Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Education Films Series IV: The Class

This post is dedicated to all of my mentors and co-workers. Thank you for all you've taught me (and all you will teach me :)

Another education film I've seen recently (well, in the past year ) is The Class featuring Francois Begaudeau as high school English teacher, Mr. Marin. The film is based on his memoir which chronicles his experience teaching in inner-city Paris. It wasn't a documentary, but it almost could have been; I felt like a fly on the wall in Mr. Marin's classroom. It was so real, in fact, that I had a hard time watching it. It's not that the students were so tough (not at all--as a side thought, I wonder if the experience would have been different in the Paris banlieues or suburbs--some are comparable to U.S. inner city neighborhoods and more recently some inner-loop suburbs). Rather, I had a hard time because although according to the movie he was a three-year veteran, he seemed to be making some rookie mistakes. Some are the same mistakes I made as a rookie, mistakes which were thankfully pointed out to me by veteran mentors.

For one, Mr. Marin seemed to argue excessively with his students. The same summer I completed my master's degree in education, I taught a summer school course at the inner city high school where I would continue to work for the following two years. One student in the class was particularly difficult and I made the rookie mistake of letting him engage me in pointless arguments and of taking his behavior personally. In an attempt to help sort things out, the director of the summer program observed the class and then met with the two of us. After, she told me, among other things, that my and the student's discussions sounded as if they were between peers. "This sounds like a peer interaction. I'm not comfortable with that. You're not his peer," she reminded me pointedly.

It was too late for me to go back and change how I had interacted with him, but given her insights, I changed course. The student was still difficult, but not as much as he had been, and I was able to manage our interactions much more professionally and appropriately. What I learned then has helped me for years to come, and it liberated me. As long as it didn't disrupt the learning of others, I could make sure students felt heard and like their concerns were taken seriously, but in such cases students didn't have to concede I was "right" for me to remain confident in my role. I was their teacher, not their peer; I was the adult in the room.

But in The Class, it seemed like Mr Marin was caught up in the struggle of "I'm the teacher, you're the student" instead of just simply being the teacher. Perhaps this is a cultural difference.When I lived in and studied in France, I noticed that there wasn't as much the tradition of questioning the teacher as we have in the US, and perhaps the film reflected a change in their school culture. Perhaps engaging with his students on this level was his way of being open to that, but his sarcasm, his attempts to out-smart and out-embarrass his students seemed counter-productive, unprofessional, and a waste of time. Instead of trying to embarrass them before they embarrassed him, he should have just gone for setting the standard of no embarrassing of anyone by anyone.

Back to Ms. Levy. . . during the school year that followed summer school I had another mentor teacher. He observed a few of my classes and then went over his observations with me. (I also didn't have my own classroom that year and so I was fortunate to have the eyes on me of the teachers in whose rooms I taught.) One of the things I most remember being critiqued on was that I told students when they walked in late, "You're late." I'd say. My mentor told me, "Rachel, you know they're late, they know they're late, why stop class to point it out? Why put them on the defensive?" Although this was a small point, it was a key one. I found I could apply it to many other interactions with and generally giving feedback to students. I learned there's a time, a place, and a way to give feedback; publicly, sarcastically and in a way that's likely to humiliate students, as I saw Mr. Marin do some in The Class, is the wrong way. Mark the students late, of course, and hold them accountable for their trespasses like tardiness but do so in a way that's proactive, private, and appropriate.

Of course, while I think my criticisms of Mr. Marin (and I have positive feedback as well) are valid, I don't know that much about his school or what's expected of him or how France educates its teachers. I'd really have to ask and hear him explain why he reacted the way he did. Furthermore, I appreciated how Begaudeau let all of us viewers into his "classroom." As a new teacher, it was hard for me to be vulnerable to my mentors and their criticisms. Not only were many of the students I taught challenging, but I felt like I was doing a horrible job.

Around the time that I watched this film, there was a lot being written about video-taping teachers in order to evaluate them. As I got to watch (and then critique) Mr. Marin's teaching and as I recalled my own experiences, I was reminded of the value of mentoring, coaching, and evaluation.

Luckily, my observation of Mr. Begaudeau is not high stakes, especially given that I've never stepped foot in his school, nor do I know much about the training teachers get in France. This seems to be at least one of the shortcomings of the Gates Foundation initiative to video tape teachers. The teachers don't get the feedback quickly enough for it to be useful and the feedback is given by people far removed from the particular school and classrooms. Furthermore, one of the Gates-funded academics involved in the project seems to be looking at it as an opportunity to develop "cottage industries." Are we trying to improve teaching and learning here or are we trying to create even more unnecessary education-related "cottage industries" to waste precious dollars on?  On the contrary, the video-taping experience that California ESOL teacher Larry Ferlazzo describes here is a cost-effective and valuable way to use video-tape evaluations to improve teaching.

As for mentoring, luckily the observations my mentors did of my teaching were not high stakes. They were designed to help me improve my practice, not to see if I should be fired. Observations and evaluations are valuable and necessary. Evaluation and improvement shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but unfortunately, they're largely coming to be. Just like I learned that giving feedback to students is all in the how, so is giving feedback to teachers. The goal should be to make our students better students, and to make us better teachers. When your mentor is your boss, and the feedback can get you fired, people will be much less open to the feedback and to giving an honest presentation of their teaching and philosophy of teaching. It makes an evaluation something to be gamed, rather than a tool to develop, improve, and build.

1 comment:

  1. This is a comment from Brian Rude:

    I am now retired. I have not taught all my life, but part of it. I made my share of "rookie mistakes", probably a lot more than my fair share. So I can certainly relate to your description of the problem with the difficult student that you describe in your second paragraph. I think you were fortunate in having someone to help you. That simple statement, "You're not his peer" sounds pretty obvious, but I know from my own experience how easy it is to not see the obvious. But here is my question: Why didn't you learn about this type of situation in ed school?

    That is not meant to be a rhetorical question just to bash ed school, though I freely admit that I do bash ed school, every chance I get, and I have every intention to continue doing so. I bash ed school because of my personal experience. My rookie mistakes were very painful, and I think is fair to place a lot of the blame for this on my ed school, because my ed school made no attempt to consider the reality of teaching.

    I know I am not alone in bashing ed school, but I also realize that my experience is not universal. I have heard some teachers speak well of their education courses and professors. I suppose that varies quite a bit. And perhaps things have changed a lot since I was in college about fifty years ago. I certainly hope so.

    So I would be interested in your ed school experience and how it relates to this. Did you have courses that dealt with these kinds of problems, that gave you perspective, understanding, tactics and strategies, so that when your mentor said "You're not his peer", it all fit into place?

    Or was your ed school like mine, never bothered about the realities of teaching and learning, and probably knew nothing about the realities of teaching and learning.

    Another possibility is that your ed school did try to deal with the realities of teaching and learning, but somehow it's impossible to actually learn those realities until you are on the job? I hate to be this pessimistic. Surely ed school can be made worthwhile. But I'm not sure how. What are your thoughts?