Over 650,000 read the previous guest post on the shadowing of two HS students. And over 250 readers wrote comments, most of them long and heartfelt.

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What happened?

Clearly it struck a chord.

Not news. Yet, as a number of commenters pointed out – and I agree – the passive and sitting life of a HS student is not news. Our surveys document this, and I have written about my own observations of the boredom I see. Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools (for which I worked as the 1st director of research 30 years ago) began life due to Horace’s Compromise and The Shopping Mall HS which both documented the problem (along with massive data from John Goodlad’s A Place Called School). All of which was preceded by Postman & Weingartner, Kozol, Silbermann and Friedenberg in the 60s.

In fact, the very first task we at the Coalition office assigned in 1985 to the school liaisons from the 8 initial Coalition schools was to shadow a student in their schools and report out their findings at our first meeting at Brown.

I’ll never forget Dale Doucette, from Portland HS, eager to report out first. Dale was not only a teacher and English Dept. Chair at PHS, he had been a student there. He opened his remarks by saying how much he loved his school. He ended by saying he went home and cried to his wife: he had no idea how boring his beloved school was. And, he said, his butt hurt from so much sitting.

Our blind spots as teachers. It seems, then, that by the very nature of the job of teaching, we are prone to be insensitive (literally) to the actual daily experience of our students, what they feel, unless we get outside of ourselves by acts of will. And that’s what the anonymous post so beautifully accomplished: for a moment we could leave our egos and empathize, really sense vicariously, what students often feel and what we have inevitably stopped feeling by becoming teachers with different feelings.

Years ago Lee Schulman and I were discussing his then-new research for the National Board for Prof. Teaching Standards and I asked him: “So what are the most powerful indicators for determining who is likely to be a really great teacher?” He replied: “Well, you might be surprised or dismayed by the most interesting finding: the best teachers are remarkably good at describing in fine detail what happens in their classroom even as they teach and move an agenda forward [based on post-observation interviews and looking at video].”

That really hit me because not two days before I had sat in on the “best” teacher in Jefferson County KY and watched her overlook the looks of confusion and disengagement on the faces of kids in group tasks. As she left one group, clearly happy that they were on task and understanding, my eyes lingered on the group. All four rolled their eyes and one girl threw up her hands in frustration over not getting it.

I was the first teacher in my school – in 1978 – to tape myself. I thought: well, coaches watch game film; why don’t I? Yikes! I was horrified. I had thought of myself as a good teacher and I was praised for being one. But the tape told a different story. My manner was a bit off-putting; I was a tad sarcastic; I was using phrases like “Well, it’s obvious that…” and “So, anyone can see that…” and I was not as skilled as I thought I had been in checking peripheral vision. I had missed 5-6 kids making a timid attempt to enter the discussion. Without my noticing and imploring them in, they fell back to more passive distanced listening.

All clearly visible on tape. All not seen by me.

A blameless critique. So, there is no blame here or in the prior post! This is the tragedy of being a teacher (against which there is also great comedy and happy endings): as teachers we cannot see everything; we cannot be everywhere; we cannot truly 100% LISTEN and WATCH as we think about managing the next part of the lesson. (Why would the “wait time” data be so dismal if this weren’t true?)

And that to me is a key answer as to why the anonymous poster’s remarks struck a nerve. She didn’t blame anyone. She noted our collective myopia. Indeed, she mostly blamed herself for her own blindness to the experience. And she offered sensible and practical solutions to each of the problems discussed.

So, why, then, was the post anonymous? She and I had agreed to keep the post anonymous for one simple reason: the author is new to her job as a coach and neither of us wanted her to be viewed as tattling on her colleagues or undermining their trust in her. I also had a personal 2nd reason in keeping her profile hidden from all Internet trolls as well as her colleagues: the post was written by my daughter, Alexis, a veteran of 17 years of teaching in varied schools in this country and others. We both now agree it is time for her to be recognized for her wonderful piece of writing since her colleagues now know she is the author. (Her Principal was the one who proposed the shadowing task in the first place, not me.)

A few clarifying comments are in order, based on the half million reads and many comments and tweets:

  1. I was thus not the author of the piece; there was no attempt on my part to hide behind a mythical person, though many thousands attributed the piece to me (even though my introduction to the post said that I was not the author).
  2. There were hundreds of comments about the cause of this HS drudgery being due to NCLB, Common Core, teacher accountability, and standardized tests. OOPS – as I noted early in one of my few replies to comments, Alexis teaches in a private school. Indeed, she teaches overseas in an American International School. So those many reader comments were a bit of projection – which, itself, is perhaps worthy of another post. The fact that such passive learning exists in good private schools (and colleges) only makes the matters raised in her post MORE important: why do we continue to make even elite education so passive when we don’t have to?
  3. The overwhelming response to the post was positive. Only a tiny handful of readers trashed the post, the author, me, and/or other commenters who were positive. They felt attacked as educators (though I really believe a fair reading of the piece shows that it was not an attack on teachers but schooling as we have all experienced it).
  4. The most poignant comments had to do with Alexis’ observation that the teachers she observed – as well as herself and me on video – are unwittingly more sarcastic than we imagine ourselves to be. Numerous parents picked up on this truth, too. Only 2 commenters tried to defend sarcasm in teachers.
  5. Alexis teaches in a school that has a block schedule, as was noted by the post. That made the passivity longer and more tiring – but it also meant that Alexis did not get to visit all the students’ classes (which included art and other more active classes). The good news: Alexis shadowed students in the other block and will report her findings later this week.

I hope that you have found this discussion of value; I hope you find the initial anonymity understandable; and I hope that you will continue to read and write such thoughtful comments to the future posts that Alexis will write based on further shadowing, surveys, and interviews. Stay tuned.