5 Myths about Teaching and Learning

by Nicole M. G. Brennan

When I was a student in elementary and high school, there were certain myths I had about how school operated. These were terribly misguided and I only realized some of them weren’t true after I became a teacher myself. Some of the assumptions I had about school were based on observations I made and behaviors I noticed in others. Below are 5 of the misguided thoughts I had about teaching and learning and experiences that showed me I was wrong.

Teachers Don’t Have Ears

Whenever there was extra class time after a lesson, and we were allowed to have conversations, my friends and I would talk with abandon. We would openly gossip, make fun of teachers, and complain about assignments. All the while, I assumed the supervising teacher couldn’t hear what we were saying. Surely he or she would stop us?

Nope. I now know these teachers were strategically pretending not to listen. When students are having discussions after a lesson, teachers can definitely hear what you are saying if you use a conversational volume. Unless students consciously lowered their volume, I was able to hear everything. I decided I would not intervene in these conversations or indicate I was listening unless students: a) were talking about illegal behavior or an incident I was mandated to report or b) students were actively teasing or bullying another student.

The conversations I heard were mostly mundane. However, I’m sure a few of my students would be embarrassed to know what I know about them.

Teachers Don’t Have a Life Outside of School

Whenever I imagined my teachers, it was always in the classroom. I knew intellectually teachers went home at the end of the day, but I imagined they just continued being a teacher at home. All they did was grade papers and care for their own children.

I remember seeing a teacher at a restaurant drinking a beer. I thought it was scandalous! I wasn’t able to separate the identity she had in the classroom and her life outside of school. Isn’t she a teacher all of the time?

Well, kind of. My role as an educator is with me all of the time, but I do enjoy activities outside of teaching. I’m blessed to have family and friends who I can talk to about a variety of topics – not always teaching. And sometimes, (gasp), I’ll have wine with dinner.

All of the Teachers are Friends with Each Other

Maybe it was that teachers shared the same lounge or the fact they all enforced the same rules, but I really believed my teachers were all friends. I imagined they would get together after school and talk about students. I thought they all had the same thoughts and opinions about school policies. They were all uniform and supported one another.

However, just as there are cliques among students in high school, I found there are also cliques among teachers. At my first teaching job on the first day of school, one of the older teachers cornered me in the workroom. She gave me the lowdown on the other teachers in my department and explained who I should look out for. At my second teaching job, the two cliques each ate on a separate floor because there was such animosity. I ate on the second floor the first day and felt so uncomfortable I didn’t eat there again the rest of the year.

All Students Have the Same Ability to Learn

Until I was in high school, I thought everyone had the same amount of learning potential. I truly believed that although some students were naturally intelligent, everyone could learn if they tried hard enough. When we read out loud in class, and some students were slower than others, I impatiently read ahead. Why didn’t they just get better? I heard some students in special education got to do easier assignments. How unfair! S/he failed English? But it’s SO easy!

As a teacher, I was able to see the differences in how each student learned individually and the effect their home life had on their academic performance. Coming into school, a lot of my classmates were already at a huge disadvantage because they came from poverty. Many didn’t have the same pressure from their parents to succeed in school and never gained an appreciation and love of learning. On top of this, there are some people who will struggle with a learning disability their entire lives. It is only fair that their curriculum is specifically designed to give them support to learn skills.

Intelligence isn’t everything and school isn’t a meritocracy.

My Teacher Should Let Me Know if I’m Missing an Assignment

This isn’t so much something I believed, but I noticed students expected this out of me. On top of planning lessons, grading assignments, coaching a speech team, and trying to have a personal life, I had several students wonder why I didn’t come to them individually to let them know they missed an assignment and explain again how to complete it.

Umm, no. If school is supposed to prepare students for the “real world,” they need to take responsibility over managing their time and tasks. This is even easier for students to manage now because of online grading programs. You know what would solve this problem? A planner.

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Wonder and Worry

by Nicole Brennan

After I graduated with my teaching degree, I spent eight months working at a childcare center. I worked with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers on a daily basis. During my time there, five foster kids came and went. Two of them in particular, twins I’ll call Charlie and Charlotte, had a heart wrenching experience before coming into our care. Their story is not unlike what other children have experienced in the foster care system.

Charlie and Charlotte’s mother (I’ll call her Carol) had them at a very young age. Carol and her boyfriend were living with her parents after the twins were born. When Carol and her boyfriend would get frustrated with Charlie and Charlotte, they would lock them in a bathroom. They turned the fan on so they couldn’t hear the twins cry. Although they were a few months old when they came to the childcare center, Charlie was not much bigger than a newborn. The parents favored Charlotte to Charlie and would feed and care for her more. When taken into foster care, Charlie was skeletal.

We were told Charlotte and Charlie would never go back to their parents. However, within a few months of being in foster care, their mother started to get visitation rights. It was winter, and we would have to get Charlotte and Charlie bundled up to go with Carol. I took my time because I did not know how they were going to be treated outside of our care. I remember getting bottles ready while listening to Carol talk to Charlie in a loving tone, wondering if it was an act she would turn off once she left. I’d watch Charlie smile up at her, not realizing what this person had done to him. It was difficult to watch them leave and I would worry about them until they got back.

I thought Carol would look like a monster, but she just looked like a kid. She seemed normal, not like the sadistic person I imagined could ignore her children for hours and let them starve in a locked bathroom. As the visits got more frequent, we were told she would soon be able to regain custody of them.

One of the hardest things about working with children, and I don’t know if I seriously considered it beforehand, is the emotional toll it takes. As an infant teacher, I wasn’t just a caretaker who recorded feedings and diaper changes. I loved the children I cared for and only wanted the best for them. I thought the best for Charlotte and Charlie would be for them to get adopted by their foster family, who loved them like their own children. However, I could only wonder and worry as the visits got more frequent and lengthy.

Eventually, Carol did regain custody of Charlotte and Charlie. When she watched them, she would lay on the couch while she barricaded them from getting into anything harmful. I was told that at some point she realized she would not get financial assistance for the twins and decided to relinquish her rights as a parent. The twins went back into foster care and were eventually adopted by another family.

As a teacher, I am constantly on the outside looking in. I can clearly see the problems, but cannot offer many solutions. I was powerless in this situation and could only watch and hope for a positive outcome. In the classroom, I can manage the environment and the events in my student’s lives. Once they leave, however, my concern is still there. Unlike other jobs where people can turn their professional identities and concerns on and off, the issues I face as a teacher don’t go away when I get home. On Homecoming and Halloween, I wonder about my college students and if they are making the best decisions. On Thanksgiving, I hope my student whose mother left town without leaving any money gets enough to eat. On Christmas, I pray the kids I’ve worked with have something under the tree this year. These things are out of my control, and all I can do is wonder and worry.

Part IV: Conclusion

Initially, I brought TO (Theatre of the Oppressed) into my classrooms because I was passionate about learning, performing, and putting Boal’s ideas to work on this campus. As I have continued to develop and refine a pedagogy of TO in hope of transforming individuals and society, I have had to accept that I may never know the outcomes of my efforts, for change of this magnitude may take years, lifetimes, generations. But if I trust the method and practice it with courage and conviction, I believe lasting change is possible. I have proof of this in the transformative power of Augusto Boal’s work in over seventy countries in which people practice TO in a variety of settings from homeless shelters to council chambers, theatres to alleyways, universities to prisons.

On March 29, 2009. Boal gave his last public address for World Theatre Day. He spoke eloquently about the transformative power of theatre. “When we look beyond appearances, we see oppressors and oppressed people, in all societies, ethnic groups, genders, social classes and casts; we see an unfair and cruel world. We have to create another world because we know it is possible. But it is up to us to build this other world with our hands and by acting on the stage and in our own life.” I can think of no better goal to begin and end each day I have the privilege to teach than that of building a better, more just world.

Epilogue

I have been blessed to be mentored by many wonderful teachers. In these closing minutes I would like to speak in a bit more depth about three of them.

My Mom and Dad sacrificed so very much to send me and my two siblings to college. My Mom was the daughter of Italian immigrants, and Italian was her first and only language until she started first-grade. She struggled with school her entire life. My Dad, a child of the depression, dropped out of school at 15 to work in the coal mines to earn money for his family. I am an Italian-American coal miner’s daughter, a cross between Loretta Lynn and the Godfather. My parents believed that if they worked hard, they could give their children a better life than the one they had. And each day I have the privilege to teach, their dream is realized. Just teaching mattered to them, and it matters to me.

Another major influence is the woman who was my cooperating teacher when I student taught. Theodora “Tippy” Bach was a pioneer among teachers. She was central to the relative smoothness in Carbondale, Illinois when schools were integrated. Wearing a fur hat and driving through the black neighborhoods of Carbondale in her VW van, she would carry students to speech team practice several nights a week, then carry then back home in time to complete chores and homework. She did this cheerfully and without financial compensation because she believed in teaching for social justice. Teaching was her activism, and it mattered.

On the last Friday of my student teaching she gave a small dinner party for me, and read a poem she had written. I treasure it, and I recite it to myself on those days when I feel most vulnerable as a teacher. In closing, I offer it to you.

Yes

by Theodora Bach

I wonder____

                When the rough, unshaped diamond is unearthed,

                From the smoldering, germinating soil

                And is given to the shaper and the polisher,

If__

                His hand is singed by the heat of the forge; or

                                      pierced by the off shoot of the slivers; or

                                      calloused by the tensed grip on the precious metal, 

Or

                His heart’s eye wearied with the long look for brightness.

 

I wonder.

                If so, I know his wounds.

                I am a teacher.