Great Teachers

The Sound of Silence

Brian JohnsonSo we recently had a seminar in class for the tail end of my “Reading 9/11” unit, which has been a pretty solid unit in the past and has been a great way to introduce and explore the idea that there are multiple ways of looking at a single event, and that different sources of information have their advantages and disadvantages.  It’s a little bit of media studies mixed in with literary analysis (bonus: introduction of the idea that literary analysis can be applied to non-fiction) and history.  The seminar is your basic “everyone sits in a circle and we have a discussion” format, with me serving as moderator; furthermore, since it’s usually the first such discussion of the year, I don’t even grade it.  I just figure we’ll talk, you know?

If it’s going well, all I’m doing is making sure that everyone is being heard and nobody is talking over one another.  Ideas are shared, insights are gained, and we have a pretty good time.  When these don’t go well, it’s long, awkward silences punctuated by the occasional comment, one that’s usually obvious, that shows that not only did the class not do the assigned reading but that they can’t even fake their way through it.  It is the very definition of the oxymoron “deafening silence.”

Having set the expectation that I’m simply going to ask a few questions to get the ball rolling and that most of the discussion should be my students, I ask the question or questions and when nobody answers, I just sit back in my chair and look around the room, watching them look at each other as if they’re trying to figure out who actually did the work and is going to jump in and save them from the awkwardness that is taking place.  Then, I’m quiet for some more, letting them feel how brutal such long, awkward silences can be.   After enough time has passed, I’ll repeat the question or rephrase it or follow it up a little and see if that helps.  That’s usually when I get the “I’m not prepared but I’ll say something really obvious to save face” answer from someone, to which I reply, “Well, we know that … can you be more specific/can you go deeper/can you explain why?” or any other question that basically calls that particular bluff.

At the end of the class period, I usually comment on how the rest of the seminars for the year are student run, really don’t involve me talking (I literally sit in the back of the room and say nothing for most of the class, chiming in only toward the end with questions I thought of during the discussion), are for a grade, and while I’m used to long periods of awkward silence in class their classmates who will be running those seminars are not.  I probably sound a little disappointed, but I don’t get angry or make some grand speech about expecting more from honors students or the value of academics–those speeches never work anyway.  Then I do my usual personal debrief.

After this latest one, I started doing my usual debriefing and kept thinking about what I had done wrong and began making a mental list of all of my inadequacies as an educator.  I shouldn’t have forced students to read and talk about what they read.  I should have let them write the lesson plans.  I shouldn’t have expected they would be interested in the topic or the pieces we read just because I was.  The activity was not authentic enough.  I should have brought in an expert (which I’m obviously not).  I shouldn’t have asked questions I already knew the answers to. I  should have used technology.  I should have had them tweet instead of talk.

I went outside and talked to a couple of colleagues between classes.  Then, I had an epiphany:  I need to stop thinking like an Educator and start thinking like a teacher.

So, planning rolled around and before I moved on to making copies and grading papers, I gave the seminar another thought and instead of launching into an internal blog post about the nature of the educational system in the 21st Century and my role as an Educator, I thought about what might need adjusting.  I wrote a few notes on my lesson plans and then stowed them away for when I cover these concepts again and for when I plan next year’s classes.  It was easy, it was quick, and I walked away feeling less stressed than before.

Why such a mental shift?  Well, thinking like an Educator, I have found, is more detrimental than I’d originally thought because thinking like an Educator is a “none of the credit, all of the blame” mentality.  To think like an educator, you have to buy into the idea that the lack of excitement in the class during a failed seminar is all your fault and has nothing to do, say, with anyone else being unprepared.   It is a complete and utter shredding of your self-confidence.

When I think like a teacher, the solutions come quicker and easier.  I am not “blameless” in any regard and I do not consider myself infallible or to have a monopoly on knowledge and information; I can simply look at the situation more objectively and can adjust and readjust more quickly, even in the moment.  I remember that it’s okay to be sure of myself, it’s okay to consider myself an expert on a topic, and it’s okay that I have knowledge and that I know the answers to some of the questions I am asking.

And I also remember that it’s okay to have some silence every once in a while.

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There are some teachers you look at and say, “Yeah, he’s why I became a teacher.” Then there are those you look at and say, “I wish I was that good.”

It was the first day of my senior year, a year where I was supposed to be one of the “leading” class of Sayville High School, and a day where I was supposed to do nothing except bask in my seniorness. After all, first days of school are supposed to be a wash: you get your locker combination, meet a few teachers, pick up some textbooks, probably attend a short assembly, and then go home with nothing to do. Except that Mr. Prescia had another idea. “Okay, you guys ready to go?” he asked after the second period bell rang and then asked us to take out that summer’s assignment.

I’m not sure if I imagined this or it really happened, but I could have sworn that there was a collective groan from some people in the class and I know that I wasn’t the only person wondering if he was serious. It turns out, he was. Mr. Prescia had been our pre-calculus teacher the previous year and took over the AP calculus classes for what I think was the very first time in his career. Back in June, he had issued textbooks and assigned a laundry list of problems that he expected us to have ready for the first day of school in September.

Now, being the type of student who never missed a summer assignment (and also being the type of student whose parents made sure he never missed a summer assignment), I dutifully completed my work and was ready, but I definitely didn’t think that he was going to launch right into problems the very first day of classes. But since he didn’t need to introduce himself, it made total sense. Not only that, the man was pumped to teach AP calculus.

Mr. Prescia clearly was a math guy. The previous year, he’d shared a problem that he and a super-genius kid from an older class had worked on together (and I am not entirely sure if this was true or not, but I swear there was something about mathematically proving or disproving the existence of God), in addition to some great stories about his high school years, including the time he’d been shot. He had stories about how him and his brother came up with a card-counting system for blackjack in Vegas and did so well that they were asked, upon leaving the casino, to never come back to that casino again. He once revealed his sure-thing system for betting on horses at the different racetracks in the New York metropolitan area. He worked in logarithms and theorems as if they were a medium, and while we didn’t always share his enthusiasm, he didn’t let us forget that we had signed up for AP calc, he was going to teach us AP calc, and we were going to work.

And work we did. Mr. Prescia’s class was balls-to-the wall drill-and-kill. He would lecture on a principle of calculus, assign problems out of the book, and create tests where you had no choice but to be thorough on working out everything. When we did well on those tests, he was even more pumped and he’d take things to the next level, making the concepts more complicated in his breakneck-paced manner that dared us to keep up; when we did badly, he would lay into us. He once read our class the riot act for a good half of a class period and was so upset that two beads of spit had collected at the corners of his mouth–he was frothing at the mouth, if you will–not because he thought we were stupid or that he hated us, but because he was disappointed in us.

He was, in a way, our coach. I was one of his most inconsistent “players.” Every other one of my tests was good–I’d get a C on one test and an A on the next, which made me a B student but not a solid B student (in fact, “inconsistent test scores” was a constant comment on my progress reports and report cards). One particular test, he posted the highest point total on the board (he used some total points formula that to this day I can’t figure out, but I know that the highest one was essentially the “A” of the class and everything was curved accordingly) and when he came around to my desk, he said, “You came out of left field on this one” and revealed that I had that posted highest points total. It was as much of a “holy crap” moment for me as it seemed to be for him and I remember doing my best to repeat that performance for the rest of the year, even though I never did and remained inconsistent.

His methods, his style … they were, as I recall, all things that your average PD speaker would cringe at. There was never a single manipulative, never a single project, and we never touched a piece of technology. But in four years of high school, I rarely worked as hard to keep up with him and I never felt as wiped as when I walked out of the AP calculus exam in May, I never felt more wiped (and kinda regret not going out for Chinese with him but I did have another AP exam the next day and wanted to get in one last review session). To this day, the 3 that I scored on that exam is something I wear as a badge of honor. Earlier this evening, I found out via Facebook that Mr. Prescia has passed away. So, I tip my hat to him. Rest in peace and thank you.