativity and innovation—out of the box thinking.

All of which require a great deal of careful planning, diverse instructional strategies and materials, and zero emphasis on standardization and compliance, which is the pedagogical train we’ve been on for two decades now.

Can those traits and skills be taught? I think so.

The question is whether teachers and school leaders will follow their hearts and minds or be beaten down by politics.

9 Comments

  1. The last three years I was teaching were spent with struggling high school students who were far behind their peers (who were far behind the students in my hometown upscale schools). Early on I determined that the best use of our time should include a heavy dose of those soft skills. They were not going to “catch up” on content knowledge although content drove the use of those soft skills, but they needed to know that they could think and that their ideas had value. They were well aware that they were at the bottom of the pecking order and accepted that they belonged there. NO! All those attributes that make for decent human beings have nothing to do with whether they can read at grade level. I did the best I could to expose them to the world beyond their tiny niche, and to help them navigate as much of it as they could with belief in their own ability to keep learning and growing.

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  2. Do you want your surgeon, lawyer, auto mechanic, or McDonald’s line cook to “follow their hearts and minds”? What a ridiculous prescription for an education SYSTEM. How unfair to children to allow their futures be determined by the luck of the draw. How large of an impact of getting placed in the classroom of 20 year vet or a first year novice is truly just?

    Teaching is a mass profession. In terms of our numbers, teachers are closer to fast food workers than doctors or lawyers. In terms of compensation, we are closer to fast food workers than doctors or lawyers. The expectation that we approach our job like a doctor or lawyer is misguided. Teachers need to stop accepting autonomy and psychic wages over real wages. The job is too hard to do well. Telling the masses of novice and mediocre teachers to just “get good” is not a realistic plan to address the needs of an education system. Teaching needs to be a profession that the mediocre and average teacher (i.e. definitionally most of us) can do effectively. It needs to be a profession the first and second year teachers can do effectively (otherwise a lot of them will never stick around to become ten or twenty year teachers). It needs to be a job that can be done effectively without unpaid overtime on Sunday nights or any night.

    A huge problem with education is everyone wants teachers jobs to be hard (except maybe new teachers). People who randomly hate public schools want the job to be impossible so the examples of teachers doing it poorly proliferate People who are enfranchised teachers want the job to be hard so they can compensate meager real wages with some psychic consolation they are doing something very challenging and making a difference in a role many people could not perform. Schools of ed want the job to be hard so they can charge people thousands of dollars for a student teaching placement.

    Teaching needs to be easier and simpler if the system is going to be successful.

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    1. Hi Henry. Thanks for commenting.
      You clearly took my last statement in a direction I didn’t mean (and the rest of the column doesn’t justify). But I went back to re-read the statement and agree that it’s not clear. Maybe I was just tired of writing about all the aspects of teachers’ professional work that have been co-opted, denigrated and politicized. And I hoped teachers would perceive their own expertise–what they believe to be best for their students–and act on it.

      It was interesting to take a walk through your theory of why teaching (as Lee Shulman said) is impossible, and should be simplified. Not sure that I agree. There’s the eternal question veteran teachers ask: whether teaching is an art or a science. I dont’ think that teaching could be stripped down to replicable, scientifically validated acts, done by a rotating cast of starter employees at minimal wages, who are expected to go on to other, better-paying jobs after a couple of years. And anyone who’s had an amazing, deeply experienced teacher–at any level–can name that person and their impact on a life. That’s not ‘psychic consolation.’ It’s real.

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    2. I taught high school French and Spanish for 30 years and I really can’t relate to anything you’ve said. I always enjoyed making lesson plans, using what I had learned about cognitive learning psychology. But it is very time-consuming. It’s a very difficult job, and the only way to make it easier would be to have smaller ratios of students to teachers, and have more planning time and teach fewer classes.

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  3. Teaching: is it art or is it science? Ha!
    Teaching at the secondary level is much more like “psychological Jiu Jitsu”.

    The last direction that public education needs to turn toward is the soft, problem-solving skills desired by corporations.
    Strange that they didn’t list content knowledge in a related field as a key ingredient in problem solving. That’s because corporate America has morphed into an ambiguous, jargon saturated service sector comprised of an untold number of made-up positions with fabricated job titles filled by intelligent young adults who cannot even explain what they do.
    Go on any service centered corporate website and read “about” them and see. No surprise that they want soft skills because they are looking for what would best be described as, new-age BS artists.

    Want to help improve public education in the trenches?
    – Ban cell phones
    – Limit Chromebook use
    – Emphasize the teaching of content and procedural knowledge in all course work
    – Increase the variety of learning opportunities/course offerings
    – Implement independent credit bearing trimesters or quadmesters
    – Increase student accountability with concrete consequences for lack of academic effort,
    absenteeism, and chronically disruptive behaviors

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    1. Thanks for commenting.
      I can hardly counter your assertion that corporate America is a jargon-saturated service sector. I have worked for two education non-profits, and personally witnessed the jargon, and the need to find the right jazzy language to attract grant funders, while not paying attention to actual results.

      Your suggestions for improving public ed are all worth considering–or, at least, seriously debating.
      Part of my point here was that those debates–and others, around public education–shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of corporations and (most) non-profits. They are critical decisions about teachers’ professional work, but teachers find themselves hamstrung– and things have gotten immeasurably worse as students have experienced schooling during a pandemic.

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  4. The problem with teachers recognizing their expertise is an interesting one. I consider your examples to show problems with that (and professionalism). If teaching is so important, why do we have to teach so many things? It’s arbitrary, not normal. Why wouldn’t you be given lesson plans? Don’t they have a curriculum? That doesn’t sound like a professional organization. How do you show your expertise if you aren’t given the adequate resources to do your job?

    I entered the profession ten years ago through an alternative route program. I have worked in many schools and districts from grades 6 to 12. I used to think that the system and those in wanted what was best for students. Some definitely do. But most do what they think is best, and that is not remotely the same thing. One of the reasons it is easy to attack teachers is that our levels of professionalism and expertise are not so great as we think they are.

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    1. “Why wouldn’t you be given lesson plans? Don’t they have a curriculum?”

      The question answers itself: a curriculum is not a set of lesson plans. (Standards aren’t lesson plans, either.)
      Lesson plans are the delivery mechanism and SHOULD be tailored to the students in front of us, as well as accomplishing curricular goals.

      I am well aware of teachers not wanting to change things that have become easy habits for them. But the lack of trust in educators is what’s gotten us to where we are today.

      Again–there are valid questions and issues in your response (why early elementary teachers are expected to cover the range of subjects, for ex). But they are issues that should be decided by those doing the work: teachers and school leaders.

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