Wednesday, February 21, 2018

It Shouldn't Make Any Difference

You may have heard this in a discussion of education policy in general, or if you're a teacher, you may have heard it in internal discussions of curriculum and instruction.

It shouldn't make any difference.

It shouldn't make any difference which teacher you have. It shouldn't make any difference who teaches that course. It shouldn't make any difference if we have to replace you with a new hire next year, or next week, or tomorrow.

It's a variation on the dream of the teacher-proof classroom, a hope for standardization so rigorous that individual teachers can be switched like cogs in a machine or bricks in a wall. And it's wrong. Really wrong.

It is a call to bland mediocrity. Anything that sticks out about a particular teacher, anything that they do better than their peers, anything that is a special strength they bring to the table-- those things must all be lopped out and ground down, because they would be a difference. Do you (like my colleague) teach a unit centered around reading Paradise Lost and putting John Milton on trial in front of a jury of local attorneys and educators? Well, not any teacher who stepped into your job could pull that off, so that unit should not be part of your class.

Are you someone with a particular gift for teaching writing? Well, knock it off-- if you are going to deliver the prescribed, aligned curriculum with fidelity, then you can devote no more or less time to that material than anyone else in the department.

You might remember a time when schools were staffed by a veritable Avengers roster of teachers-- each with her own special power, special field of expertise, special style. It was, in fact, one of the most effective ways to provide school choice-- by having a wide variety of teachers under one roof, so that students could find a good fit without having to leave their friends or their neighborhood schools behind.

In truth, such schools still exist. But they are not the dream of many education "leaders."

Instead, the dream is a cookie cutter school, a school where the scope and sequence are set in stone, bought in a box, or meant to be executed with extreme fidelity. If it's Tuesday, this must be adverbs.

Some school "leaders" will insist they don't want to stamp out differences between teachers. "No. of course not," they declare. "Once you have properly taught all the material that we've aligned to the standards, you can go ahead and spend the rest of the time on those little extras you like to do." Because, of course, the material aligned to the standards is what matters, and those things you teach because you are knowledgeable and passionate about them, because you know how to connect students to them like connecting a light bulb to a live wire, because your professional judgment tells you that they are an important part of the body of knowledge in your field-- those things are just silly little frills.

I get that no administrator or parents wants to discover that Pat and Chris aren't getting some critical content because they happened to land in the classroom of Mrs. Suxalot. But that is not a standards problem or a curriculum problem or a get everybody aligned with fidelity problem. It's just a bad teaching problem, and if administrators do their jobs, that problem can be addressed without trying to turn the building staff into Stepford Teachers.

No teacher ever went into the profession to not make a difference. No teacher gets up in the morning and thinks, "Today, I just hope that I can do my job in a way that's indistinguishable from anyone else's job performance." Hell, nobody does any job anywhere thinking, "I just hope that my work could have just as easily been performed by anybody else."

But this is where we are right now. And we wonder why teaching looks progressively less attractive to a new generation, a generation that has watched teachers try to become interchangeable content delivery widgets.

If you are a teacher, it should absolutely make a difference that it's you in the room and not somebody else. If you are a teacher, your relationship with the work and your students should be personal, and therefor different. If you are a teacher, you are certainly not irreplaceable, but when your replacement arrives, it should be different, because you were different, because you made a difference.

It should make a difference. That's the job-- making a difference. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.


  1. I really liked this post because it reminds me of my own teaching style. I get sick of hearing things from students and parents alike, is this an advanced class or do you teach just regular classes. I simply tell them I don't teach regular or advanced classes. I teach a Mr. Hopper class and if you like it, you will learn a lot about many things not covered in the book and much of life. If not, go to another class, or simply do nothing and get what you earned.

  2. Teaching (like school counseling, which I do) is maybe 5% about content and 95% about the connection. Different kids connect with different kinds of personalities and approaches. As always, you explain so well. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for writing this. This week has been especially difficult and this was just what I needed to hear.