Are We Telling the Smaller Stories?

John Spencer Education, Life in the Classroom, Parent Involvment

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Yesterday, I went to Facebook and noticed a trend. Many of my teacher friends were vocal in their criticisms of their child’s teachers. I saw posts like, “Can you believe the ridiculous homework packet he gets?” and “My son said his teacher sits behind her desk all day. Ugh.”

My first reaction to seeing those posts was, “Have you talked to the teacher first?”

I can’t help but think that as a teacher I would want to be confronted one-on-one rather than publicly shamed by a member of my profession. But maybe I’m just oversensitive.

I realize that I’ve had moments when I have been really critical about my older son’s teacher because I disagree with homework or packets or multiple choice tests. And yet . . . he loves that class. He loves learning. He’s being challenged to think more deeply. He’s learning the honest reality of history. When I talk to him, I am reminded that teachers can be “wrong” about certain things and still get it so right.

For every time he tells me about a frustrating math packet, there are ten times he tells me about something funny she said or a time he learned something cool or a moment she encouraged him in a way that affirmed who he is as a person.

Last night my son read aloud three short stories he had written. I watched him get into the zone as he focussed on the fourth. As I stepped back and watched it, I felt grateful for his teacher. I knew the hours it took for her to edit the work. I knew the lessons she had to teach to get him to develop better word choice and sentence fluency. It has me thinking that there are a lot of little stories (the kind that don’t end up on keynote slides or blog posts) that still add up to something powerful. He loves writing due in large part to his teacher.

I mention this because I regret the times in the past when I posted my frustration about my son’s homework. I regret the fact that I only told the critical stories. I regret the tone of superiority that I took. Because here’s the thing: my kid can read. I have no idea how phonics and blending and all of that work. But he can read. My son is learning two step equations and he’s learning it in a conceptual way that is so much better than the way I learned it. I didn’t teach him those things. His teacher did.

I get the need to point out bad practices. I get the need to tell your child’s story. However, I wonder if we’re not doing enough of telling the stories of all the little things that our kids’ teachers are doing right. Great things are happening in our schools. Are we sharing those stories?


John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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Comments 5

  1. Jess Ledbetter

    Great post! I have also noticed that teachers seem to eat their own alive. I used to be part of an (unnamed) teacher advocacy group online through Facebook. I left the group because I was tired of seeing endless comments of teachers attacking each other and moderators breaking in to stop the arguments. Well said and good food for thought John! Let’s start getting each others’ backs instead. By the way…National Board Certification is a great antidote to this war. When teachers feel more efficacious about their own practices, they don’t have to cut down others. They can recognize (as you clearly articulated) that teaching material in different ways is fine as long as the kids learn the material that matters.

  2. Sandy Merz

    There’s a lot to your post, John and your comment, Jess. What do we do when we see in our colleagues a practice that is objectionable? And I don’t mean a one time thing (a student telling their parent I spent the whole time behind my desk, today, would not be far off, bu that’s a rarity, and I’ve got my reasons.) And I don’t mean a practice, that in an overworked cliche – reasonable people can disagree about. I’m talking about a serious and chronic failure in a teacher. One route, clearly, is to leave it to administrators, But that to me runs against the long term vision of teacher leadership. There’s a million ways not to “coach” such a colleague, but how many good ways? I think Jess is onto something when she mentions National Board. If it were a peer expectation that teachers would learn to demonstrate their expertise, l bet a lot of bad practices would see their days numbered.

  3. Mark Gardner

    I have three sons, two in school, and it in many cases I can tell what the teacher is “trying” to do by the homework she provided or the message she sent in the newsletter. Rather than judge (though that still happens at times) I try to reframe and be empathetic: what might the teacher’s goal be? If it looks to be clumsily implemented, what support is she NOT receiving that might help her? Thus far, my sons have had eight teachers between them, and I can say that I’ve had plenty of those moments where my first reaction is “what in the world is with this homework packet,” but generally, even though they attend a high-poverty, high-teacher-turnover school, I feel confident my kids are getting a good education.

    I also realize that often I’m getting my information my from an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old who have their own filters for the information that gets passed on to me about their school experience. I can only wonder what my students say to their parents as we have frank conversation about “The Catcher in the Rye” (“Hey mom, today we talked about hookers and the F-word”) and hope that there is some reading-between-the-lines going on.

  4. Eve Rifkin

    Great piece John. I worry that our national bad-news-obsession applies to education as well. How can we take back the conversation so that we crave the good news?

  5. Donnie Lee

    One thing I have learned from years in the service industry is that people who have a bad experience at a restaurant are likely to tell 10 of their friends about it. People who have had a great experience may tell 2 people. I think that principle applies to nearly every other profession. People speak out more when they are dissatisfied than when they are not.

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