Cutting Through Overcomplicated Classrooms
Advice for Teachers In Public Schools
At YesPhonics, we typically write about issues around homeschooling and parenting. We’re not narrowminded, though, and today I thought I would write about something a little further afield: problems facing teachers in the public school system.
As you’re probably aware, public education has a lot of problems in this country. Some of them we’ve written about before, particularly a scourge of standardized testing that makes it almost impossible for teachers to do their jobs. Others are more complex: funding cuts, the ballooning class sizes that they create, and an overreliance on technological boondoggles. In practice, these three problems all boil down to an over
I’ll try to round up those problems in this post and discuss ways that you, as a teacher, can make your life a little simpler.
Bloat and Simplicity
All of these problems—the testing, the tech, the class sizes—are symptoms of a broader trend in American society. Education, like everything else in American public life, is bloating out of all proportion to what it really takes to do well, and if you’re a teacher, the people who suffer the most from this process of bloat are you and your students.
In the face of changes like this, it’s often good to get back to the fundamentals. After all, the essential model of teaching—a group of people learning from a central figure—has mostly stayed the same since Socrates and Confucius. The roots of that model go very deep, and bureaucratic mismanagement is never going to completely dismantle it. Your job, in the face of all this bewildering complexity, is to stay as true to that model as you can in your classroom. That doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out SAT prep and smartphones completely—I’m sure many readers would like to do that, but the district probably won’t let you. What it means is that you should strive to create a sense of personal connection in your classroom.
Conveniently for us, this kind of personal connection is what we prize most in the homeschooling model. But it’s not exclusive to that model, and if you’re a good teacher you can create it in the classroom as well. If you can do that—if you can make your classroom a place of simplicity rather than complexity, and a refuge from the world outside—then you’ve got it made. I’ll try to explain how you can create that kind of environment in the next section.
If you can make your classroom a place of simplicity rather than complexity, and a refuge from the world outside, then you’ve got it made. Click to Tweet
How to Combat Bloat in the Classroom
If you’re teaching a 30-person class in elementary school, or a 60-person one in high school, it’s probably hard to imagine forming a real personal connection with every one of your students. There are ways you can work around unmanageable class sizes, though. Consider assigning solo work or small-group work more often to your students, then making the rounds and trying to work through problems with your students. If you lean on this model often in your classes, you’ll have gone a long way toward creating the kind of active, personal environment that characterizes homeschooling, and you’ll have made the classroom a smaller and more comfortable place for your students.
Likewise with standardized testing. It’s probably not kosher to encourage your students to opt out of standardized testing, no matter your personal feelings on the matter. But consider trying to make teaching-to-the-test the kernel of your lesson plan rather than its ultimate goal. If you’re being asked to teach the single-variable equations over and over in order to juke the stats, consider writing up a problem set that includes single-variable equations as well as multivariable ones, then teaching multivariable equations as an advanced option. Again, this will allow you to cultivate personal relationships with students who might otherwise fall through the cracks thanks to the transactional model of teaching to the test.
Finally, if the problems in your classroom have to do with technology, consider paring it back almost completely. A lot of technological utopianism in education, especially in high school, is implemented poorly and without a lot of real thought toward how it will work in practice. So, for example, a school might ask teachers to field questions on Facebook in order to keep students engaged. That sounds smart and forward-thinking, but in practice, as you and other teachers probably realize, it’s going to lead to a lot of students disengaging, phoning their questions in, and disappearing into social media. If you can avoid that kind of technological gimmick, it’ll help you retain the judgment it takes to tell when lesson plans could actually benefit from technology.
I’ll try to give an example that captures all three of these. When I was in high school I had a very by-the-book Latin teacher who spent most of his time drilling us on case morphology and word derivations. When it came time for finals my third year of Latin, though, he instead had us each submit a complete portfolio of translations of Catullus, including audio recordings of us reciting the poems so that he could be sure we were understanding the prosody. After we had turned them in, he gave us each a long personal write-up along with a grade, which showed how engaged he was with our progression as Latin readers.
I still think of that project as one of the high points of my educational life, and it demonstrates the above attributes extremely well: my teacher was bent on finding personal connections with each and every one of us, and he maintained a healthy skepticism toward technology that could still turn into enthusiasm if it provided good pedagogical techniques. On top of all that, he was doing this at the time of the year when other teachers might have had us prep for the National Latin Exam—clearly, individual skill-building and creativity were more important to him than test scores.
Obviously you won’t be able hit all three of those points every time—neither was my Latin teacher. But it’s an ideal to shoot for, and if you can come close reliably you’ll be doing your students a real service.