Intrinsic motivation doesn’t come out of nowhere

Lately, I've been hearing from a lot of educators about encouraging only intrinsic motivation and eschewing extrinsic motivation in students.

I like the idea in theory. In reality, however, students still need to learn, regardless of what their motivations are. If you can't convince a student to be intrinsically motivated, there are essential skills she still has to master.

More importantly, I think all of us can think of times we were initially extrinsically motivated to do something and then later found ourselves intrinsically motivated. For example, this guy Amit Peled happens to be a world-class cellist playing Pablo Casals' cello... and this guy also happens to have had no real "intrinsic" love of music or the cello to begin with, according to his interview with NPR:

But I started to play there, and I started to play because of love for a girl, not love for music.

He saw a girl he liked who played cello, and so he wanted to be with her, so he played cello. Then he ended up loving cello, never even saw the girl again.

Don't we all have some story like that?

When I was a first-year high school student, I was extremely unathletic and hated pretty much anything to do with sports. I decided to join the track team because I thought there should be some kind of extracurricular activity on my college application. That's right—I did it for college. I didn't care about athleticism or health or competition or running. I thought it would look good. Total extrinsic motivation.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I was quickly won over by the teamwork, camaraderie, sense of achievement, and challenge of competitive running. I learned to love running.

So, as educators, when we talk about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, we should realize, just as we did in our own lives, our students also sometimes need some extrinsic motivation to get them involved enough to finally cultivate some intrinsic motivation.

Anyone (not independently wealthy) who thinks extrinsic motivation isn't ever necessary, go ahead and decide to do your job for the satisfaction of it and just ditch your paycheck altogether. Extrinsic and intrinsic are not mutually exclusive motivations.


Google Voice definitely underutilized

After reading a lot about 1:1 iPad programs and there being an "app for" everything in education, I found How To Use Google Voice In Education to be refreshing. Many schools use Google Apps for Education, but I haven't read many educator accounts of using Google Voice.

Google Voice wasn't around when I was a teacher, but I've still found it very useful for the non-teaching roles I've had in schools. When I was an admission receptionist, Google Voice helped me to better manage the hundreds of phone calls I was getting every day.

  1. I could easily forward (including a bad but still helpful transcription) voicemails to others working in the office.
  2. I could make notes about when I got back to each voicemail or missed call.
  3. During particularly heavy call periods, I could prioritize in the morning (based on—yes, even bad—voicemail transcriptions) which calls were most urgent and time-sensitive to return.
  4. As an office, we could give it a phone number visiting parents and students could text, which meant it was also easier to answer everybody (not everything is a phone call, which means you can text back straight from a web browser and move on to the next call or text more quickly).

Even as a student advisor, I found it convenient (particularly on a field trip) to give out my Google Voice number to my advisees and not worry that they then have my cell phone number (yes, it would ring my cell, but I could always easily block or mute them if it came to that—fortunately it never did).

I'd love to see more and more educators using less obvious technology in more obvious ways.


Obama won’t fix education in this country

Even though some people have accused me of being a blind Obama follower, I’m actually not that big a fan. I like him. He’s okay… for a politician. I really voted for Kucinich in the primaries, and if Clinton had won the primaries, I’d have voted for her for president. The truth is, with all the blue states and red states, and with all the polarization on abortion, immigration, taxation, health care, and the military; anyone who gets elected to the presidency has to be a liar and a politician. You can’t hold too tightly to your principles if you want to piss off as few people as possible.

Obama’s latest speech on education got me annoyed, though. And if that’s really his plan going forward, I don’t really see the American K-12 education system getting any better.

Because improving education is central to rebuilding our economy, we set aside over $4 billion in the Recovery Act to promote improvements in schools. This is one of the largest investments in education reform in American history. And rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it. That’s how we can incentivize excellence and spur reform and launch a race to the top in America’s public schools.

I see. So if Wall Street gets itself in trouble through excessive greed and unethical business practices, then they get a bailout. K-12 schools will get a measly (by comparison) $4 billion only if they can improve without the extra money? That’s ridiculous. With a few rare exceptions, the best schools in America are well-funded and the worst are under-funded. So withholding the money until the schools get better isn’t going to make them better.

Now I agree with what Obama said back in the debates with McCain that throwing money at schools doesn’t automatically make the schools better. Obviously. You can never just throw money at a problem to make it better. You have to carefully place the money instead of throwing it.

This is not about more tests. It’s not about teaching to the test. And it’s not about judging a teacher solely on the results of a single test.

It is about finally getting testing right, about developing thoughtful assessments that lead to better results; assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can use a pencil to fill in a bubble, but whether they possess basic knowledge and essential skills like problem-solving and creative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship.

If you create a test that you’re judging the success or failure of a school on, you are necessarily creating a teach-to-the-test atmosphere. It’s like saying “I’m going to give raises to the employees who do what I say. But I don’t want you to do what I say. Just do your job.” If you say that as an employer, suddenly “your job” becomes “what I say.”

And good luck trying to create a standardized test that measures all that.

From the moment a student enters a school, the single most important factor in their success is the person in front of the classroom.

Really? So if I take the best teacher in the country, put her in front of a class of 30 students who have varying abilities (most of which on the low end), who all have behavioral or psychological problems, some of whom have learning disabilities of varying types; give that teacher no textbooks (or ones falling apart), no pencils, no computers, a room that’s constantly a mess; create a culture of low achievement and high grade inflation where every challenge to authority must be disciplined immediately or else the students will run amok—somehow that teacher is going to do better than a mediocre teacher with a class size of 14 students who all get outside tutoring, parental support, computers, textbooks, pencils, a clean building, a school culture of students being treated like responsible adults and, for the most part, living up to that expectation?

Nice try.

I’ve worked and taught in both of those environments, and I can tell you right now the mediocre teacher will get more done in class and her students will end up learning more by the end of the year, even if they’re in class for fewer hours.

Throw out your Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver DVDs and stop believing the myths. Having great teachers is great, but that isn’t the solution to our educational problems.

Success should be judged by results, and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can’t ignore facts. We can’t ignore data. That’s why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a grant.

You should not link what you perceive to be student progress to evaluation of whether a teacher is a good teacher or not. One of the best teachers I ever had was my US history teacher. She taught me stuff that lasted through college and beyond. She taught me to think critically. She taught me about instititutional racism and about feminism. I got a B+ in her class sophomore year. I got a B in her class junior year. Then I took another history class senior year and got a B-. You can see where this is going. So how would Obama’s new test get that this teacher was amazing? It wouldn’t. In fact, it would look as if she was terrible, because my performance was going down.

Better standards. Better teaching. Better schools. Data-driven results. That’s what we will reward with our Race to the Top Fund.

I’m sorry, but your plan stinks, Mr. President. It’s well-intentioned but extremely misguided. You know nothing about how to fix education in this country. Have you taught in a public school before? Are your kids in one right now? Are your daughters in an underfunded public school? No? Why not? Because you know it isn’t just about having good teachers and results. You know that your daughters are getting a better education because their school provides smaller class sizes, adequate school supplies, a whole school culture where learning is valued, and proper support and rest for its teachers.

The worst part about your plan is that even if it works the way it’s supposed to, then a handful of schools and states will get more funding and better schools, and then the other states will get less funding and worse schools. Talk about the rich getting richer.

Do you want to know how you can fix education the easy way?

  • Have states evenly distribute funds to all schools within the state. Schools in rich suburbs should get no more funding than schools in urban areas.
  • Focus spending on reducing class sizes. Even without textbooks, even without computers, even without desks, even with learning differences, if I have only 10 or 12 students in my classroom as opposed to 30 or 40, I can operate more effectively just being a good, decent, or great teacher instead of having to be a superhuman teacher.
  • Give financial incentives to colleges and universities to reward high schools that do not inflate grades.

There. You’ve just leveled your playing field and saved yourself $4 billion.


Battle of the NPR snores

I know some people like to go to sleep in total silence. They want tranquility. They’re entitled to that.

My wife and I used to go to sleep to the TV. Now we’ve switched over to NPR (National Public Radio).

Last night was a little funny. We were listening to NPR and there was a little program I found fascinating about students cheating in school. She declared it a “snore” (i.e., a bore) and then switched to another NPR station that was talking about the economy. I told her that was a “snore.”

Funny our different perspectives on what’s boring. Guess who won the battle of the radio stations.


Why schools play “the game” with students

If you’ve ever worked as a teacher in a high school, you’ve probably had to play “the game” with your students. You become acutely aware of how awkward “the game” is when you start talking about school events with adult friends of yours who do not work in education. Here’s how such an exchange between adults goes. Chandra works as a teacher in a school. Gemma has a non-school-related job (investment banker, magazine editor, graphic designer, consultant, etc.).

Chandra: I can’t believe they made me chaperone that dance last night.

Gemma: Oh, did they put you on sex-and-drugs patrol?

Chandra: Yeah, it was terrible. There were students freaking in the middle of the dance floor. There were people trying to sneak off to the main building to smoke pot and make out. We didn’t have enough faculty to supervise.

Gemma: I remember my junior year in high school, Daniel and I were the only ones who were able to sneak out of our homecoming dance to hook up.

Chandra: Yeah, well…

As you can see, Chandra is playing the game, and Gemma is inadvertently calling Chandra on it. Chandra was probably once in high school as well, experimenting with drugs, fooling around sexually with other students, and trying to skirt the rules of the school. Now that she’s a teacher, though, she has to enforce the rules.


I would argue that Chandra probably does not really believe that high school students should not indulge in any risk-taking behavior at all. She probably does not regret any drug use or sex (unless she was raped) that she had as a young adult. She probably views that time in her life and all the “mistakes” she made as part of her growth into being an adult. Gemma not only feels that way but acknowledges it vocally. Gemma can do this, because she doesn’t work in education.

If Chandra started telling kids it was okay to smoke a little pot or to have sex in high school, she’d probably get a reprimand from the school administration and some parents. She might even get fired. Parents of teenagers, as a whole, don’t want to encourage their children to do illegal drugs or have sex, and they generally will not enroll their students in a school that encourages the teenagers in that way.

If a school existed (and schools like this may exist), it would quickly gain a reputation as being for “bad kids” and would attract students who don’t just casually experiment with drugs and sex but who take both quite seriously as endeavors.

I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve had to play that game. I don’t feel like a hypocrite for doing so, as I didn’t have sex or do drugs in high school. I was pretty much as straight an arrow as you could get. I didn’t drink before I was legally allowed to. I didn’t go to wild parties. I didn’t baseball bat mailboxes. I didn’t throw eggs at houses. At the same time, though, I don’t think that everyone should do what I did. I don’t think it’s healthy to force all teenagers to or to pretend all teenagers do run the straight and narrow.

I don’t know a good solution, though. I don’t want to be in a school that says to the kids, “Hey, make sure you lose your virginity some time in high school. We don’t want you doing hard drugs, but smoking the occasional joint won’t screw you up big time.” But I don’t like the other directions schools have gone, which is basically “Don’t do anything bad. We may have done bad stuff, but we’re all adults now and we’re going to pretend we never did that. You shouldn’t do it.” Who knows? Maybe the game is necessary for the sake of order. At least these days, when students go to college (university, to you non-Americans), the schools no longer demand students be squeaky clean. In terms of legal liability, they’ll play a little of the game, but not as much as secondary schools play.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Why I finally embraced computer literacy

Computer illiteracy
It’s very likely that you know someone who self-identifies as “computer illiterate.” That person may even be proud of being so.

I was once one of these people. I was one of these people for a long time. In fact, I was quite offended when my Latin teacher in high school thought I liked computers (I assume she assumed so because I’m of Asian descent, as that is the stereotype, and I gave her no other reason to assume so). Yes, even though I took AP Computer Science senior year in high school, I still didn’t like computers and did not want to be identified with computers, but I hated hard science more than computer science, so I took computer science, got a 5 on the AP exam, and then quickly forget everything I learned about Pascal (does anyone even use this language any more?) and programming.

Even after graduating from college, I was still computer illiterate and pretty technologically helpless. I didn’t really understand how anything in a computer worked. I just memorized steps (click this icon, type this phrase, click that menu item, select that menu item, use this keyboard shortcut). In 2000, I had to call my future wife internationally to ask her what to do about my printer not working. She was a big help. Until 2004, I remained in technologically blissful ignorance, as I was too busy grading papers and preparing curriculum to care about learning computers. After all, literature was far more important than computers. Computers helped me do my grading and handouts—that was about it.

The turning point
Then in 2004, the Dell laptop my wife and I had got a serious case of spyware/adware. It was impossible to clean off. I tried to reinstall but couldn’t, at the time, find the drivers CD or InterVideo WinDVD—only the Windows XP CD. I had quite a frustrating time trying to get Windows to work properly without drivers or DVD playback. That’s when I first tried Linux (in the form of Blag), gave up on Linux, and then switched to Firefox on Windows (eventually did find those other two CDs). One year later, I became a full-time Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) user.

A combination of quitting teaching and getting malware pushed me to want to make myself computer literate. Quitting teaching helped move me in that direction in two ways.

From teaching to office jobs
First of all, teaching sucks a lot of mental energy out of you. It can become difficult to take on a new hobby when you’re worried about parent conferences, student struggles, classroom management, lesson plans, grading, professional development, faculty meetings, coaching, etc. Yes, of course, I was busy at my office job, too, but once I left work, work was done. I didn’t take work home with me.

Secondly, teaching is still a rather low-tech profession. There are some ingenious ways some teachers have managed to work technology into the classroom, but most of the time when technology is used in English classes, it’s more technology for the sake of “technology in education,” and not for any real pedagogical value. Office jobs, however, usually depend almost solely on the use of a computer. Suddenly, I was stuck in front of a computer monitor and keyboard for eight hours a day, five days a week—and with no summers off. I had to know how to use Excel. I had to know how to use Word (never previously knowing how to do a mail merge or anything remotely fancier than bolding or bulleting text). I had to learn a rather counterintuitive and completely inflexible database program. My boss wanted regular reports from me. I was an office worker, and I needed to know how to use this tool called a computer.

Moving away from Windows malware
And, of course, the spyware/malware infection made it impossible for me to deny that the days of care-free ignorant computing were long gone. In the preinternet days, home users didn’t have security threats. Even in the early internet days of the mid-1990s, the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting bad “funny” forwards from friends. Spam wasn’t terrible in those days. I got maybe two spam messages a week. No, I didn’t have to know all the internals of a computer and how all the transistors and whatnot worked, but I had to learn basic safety and sensible operation—just as I can’t fix a car’s broken transmission, but I have learned how to minimize wear on the transmission, how to minimize the chance of an accident, and how to get the best gas mileage.

And once I had finally given up Windows and embraced Ubuntu, I found computer problems to be fun challenges to be solved. Even now, if I experience a problem in Windows (which I have to use at work), I curse the computer and usually get frustrated at having to figure out a cryptic error message or no error message at all, but if I experience a problem in Ubuntu, I’m eager to troubleshoot it and fix it. It’s perverse, I know. Don’t worry—many Linux users suffer from this malady.

The digital age
Computer illiteracy for me in 2004 was an impracticality. I had to suck it up and realize we live in a digital age. Gone were the days of exchanging lettes and postcards with friends. Gone were the days of trading mix tapes. Everyone I knew was on email and listened to digital music.

Now it’s 2008, and I’m still in an office job (albeit a different one). I’m still no programmer or officially trained computer person, but now people ask me for help when they have computer problems, and very rarely now do I have to ask my wife for tech support. Time to embrace the geekdom. Computer illiteracy is no longer an option.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Teach kids computer skills, not computer programs

Frequently, in online discussions of the putting of Linux and/or open source in schools, the idea of preparing children for the Windows-dominated workplace comes up. The idea is that most workplaces use Windows and Microsoft Office and will sometimes even require proficiency in certain Windows applications, so how would putting Linux and open source software in schools prepare children for using Windows software in the future?

In “Should students learn Windows? Or Mac? Or What?” Scott Granneman points out rightly that technology changes quickly. Most of his examples have to do with changes in interface (Mac OS 9 is not like Mac OS X), but technology changes are far more drastic than mere changes in interface. I grew up in the 1980s using all sorts of computers that are out of fashion now (the colors were green and black or yellow and black on monitors), and finished my pre-university schooling before Windows 1995 was popular. Never was I taught to use Microsoft Office or any modern Windows interface. In high school, I took one computer science course, which trained me in Pascal, a programming language almost no one uses now.

Somehow, though, I’ve managed to actually get jobs and function in them, sometimes even excel in them. Now, more than two decades after my first exposure to computers, I use Windows XP and Microsoft Office five days out of the week and also use FileMaker Pro and Mozilla Firefox, two programs I’d never used in college or high school. In fact, in college, I could barely find anything on the web, because I had dial-up, and Google didn’t exist. Now, I can do mail merges, create pivot tables, and find information quickly on the web.

Technology changes quickly. It surely does. It really doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of preparation for the future, what operating system or software you use with children in schools. Do you think I’m still using turtles to draw colorful lines all over a tiny black screen now? No. Did all the F-keys I learned to use in my mouseless word processor in high school (I used a program called T3) help me with Microsoft Word later? Well, not directly.

What’s important to teach children is curiosity, not to be afraid of tinkering with things, the playfulness that computer software allows. You have to teach kids to be resourceful and get to know different tricks with whatever software you put in front of them. Do not have them memorize steps (click on this menu, then this menu, then this menu). Have them learn concepts. Really, this is what more schooling (not just from a technology standpoint) should be about.

If you stuck me in front of a program I’d never used before, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out its basic functionality and even how to get things done quickly with it. So putting Linux in schools shouldn’t hurt children’s chances in the workplace if you teach them concepts instead of memorization and exploration instead of rote instructions. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll be using Linux in the workplace twenty years from now anyway. Or maybe desktop/laptop computers as we know it won’t even exist at that point. We’ll have some new technology that’s even better, even more intuitive.

Further Reading
Linux in Education: Concepts Not Applications
In Defense of a Linux Education


The Tracking Problem

Usually when it comes to educational issues… or any issue, really, I have strong opinions, but tracking in schools is an issue I have mixed feelings about. I’ve worked in five different high schools, and have seen tracked curriculum and untracked curriculum in action in various subjects, and I have to say it’s hard to find a good working solution.

For those unfamiliar with the term tracking and its attendant problems and benefits, tracked classes are classes covering the same material or curriculum requirement that are tiered into higher and lower levels of rigor. For example, in a 9th grade English class might have Honors English 9, English 9, and Remedial English 9. Of course, the course title rarely uses the word remedial in it, but it’s understood by both students and teachers alike to be remedial. One school I taught at had a little “grade inflation” for the titles. So remedial English was English, regular English was Honors English, and Honors English was Advanced English—presumably a self-esteem boost for all parties involved.

If you don’t have tracking, the classes you teach have too much of a diversity of motivation, ability, and knowledge for you to tailor the curriculum properly to suit most of your students’ learning needs, so you end up either teaching to your best students and leaving the struggling ones in the dust or teaching to your slowest students and leaving your best students bored. In most cases I’ve seen, teachers tend to teach to the middle-of-the-road students and offer extra help (outside of class) to the struggling students, but still leaving the brightest kids more or less bored.

If, however, you do institute tracking, the remedial classes tend to know they’re the lowest level and that doesn’t do much for their motivation. Their peers tend not to push them much, and so they don’t end up having to do much to get to the middle of the bell curve. Behavioral issues also tend to get compounded in these classes. And, worse yet, it’s often the most experienced teacher who ends up teaching the AP classes, leaving a teacher straight out of college or grad school with the remedial classes, which tend to be larger and full of a mix of learning issues, constantly distracted students, and low motivation.

I do have a rather radical solution (which, as I said before, I don’t feel too strongly about) to this problem, but it’s so radical that I doubt any school would ever adopt it. Get rid of the grade-level system and social promotion. This would have to be delicately implemented, as there would be cultural barriers to overcome in addition to policy ones. In other words, instead of having just English 9, 10, 11, and 12 or English 9R, 9, 9H, 10R, 10, 10H, etc.; have English 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and have a whole bunch of levels in various other subjects as well and get rid of this whole grade level business. You’re not a 9th grader or an 11th grader. You’re a student. One student might be taking English 3, Math 2, Spanish 5, History 6, Science 1, and Art 9. Another might be taking English 1, Math 5, Spanish 4, History 2, Science 2, and Art 1. That way, if you’re having trouble with one particular subject, you don’t automatically advance an entire grade or get held back an entire grade—you don’t advance to the next level of that one particular subject.

This is more in line with how students really are. Yes, there are many all-around spectacular kids, who excel in every subject. Yes, there are some all-around not-so-great kids, who do poorly in every subject. But I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle. I considered myself smart in high school, but I struggled in science and history big time, while simultaneously excelling in English, math, and art; and doing only so-so in foreign language study. If I had attended my own make-believe high school, I might have started off in Science 1, History 2, Spanish 3, English 5, Math 6, and Art 8. Kids in this make-believe school would get very used to the idea of having in any given class a mix of first-year, second-year, third-year, and fourth-year students, and there would be less of a stigma attached to being in Science 1, as even smart-in-other-subject kids would be in that class.

Of course, where this gets tricky is in college counseling, as it might be difficult for a guidance counselor to explain how this kind of curriculum prepares a student for college. We would know, of course, in real life that a student in my make-believe school is just as, if not more, prepared for college as someone at a regular high school, but on paper, it’d be ridiculous for someone who never got past English 2 to advance to university-level studies, even though plenty of high school seniors complete 12th grade English and cannot coherently express their thoughts in writing.

Well, that’s my mental barf of an educational theory. If I ever start my own school, I’ll keep this in mind.


Myths About What Schools Need

  • Time=learning. So, more time=more learning.
  • Good schools have good teachers. So, better teachers=better schools.
  • Testing discourages social promotion
  • Tracking solves most classroom learning problems
  • Lack of tracking solves most classroom learning problems
  • Individual teachers create educational revolution (think Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver)
  • Students do not care about education

What schools actually need

  • Student-teachers as paid interns for at least two years. Every teacher should have at least one. Gives student-teachers a chance to learn the profession, make some money, not feel rushed. Gives students more adult presence in the room, more individual attention. Gives head teachers a little more breathing room, work burden less stressful.
  • More flexibility in curriculum, with teachers justifying choices to the community not the state. Even “canonical” works need justification.
  • More student choices in constructing their own education: a distribution requirement or self-designed proposal of study.
  • More integrative approach: a less condemning attitude towards non-academics as supplements to classroom activity.
  • Panels on important issues such as racism, homophobia, student voice, etc.
  • Teachers’ reimbursed by departments for book purchases (make this one of the priorities in funding).
  • Allocation of funds by community size, not community wealth.
  • Smaller schools, more freedom for students.
  • More teachers, smaller class sizes.
  • Smaller class sizes.
  • More funding.

Reflections on Teaching

When I began thinking about teaching, I began it with a rather self-centered outlook: I will teach the way I wanted my teachers to teach me. I will be the kind of teacher I’d always wanted in high school. I also had a dream to be the revolutionary teacher from such faux-inspirational films as Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. I wanted to buck the system, improve the quality of public education. This, I realized later, was also a self-centered (and extremely unrealistic) pursuit.

Upon studying more about educational theory and working directly with a number of public school systems (as a student-teacher, a long-term sub, and an on-call sub), I felt the shortcomings of my individuality: I had to learn to work with a community, and I had to serve the needs of members of that community (both students and faculty) who did not share my values, my learning style or my intellectual background.

I had a chat with Deborah (another teacher at my current school) once in which she lamented that she actually felt guilty for teaching in a private school. I reassured her she had nothing to feel guilty about. As one of my fellow graduate students once said (I’m paraphrasing): “We always talk about being where the students are. The students are everywhere.” It’s true there’s a definite need for good teachers in public schools, particularly in lower-income schools, but truthfully, I see “good teachers” as only part of the solution. Schools that are struggling to meet even the “basic standards” of the state (whatever state it is) need administrators willing to change, parents willing to invest time and energy in their children’s education, a supportive rather than a demanding government, and a workable budget that allows a school to function easily. “Good teachers” aren’t enough.

I found myself, as a public school teacher, spending the bulk of my time dealing with discipline and paperwork. I would have to keep careful track of tardy slips, write cut slips and detention notices, make sure students did not physically harm one another, manage bathroom passes and hallway passes… the list of tasks that had no immediate bearing on curriculum weighed heavily on my idealistic shoulders. It was then I realized I wanted to be with students who wanted to learn in an environment that supported me, where parents, students, faculty, staff and others worked together to create not only good lesson plans and curriculum but also a good learning environment and a community. I thought Frisbee Dogs was a great addition to my current school’s “Spirit Week” last year. We have Spirit Week events, faculty and student retreats, even Grandparents Day to foster community and remind ourselves that education is not just about the classroom.

Before coming to this school, I’d had a few encounters with self-selected groups of students and they were all wonderful. I worked as an SAT instructor for Kaplan. I taught conversational English to high school students in Hong Kong. I even taught Sunday School to middle school students in my family’s church. Self-selected students know why they are there (in the classroom) and are more likely to take responsibility for their education. It is for that reason that I take the somewhat radical view that we should not have compulsory education in this country. We quickly went from little free, public education to much mandatory schooling. True change in education will not happen with the police, vice-principals, teachers, and parents strong-arming the children into classrooms. If the students bring themselves to the classroom, then they’re ready to learn.

So, here I am at a private school, taking the time to learn from experience, from my fellow English department members and from the students. Suddenly, in a community where learning (not paperwork or discipline) is the primary concern, I can remind myself of the theoretical principles of quality teaching we talked so often about at my graduate school of education. I’ve always had a heart for education and a passion for teaching. Honestly, though, in recent years, I’ve gone back and forth between wanting to teach for the rest of my life (teaching and students—yay!) and quitting altogether in order to get a desk job (grading papers—boo!). I don’t know where I’m headed. I love this community—the opportunity I have to teach wonderful students, work with supportive fellow faculty members, and have the educational luxuries I’d always dreamed about when I used to teach five classes (of 20-28 students per class), supervise two study halls a day, and have to plan my bathroom breaks.

The idea of schools having more money instead of better teachers sounds counter-intuitive, but there are numerous ways we benefit from a large endowment and a tuition- and donation-driven school. Faculty and staff are reimbursed for expenses. Students have to purchase books—so the books are less likely to be in bad condition, and the students can write and take notes in their books. Technology is readily available to students and faculty. Faculty can significantly cut down on “meetings” as well as stay in touch with each other better through the use of email. We have retreats, etc.