Should We All Be Teachers?

I am from Kansas City and I am a sports fan, but I tend to stay away from America's most popular sport of football. I grew up playing soccer; watching replays of games from Europe or South America and empty games at Arrowhead was the extent of my exposure to pro soccer. Sporting Kansas City have since filled that void. I have Kansas basketball flowing through my blood.* I can enjoy watching golf when it's good. I love watching the Olympics, especially curling. Needless to say, I'm irrationally excited for the 2014 version to get going next month in Sochi. All this gets us to the Chiefs v. Colts playoff game on Saturday which I watched with some of my family as was my duty as a Kansas Citian.

*I'm told that when I would cry as a baby, popping in a recorded KU basketball game is what would consistently get me to stop crying. I could write 5,000 words on my hatred of the new Jayhawk Television Network that has kept me from watching some of the games so far this year. That's a different post for a different blog.

Sometime in the third quarter before Andrew Luck decided to impersonate Peyton Manning and the Chiefs defense decided to impersonate themselves from last season, I came across A Warning to Young People: Don't Become a Teacher written by Randy Turner. You can click over and read for yourself but the gist of the article is that the teacher is the most important part of the learning process and that the political landscape in America is devaluing the experienced teacher through programs like Teach for America and votes on removing teacher tenure. This led the author to retire from teaching altogether.

I can get behind the premise of the argument, although I think that Mr. Turner makes the issues at hand too black and white for my liking. Maybe I'll write my thoughts on the arguments in the article itself, but that isn't what this post is about. I want to use the premise of the argument to look at flipping the classroom and whether the theory makes sense in the real world of the classroom.

Flipping the class means that a lot of what is traditionally accomplished inside the class, such as a lecture session with class notes, is moved outside of the class. Instead of students listening to the teacher lecture in class, the teacher may create a youtube video that the students can watch on their own time. Class time can then be used for experiments, discussions, simulations, projects and other such activities. These kind of project-based activities are all the rage in educational pedagogy. In theory, this should lead to the students taking greater control of their own learning. The teacher becomes a facilitator of learning. That's the theory.

I love the idea of the theory. It has played a role in my teaching the first three years. I make one set of videos for my students that is my voice over the powerpoint that I've created. I still lecture and discuss in class, but these videos allow students to go back and re-listen to what we have discussed. I also make videos that are more like tutorials for things like logging onto our class website, turning work in online or breaking down an essay question. You can look at an example in the youtube video below. These are simple screenshots and are pretty easy to make.



The way that I use these kinds of videos is not a true flip of the classroom because we still do everything in class. The author of the article I referenced at the start of this post observed that his best teachers certainly allowed him to be curious and explore, but they also explicitly taught him theories, ideas, skills and habits that he could not have discovered on his own. I am going to experiment with the balance between these two views of  flipping the classroom. Like most things in life, I'm sure that what I'll find works best is some kind of mixture of all of the theories and concepts that I acquire. Flipping the classroom is becoming more and more popular. The Flipped Learning Network (www.flippedclassrooms.org) had 16,695 members as of Jan. 5th, 2014. This article on the research behind flipping classrooms shows that there is little empirical data to support flipping the classroom, but that there is periphery data beginning to come out on specific aspects like student-teacher relationships and improved assessment scores. 

I think that teachers play two roles, one of which can be tested and one of which cannot.  The first role is that of teacher of content. I am responsible for teaching my students about the history of the western world from the time of the Renaissance through World War II. Do students need to know who the absolute monarch of France was before Napoleon? No.* Do students need to know what an absolute monarch is and how that idea of government lost traction over the course of modern history? Absolutely.

*It was Louis XVI in case you were wondering. What is his claim to fame? Being married to Marie Antoinette** who could have starred in the Real Housewives of Versailles.

**She never actually said "Let them eat cake." Sorry to burst your bubble Eddie Izzard

The second role is to be a teacher of skills. When teachers talk about planting seeds in the minds of students, this is the role they are fulfilling. This could be the comment that a teacher made in 7th grade that doesn't make sense until you are in college or the conference you had with a principal that became a model for how you raise a child. 

Flipping the classroom makes many teachers uncomfortable because it breaks the mold of how these roles traditional look and feel.

The first role is certainly important. The system of education would not be doing its job without the first role. The second role actually helps teachers with the first role. Students work for adults who they trust and who inspire them to be better. The two roles are always interacting in incredible and sometimes frustrating ways. 
The US is near the bottom in how much a teacher earns
compared to the GDP of the country.

When I reflect on what Mr. Turner is saying as he vents his frustration with education reform, I wonder if I will ever reach the point that he was at when he decided to be done with teaching or the night that he wrote that article. A lot of nights I come home really tired and still have work to do. I make good money compared to friends of mine who graduated at the same time, the difference being I will never make a whole lot more than I make today and many of my friends will. I have been frustrated by assignments that have been turned in by 10% of my students after I spent hours preparing the lesson. And yes, I wonder how strong my pension will be in 40 years when I'm ready to retire. I hate talking and thinking about money, and yet I cannot help but feel like my profession is way underpaid and the hours put in by teachers are way misunderstood. 
But it isn't all negative. I know that I am excited for this new semester to start. I started the 2013 school year hoping to keep a blog each week and I only posted 4 times. This post is step one in renewing that goal. I had a goal of implementing a system of unit organization called a LAP (Learning Activity Packet - shout out for the idea to Incarnate Word Academy alum and my wife, Angela) and so far have kept up with that goal. I have tried to make a concerted effort to build relationships with my kids more than I've done in years past, and I think I've done that. 

As of now there are no answers. I suspect that there never will be a perfect answer, and that is OK. So here is to new goals for the new year, a renewed sense of urgency for meeting those goals and good conversation trying to find answers to a world with a lot of problems. Most of all, here is to our students, parents and teachers, the majority of whom wake up every day and try to do their very best for a bright future.