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January 22, 2003

Interview with Teacher X, Part I


Knowing your interest in education, I forced a friend of mine—a man who spent decades in the corporate world and then decided to become a math teacher—to sit down and discuss his recently completed student teaching stint at an inner city middle school. I also asked him about his experiences during his teacher training education (where he was a straight "A" student.) I found the picture he drew of the gap between what teachers are trained to deliver and the needs of his inner city students to be depressing yet compelling. Here are a few brief quotes:

I saw the national standardized test scores—both for math and for other subjects—of a number of my 8th grade students. Most of the scores were below the 15th percentile; the highest scores were in the 30th percentile range. So I was basically dealing with a student population who was in the lowest fifth, nationwide.

I am a believer in a lot of paper-and-pencil number play. To a certain extent, there’s grinding involved. I know most kids don’t like that. But if you can somehow give them a reason to successfully grind, their self-confidence builds up with every answer they get correct. The more you play, the better you get, the more confidence you have, the more you like the challenge of trying another math problem. But you have to be good computationally to get that positive feedback. Most kids these days, in any school, have been shortchanged computationally.

Because some of his opinions are quite at odds with the orthodoxy of the pedagogy profession (and because he’s still looking for a full-time job), I took the liberty of suppressing some of the details in Teacher X's account. Despite my edits, I think the interview describes a situation with critical implications for both social and educational policy. Check it out.



P.S. My original intent was to use the "Read More" link to access the body of the interview, but I can't seem to figure out how to make that happen. Anyway, until I can figure out how to get this link to work, I present the interview here:


Friedrich: Teacher X, why don’t you describe the school?

Teacher X: “Z” Middle School, and also “Z” Elementary—the same school teaches grades kindergarten through eight—is located right on a major freeway in the center of a large Midwestern city. It is also sandwiched between two other large freeways. The building was built in 1928. It has three stories. The middle school students—the oldest and most difficult to handle students—are kept on the top floor all day. They shift from room to room on that floor. The building is in fairly good repair, although there are some startling gaps—for example, none of the clocks in the hallways work, so there is no official time anywhere in the whole school. The third floor is extremely hot and muggy during the opening month of school. I’d want to open the windows to get a little air movement in hot weather. Unfortunately, because we were right on top of the freeway, doing so meant I was trading a minimal amount of air movement for a tremendous amount of road noise. With the windows open, I had to talk much louder to be heard, which makes the educational experience that much more obnoxious for both teacher and student. It was hard on my voice and the kids felt like they were being yelled at all the time. But with the windows closed, in hot weather, the classroom turned into an incredible sweatbox. Fortunately, eventually the weather cooled off.

There’s no air conditioning?

No, no air conditioning.

Any plans to install air conditioning?

That’s just not going to happen. This year, they had janitors cleaning up every night. They didn’t even have janitors the last couple of years. Teachers cleaned their classrooms and occasionally somebody picked up the random paper in the halls.

Was this the situation for the whole school system?

I don’t know. Anyway, the physical plant was not great, but it wasn’t horrible. No open sewers, no broken glass, no jagged metal. The lockers were pretty beat up, but they were functional, so they were fairly typical of any older school. The classroom I was in did not have enough square feet to comfortably handle the 35 desks that were in the room. Most of my classes didn’t have that many students, so that wasn’t such a big deal, but one class filled up most of the desks, which in hot weather added to the sweatbox effect.

I wanted to set up my class with the desks in rows, old-fashioned style, because I felt in math I wanted the kids facing the board. I would stand in front of the board to explain stuff, and I wanted them looking at me. That is considered a very, very old-fashioned classroom arrangement. No matter what the subject, clustering the desks together is the most common arrangement these days. That’s how we were taught to set up a classroom in our teacher training classes. I didn’t like the group arrangement because with the desks set up that way, the students are facing each other, rather than the board or me. If they want to face the board or me, they have to turn sideways in their seats. Some students won’t do it, and the ones that will do it don’t dig it for very long. My supervising teacher permitted me to set the room up the way I wanted, but shortly before I ended my student teaching and she took the class back over, we switched to a clustered desk arrangement.

I was interested to see how the clustered desk arrangement would work, since I hadn’t ever tried it in a classroom. I started out with a fairly positive attitude about making clustered desks work, but I was almost immediately disabused of this. To teach to groups at clustered desks assumes that students will work as groups. In theory, if you set up your room properly, you put one smart kid at each cluster who serves as a pinch-teacher or a teacher’s helper. You assign each cluster a problem and the group works on the solution under the guidance of the smartest kid. As a practical matter I found that the smartest kid in the group generally didn’t want to lose his or her advantage over the other kids in the group by teaching them the material. There was also the—to me—very predictable problem that most of the group wanted to ride on the coattails of the smartest kid and were using the group arrangement as an excuse to skate. I have personally observed these problems with working in groups over and over again, including in college and during my teacher training. I also recall reading a newspaper story in which the author, an older person, went back to high school, attended classes and did the school work. The author’s observations about working in groups matched my experiences as both a student and a teacher.

But I believe the real reason cluster arrangements of classrooms and group learning have caught on is that they allow the teacher to not teach all 55 minutes of the class period. The teacher can throw out a problem and let the groups work it out while he or she sits back.

I don’t say that this is (necessarily) a sign of laziness on the part of the teacher. Teachers are taught in their teacher training that their role is to be a facilitator of student learning, not an instructor. I can’t express how much this is the cardinal principle of teacher training. Teachers should never tell the kids anything. Teachers should allow the kids to discover—and what better way to discover than in groups? Personally I don’t agree with this. I have no problem with student discovery, but there are basic skills that shouldn’t have to be discovered, but should be taught efficiently. Then there are the applications of those skills, which may well involve discovery. But students need certain fundamental tools to be able to properly learn on their own, and those tools rarely lend themselves to being efficiently discovered by the students.

So you see the seating arrangement of classroom goes along with teaching philosophy. Face-forward seating isn’t always the perfect arrangement for any subject, not even math, but mostly it struck me as the best arrangement. Certainly, it was the arrangement that seemed to most promote classroom order.

How big an issue was discipline?

Unfortunately, it was huge. Keeping order in the classroom is not particularly well addressed in schools of education, at least not the one I went to. They discuss it here and there, but they don’t impress upon new teachers the importance of keeping kids on task as a group. And they don’t teach you how to do it, either. Maybe it’s a sort of natural thing, with some people having the knack more than others. I’m not sure how much I’ve got it. The problem for me is that I tend to confuse strict control with Nazi-like tactics, yelling at kids and smacking desks with rulers. Now, I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that a certain amount of terror may actually be the best way to control a classroom, but I never particularly liked teachers who were like that when I was a kid. Unfortunately, at my school, it was necessary to be much more of a hard ass than I would have preferred. You had to enforce enough respect from the students to get them to, at a minimum, shut up. If you have a quiet classroom, at least the kids who are interested can hear themselves think. That was a painful lesson for me to learn.

It was a bit harder, I think, in my case, because I was white. According to my supervisory teacher [an African-American woman--Friedrich], most of the students were also not that happy with me because I was a man. Male authority figures in their lives (like fathers) have been problematic, and have mostly disappeared. My supervisory teacher told me at the beginning of the year that I had two strikes against me right out of the gate, being white and male. So classroom order was harder to come by for me. Being able to stand in front of a group of people and control their noise level was not the reason I wanted to become a teacher in the first place. But I soon realized that wasting a lot of energy keeping control makes you a less effective teacher. It saps your energy to keep things moving forward in a logical, orderly fashion, which is very important in math. When you’re explaining something, and you are interrupted by outbursts of weird behavior by students, and you lose your train of thought, it ultimately is a problem for those students who are trying to learn something.

Tell me about the students, their background, etc.

The students were 100% African American. The neighborhood isn’t good. I don’t know any statistics about income, etc. I do know, anecdotally, that most kids came from one-parent households. Driving through the neighborhood to get to work, I’d see some normal-looking houses, older of course, but right next door there could be a crack house, a burned down house, etc. There was a lot of dilapidation in the neighborhood.

The school was a kind of “bad-apple” school in the school district. Students can register and go to any school in the school district they can get into. There are a few schools that are the “premium” schools that are difficult to get into, and then the rest of the schools go down in a sort of pecking order. My school was towards the bottom of that order. Kids who got kicked out of their original school for disciplinary reasons would end up going to schools further down the pecking order that were willing to take them. (The more students a school has, the more money it has to play with, the more teachers they can afford, and the more niceties they can afford—not that there’s many niceties available. So all schools want students, and if they are a low-end school, generally their only source of additional students are trouble-makers who have been kicked out of other schools.) My school was generally the last stop for kids who had recurring discipline problems. While I was there, I was astonished to see that some students actually did get kicked out of my school. A few years ago, as I understand it, that wasn’t the case, but a new principal has come in and is a bit tougher on disciplinary issues.

The teachers were 85% African American, the rest Caucasian. No Hispanic or Asian teachers. There was a student body of around 700. The younger grades typically had less than 20 kids to a classroom. My classes, 7th and 8th grade math, ranged from 23 to 34 kids. I had four regular classes and a tutoring session and a planning period. Mostly that planning period was also used for tutoring. I had two 7th grade classes and two 8th grade classes. There wasn’t a whole lot of difference between them, you could almost teach them the same thing. Virtually none of the students were at their proper grade level. The vast majority needed to learn arithmetic that was appropriate for a fourth or a fifth-grader.

My main job was to prepare the 8th graders for a particular state-wide exam. This is a standardized test. Test scores are very competitive from one school district to another, and the scores actually affect things like the property value in the school district. There’s a fair amount of pressure on principals and teachers to deliver the best possible results on these tests. The tests cover all subjects. They’re not perfect, but they seemed reasonable to me. They’re multiple choice for the most part. Occasionally there’s a short answer section or essay. My problem was that none of my kids was anywhere ready to take the 8th grade math test.

My best kid in each class—there were two particularly good 8th grade students and a couple pretty good 7th grade students—were reasonably close to grade level. My smartest kid, a girl in 8th grade, had scored in 65th percentile in math concepts and the 48th percentile in math computation on a different national standardized test taken at the end of 7th grade. This is a perfectly acceptable score for any school. But you have to remember that she was much, much quicker than nearly every other student. I saw the 7th grade national standardized test scores—both for math and for other subjects—of a number of my other students. Most of the scores were below the 15th percentile; the highest scores were in the 30th percentile range. So I was basically dealing with a student population who was in the lowest fifth, nationwide.

Was that because they weren’t smart, or because they had been taught poorly?

It’s not possible for me to give a definitive answer to that question. I do know that the kids were not interested students. They were not well-behaved students. Even when they were engaged, which was not very often, they often lacked basic skills. All of those factors multiplied together landed them in the bottom fifth. If you’re dealing with somebody who is an eighth grader and who has never seriously confronted a math problem and expected themselves to get the right answer, it’s not exactly fair to whip a problem on them and demand results, even in a tutoring session.

I must say that their attention span in smaller groups was much improved. There were kids who came in at lunchtime and before and after school and rather shyly wanted help. It was not a cool thing to be a good student at this school. There were some students who liked to avoid the chaos of the cafeteria at lunchtime and just came in to my classroom for the quiet. They’d each lunch, and bring some friends in. Eventually I regularly had 15 students in my classroom during lunch. Some would just be playing. Some would draw on the board. Some would shoot the breeze. But they would be fairly well behaved. And a number of these kids were not well behaved in class. There was, obviously, a great deal of peer pressure to misbehave during an ordinary class period.

Sometimes my “lunch” period kids would actually want to learn math. I would often give them a long division problem. They sort of knew what they were doing, but a lot of them needed some prompting each step of the way or they would forget what they were doing. When you had a problem where you had to execute long division or multiplication or both to get to the solution, they would go so slowly and make so many mistakes in computation that by the end they would often forget what they were solving for. One of my theories about math instruction is that kids need to be good at playing with numbers arithmetically, so they are fairly quick and accurate in their computation, and so the agony of getting an answer doesn’t distract them from understanding the problem that they are trying to solve in the first place.

Someone might ask, ‘Why not just use calculators?’ Calculators for students who aren’t good computationally generally aren’t reliable, because the students often don’t know the order of the numbers to put in, because they don’t know why they’re putting them in. I am a believer in a lot of paper-and-pencil number play. To a certain extent, there’s grinding involved. I know most kids don’t like that. But if you can somehow give them a reason to successfully grind, their self-confidence builds up with every answer they get correct. The more you play, the better you get, the more confidence you have, the more you like the challenge of trying another math problem. But you have to be good computationally to get that positive feedback. Most kids these days, in any school, have been shortchanged computationally.

We were not taught, in my teacher training courses at a reputable university, to stress computation in math. What they wanted kids to do was to find patterns. To me, patterns are an important part of math problem solving skills, and an interesting part of math problem solving skills, but not necessarily the first thing you want to look at. When I was a student, patterns tended to fall out when I got good at numbers and started doing a lot of computation. Then I started to think about the relationships I saw when I divided 2 by 4 and then 2 by 6. You start seeing patterns when you do a lot of play, or at least I did. Trying to find patterns and then fit the computation to them seems backward to me. That was just one of many areas where I didn’t agree with how I was taught to teach. I found myself disagreeing with my teachers, mostly silently, quite often.

Why silently?

My professors weren’t interested, amazingly enough, in an open discussion of various ways of teaching and learning. They seemed to want to put out the company line on education. This generally consisted of student-centered education where teachers “never tell.” Historically, of course, in student-centered education, the students picked the subjects that they wanted to learn, which couldn’t be further from the situation a public school kid is going to find himself or herself in today. But my professors seemed completely oblivious to this. I often found myself, during my student teaching days, wanting to bring my professors to school with me and point out how ridiculous many of their doctrines were in the face of the reality of these kids.

To be continued…!

posted by Friedrich at January 22, 2003


Wow, a free-speaking, intelligent q&a with someone in an interesting field: another great Friedrich blogging innovation. Fascinating, thanks. Looking forward to pt 2. Your interviewee is an impressive guy.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2003 12:17 AM

Just another proof that teachers aren't being taught to teach anymore. It's very sad, really. I knew that kids were being taught "whole language" instead of phonics - and thereby were not learning to read. I hadn't realized that an analogous thing was happening in math. Patterns instead of computation? No wonder kids can't add! And the idea that a teacher doesn't tell the students, but that they have to discover on their own, well, that's just criminal. It's like putting someone in a car for the first time and saying, "Ok, what do you do first?" Ever tried to drive a rental car? If that's confusing, imagine how the above scenario would turn out.

No, I'm sorry, but kids need to be taught. They need to be taught phonics, and addition and subtraction and multiplication and division. And they should pay attention to the teacher, not each other. What are they going to learn from their peers? Don't answer, it's too frightening to contemplate.

Thanks, Friedrich. I look forward to Part 2.

Posted by: Alexandra on January 23, 2003 11:38 AM

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