Snowflakes and Snowplows

This past weekend, I had the privilege of meeting a medal winning Olympic figure skater. To protect her privacy, I don’t want to reveal too many details about her, so I will call her Lily. After I met her, I did what everyone else does when they meet an Olympian; I searched for a video of her performing on Youtube.  Wow! In the time period she was skating, she was clearly at the top of her field. She took full command of the ice and was a vision of beauty.

During our lengthy conversations, I learned that there was so much more to this woman than just an Olympic athlete. I particularly enjoyed how she relayed information about her sport in comparison to our current education system. Lily is so wise, and you really need to know this story.

For many decades, one of the requirements of all figure skaters was to be able to skate specific patterns on the ice. One of these, for example, is a figure 8 with smaller loops at the top and bottom. There were very strict requirements regarding these compulsory figures. They had to be skated in a very concise and particular manner. During competitions, judges would watch the skater during the figure, and then they would analyze the pattern on the ice to check for the slightest mistake. Even the smallest glitch could cost an athlete greatly.

These figures were the bane of many skaters. While some who entered the sport were very athletic and could skate fast and well, they could not skate smoothly or beautifully enough to develop these compulsory figures on the ice. Many more did not have the work ethic to practice these patterns for 4-6 hours every day. The skaters didn’t think the patterns were important, but the judges and coaches did.

Lily realized the importance of such precision skating early. She knew that if she could do the figures, the skills would translate into her programs. When I watched the video of her performance, I was awestruck. She was stunning! Each motion was fluid and graceful. Lily explained to me that the time spent on the patterns helped her to learn how to skate properly, how to use the edge of her blade, and to strengthen every muscle she needed to skate.

In 1988, those in charge of the sport of figure skating dropped compulsory figures from the requirements. This would, in their minds, allow the athletes to focus more time and energy on performing their musical programs. As the sport shifted from being precise and beautiful, it became more athletic, fast, and powerful. Consequently, athletes began having more injuries that kept them off the ice. Apparently, no one noticed the connection between dropping the figures and an increase in injuries. All they saw was that skaters were faster, leaped higher, and spun more revolutions in the air.

What she said next really got my attention. “This,” she conveyed, “is the same thing we are doing in education today.” To paraphrase her, we no longer require students to learn phonics and the correct pronunciation of letters and syllables. We don’t require them to hand write both manuscript and cursive letters. We don’t require that they carefully construct sentences with a subject and verb in agreement with one another and appropriate modifiers, all spelled correctly.

Instead of teaching the basics of mathematics and the natural truths associated with them (2+2=4 every time), we now teach that they can get partial credit if they are close or they can explain the convoluted means they used to come up with their wrong answer. We’ve removed education in its purest form and have replaced it with “expressing opinions,” and “sharing feelings.” I swear to you, dear reader, in my entire life I’ve never once thought about my opinion or feeling that 2+2 is 4, I just know that it is every single time.

Students left to their own vices now send text messages, Facebook posts, and Tweets with a multitude of abbreviations, emojis, indecipherable grammar, and statements filled with opinion rather than facts. They apparently find great joy when thousands of their closest friends “like” their post regarding their hatred of the new administration in Washington DC. Yet many are simply unable to explain the reasons behind their position. They’ve not been taught to think or reason.

Education should always be about seeking the truth. It should never be about what the learner thinks about that truth. Indeed, one cannot develop opinions until they know the beauty of the truth on which that opinion might be based. If one knows that Hitler is responsible for the overtaking of most of Europe and the killing of six million Jews along the way, then one can develop the opinion that Hitler was evil (or Hitler was good, depending on which viewpoint one takes). But without knowledge of who Hitler was, one has no information to guide that opinion.

Too often in our public schools, students are asked for their opinion, or how they feel about something they have read, seen, or done in class. Again, gentle reader, in the nineteen years that I darkened the halls of academia as a student, I was never once asked how I felt about anything. Come test time, though, I’d better know the truth of the material! And rest assured that I never asked any of my students, even my own children how they felt about something I taught until they knew the truth well.

It’s no wonder then that we have raised a generation of narcissistic snowflakes who have to go to a safe space anytime something doesn’t go their way. We’ve done this by allowing our educational systems to quit educating our children.  Until we can move our schools back into the business of teaching truths, the snowflakes will continue to graduate each year until we are buried in them. Where’s a snowplow when you need one?

 

~Temerity Dowell

God Bless the Teachers

This week, I encountered a teacher who has become frustrated with himself and the work that he does. For reasons I don’t quite understand, he seems to feel that in order to be successful at the art of teaching, he must also be an expert within that field. I tried my best to explain to him why this is not necessary, but I don’t think I reached him. Because I know he reads my articles, I’m addressing this here, but I’m hopeful that other teachers who feel the same way will be encouraged also.

In my lifetime, I’ve had teachers who ranged in skill level between the unbelievably incredible all the way to “should never darken the door of a classroom.” Some of those teachers have been so inspiring that they completely altered my way of thinking forever. Others have provided numerous reasons to visit the lavatory or take a nap.

Because of the way I’ve always observed teachers as they teach, I’ve learned a great deal about this craft. The skill level it takes to be a great teacher, or even a good teacher, is astronomical. It takes much more than just being knowledgeable of the subject matter. You also have to understand how the learner learns, how to break down difficult and complex tasks into smaller, achievable steps, and you must have the patience of Job. Those are just a few of the requirements necessary; there are far too many to list here.

My teacher friend has each of these skills, but he doesn’t think so. In his field, he is the equivalent of an elementary school teacher. In his environment there are few teachers around who are doing the same job (and most of those who do are bad at it). Most of his colleagues in the field could be considered middle and high school level teachers. Recently, he has encountered the types of teachers similar to those at the collegiate and post-graduate level. After a conversation with him, I felt that he was trying to compare himself to those teachers. Oh, how I wish he would not! There are so many faults with this.

First, when we compare ourselves to others, we most often compare our very worst to their very best. I, too, have been guilty of this, even though I know that it accomplishes nothing more than making me feel defeated. Second, when we compare ourselves, we often forget that others may have years more experience or a different skill set than we have. So we try to take someone who is naturally gifted at something and wonder why we aren’t able to accomplish as much in the same field as they are. The years of experience someone has spent studying their craft cannot be overestimated. While it doesn’t always equal success, it can result in a higher level of achievement.

The other thing that concerns me about my friend is that he seems to think that because he is “only” an elementary school level teacher, he is not as valuable as the upper level teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth! NOTHING! Think for a moment about the elementary school teacher who taught you to read. He or she must have done well at their craft, or you would not have been able to read this essay. How is that teacher less valuable than the teacher who taught me to compute algebraic equations? It was an elementary school teacher who taught me that a subject, verb, and appropriate modifiers were necessary to construct a sentence. How exactly is the high school level teacher who taught me how to interpret Shakespeare more significant?

Any decent study of the importance of education will address the integral nature of the educational foundation. What happens in the first few years of learning will impact everything the student learns as they mature, either for the good or bad. The students who were not adequately taught to compute simple mathematical problems when they were young are now the clerks at the fast food restaurant who can’t make correct change when their register doesn’t work.

Teaching at the beginning level is not easy, though. In order for students to learn a new skill, the teacher must have an arsenal of means to share the same information in a thousand different ways, only one of which will make sense to the learner. No two students fit into the same cookie cutter mold. This requires an unfathomable amount of patience, even more if the new learners are adults rather than children.

When adults are learning a new skill, they also have an arsenal of “stuff” that keeps them from learning it. Will their personal life prohibit them from practicing the skill as often as needed? Will past failures limit their willingness to try new things? Will they be discouraged by an unkind word from someone they respect? Will they have a multitude of seemingly reasonable excuses to miss classes? Will events in their life prohibit them from being completely focused while you are trying to instruct them? While these are often problems identified in young learners, adults have them in greater amounts due only to our age.

Dear friend, fellow teacher, do not be discouraged! If you want to get better at what you do, and you should, then study your craft more. Take classes, schedule private sessions, read, and study. One of my own great weaknesses has been in “spreading myself too thin.” By trying to be successful at many things, I become only average at all of them. This may be an issue for you also.

If you want to be really good at something, then invest in yourself and your craft. In case no one has ever told you this, you are worth the investment in you. I’ve invested in you for years because I believe in your value. Unless and until you give me reason to change my mind, I will never stop. While a lack of innate skills may prohibit you from being as successful in your chosen field as you would like, it does not diminish your ability to teach the subject. And teaching is a very valuable art.

As a young college student, someone tried to dissuade me from becoming a teacher with the miserable saying, “Those who can’t, teach.” This almost made me change my major. I wanted to be very good at whatever I did, and this horrid statement devalued the gift, art, and science of teaching. With almost 30 years of professional teaching on my resume, I can say unapologetically that teachers are some of the most talented people to grace this planet. No doctor, lawyer, businessman, movie star, singer, professional truck driver, manager, seamstress, Waffle House waitress, rocket scientist, author, or dancer would be where they are today without a great teacher who set the foundation of their education.

Thank you, sweet friend, for being a great teacher.

 

~Temerity Dowell