Recently I re-watched a cheesy, feel-good movie titled The Nanny Express. It was about the “battle” of two motherless children to ward off the endless stream of nannies their dad paraded through their lives. They did it with not-so-practical jokes having to do with laundry mishaps, burnt dinners, sprinklers, a locked front door, and a pet rat. The last nanny in the cavalcade was a young woman with a passion as a teacher. She put herself through school while caring for her father, working, and starting an evening tutoring session for kids at her local church. In the last few moments of the flick, she was pictured in front of her classroom talking about fairy tales. She asked her students how every fairy tale began. They recited in unison, “Once upon a time.” She followed up with how every fairy tale ended. This time they responded, “Happily ever after.” Although The Nanny Express does seem to end that way, unfortunately life is seldom a fairy tale…especially not the life of a 21st Century Tennessee school teacher.
I’ve been an educator most of my life first as a high school English teacher, then a principal, and now as a college education professor. During those four decades I’ve watched the fairy tale decay from the thrill of victory making a difference in the lives of children to the agony of defeat as teachers face the often mundane tasks involved in teaching to a test. I’ve been entering classrooms since I started kindergarten at age five. That’s now over 60 years of being part of that magical kingdom of pedagogy (the art of teaching and learning) where passion and compassion once met in the interaction between teacher and student. That magic occurs all too infrequently today.
Teachers who once used their creativity to reach the brains and hearts of their students as they brought fun and variety into class each day are now faced with misplaced accountability by being graded on their students’ test results. They live and work in a world of acronyms: TEAM, PAARC, CCSS, CAEP, STEM, and others. College-bound students face a nearly endless pathway through tests ominously called such names as PLAN, EXPLORE, ACT, PSAT, and SAT. That last describing what their day in the classrooms has too often become. Gone from the description of pedagogy is the wise reminder, “Hands-on is always better than sit-and-listen!” What legislators, school administrators, and (unfortunately too often) many teachers have forgotten is why “we” became teachers in the first place: love for teaching and love of kids (all ages). One morning at about 3:15 a.m., the thought came to me, “What if Dorothy had been a school teacher?”
When Dorothy awoke from the tornado and discovered she and Toto weren’t in Kansas anymore, she began a long journey on that yellow-brick road to the magical kingdom of Oz. Today’s educators (as well as those setting the standards for travel along the road to teaching in those emerald classrooms) must rediscover the brain, heart, and courage that brought so many to the education profession in the beginning. We saw the munchkins; we felt the need to return “home” to our classrooms and excite the children. We made connections along the way and didn’t hesitate until none of our students were behind. That took caring and compassion and reaching out to each child to form a professional relationship in and sometimes outside of class wherein smiles were exchanged for light bulbs exploding during the pedagogical process. The magic is still in the ART of exciting teaching. A few years ago my wife and I attended an educational retreat in Texas called Capturing Kids Hearts. It inspired us with the challenge, “You must capture a kid’s heart to get to his head.”
How then do we return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and restore the ART to the pedagogy. We must focus on the teacher’s role in that ART. Yes, I have capitalized that several times to prepare you for that acronym (not all acronyms are evil). The ART of returning the magic to the classroom is Attention, Respect, and Teaching.
Hillary Swank as Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers and Matthew Perry as the title character in The Ron Clark Story both discovered that, no matter the passion, the teacher must gain the attention of the students and earn their respect before real teaching can make any difference. I show these movies, as well as several others that are based on true stories, in my education classes to demonstrate that the magic of the fairy tale can reemerge in classrooms but only with the teacher as catalyst.
Erin Gruwell tried to teach internal rhyme and grammar functions to her diverse 9th grade class made up of three gangs, a few strays, and one white kid. She failed miserably until she got their attention via a stand-up activity she called the Line Game. That paved the way for commonality and unity among the students who learned that their “crazy English teacher” Ms. Gruwell really cared. Their classroom and time together became a sanctuary in an otherwise fearful environment of violence, drugs, and drive-by shootings. She gave them the respect they so eagerly craved thereby earning respect from them. Test scores and writing ability soared! Erin Gruwell has now compiled/authored three books that have become a foundation for excellence in teaching everywhere.
Ron Clark, national teacher of the year in 2001, used chocolate milk chugging to get the attention of his 6th grade class in Harlem before he could earn their respect with his compassion for them and his passion for teaching. He then taught this diverse class to become a unified family in such a magical way that their test scores individually and as a group exceeded any other students in the district. He has now begun his Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta as a haven for at-risk kids and a training ground for teachers. He has revitalized the ART of pedagogy in the school and the thrill of victory in the classroom; and the students are having fun while learning amazing concepts and critical thinking skills. I believe that Andy Griffith described those methods in the Andy Griffith Show episode entitled Andy Discovers America when he got Opie and his friends “back in the mood” for history by telling them a “little tale” and putting “a little extra jam on the bread.” That’s what the ART of pedagogy is all about: teaching that both enlightens and entertains.
As Dorothy searches for the road back to her classroom in Kansas, she does meet several witches. One is very good; two are very bad (one alive and one dead, if you recall). The acronyms mentioned a few paragraphs ago are not witches although their attainment can often derail the best intentions of educators and legislators. The fact is that, with a little tweaking, they can be a positive rather than negative mainstay of teaching and education at all levels. The real problem is the manner in which some of these have been implemented and the way assessment is used. The TEAM evaluation model does hold teachers accountable as never before; but I see most of the assessed areas as necessary to the pedagogy. The Common Core State Standards have met with much resistance; however, they do emphasize critical thinking skills that are essential to college and career and often overlooked in the scope and sequence of the K-12 curriculum.
With teacher morale at an all-time-low and burn-out on the rise, teachers, administrators, and those who are setting the standards for education must revisit the task of teaching. Of paramount importance is the pedagogy that actually occurs in the classroom. The teacher must be re-inspired and re-motivated to become again the creator and guide to exciting methods. Rather than spending funds on new and improved textbooks, other curricular materials, or technology (not that any of these are necessarily bad) let’s budget for teachers to be exposed to the ART. Send teachers to a Capturing Kids Hearts retreat by the Flippen Group or to spend one to three days at the Ron Clark Academy watching, learning, remembering, and interacting with the children . Those leaders will also come to campus and inspire teachers and principals onsite. Regular exposure to demonstrations by teachers who have not lost their fire is one method to rekindle the blaze that always has made all the difference in the classroom. Sing the song and get on the road with Dorothy, Toto, Erin, and Ron. We must restore the magic to the classroom!