Monday, May 9, 2011

Attaining Intangible States
A Personal Narrative and a Lesson in Applied Philosophy

A Teacher Pursuing Intangible States
original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit
Last post, I wrote about a powerful, impersonal kind of certainty that, under the best circumstances, a teacher feels about the instructions she gives. The incident of the classroom interloper, which I chose to illustrate that certainty, is an especially clear example, but in the course of my two months teaching precalc, there have been countless subtler instances in which this sense of the inevitability of my injunctions has come to my aid. It is the first time in my teaching career (now in its fifth year) that I have felt this kind of sureness, and of course, it’s thrilling.

When I taught at an inner-city No-Excuses charter school two years ago, I had the opposite experience. I was deeply insecure and hesitating. I expected my instructions to meet resistance, and they almost always did; and when that resistance was forceful, as it often was, my very dignity and pride were threatened.

That school, unlike the one where I currently work, was deeply committed to professional development—to teaching teachers to teach and, in particular, to manage a classroom. Much of their training was based on Doug Lemov’s taxonomy of effective teaching practices, an incisive text, widely studied within the charter movement, which I’ve written about previously. Lemov agrees with the private school administrator whom I quoted at the end of my last post that the essence of true authority is un-teachable; but, unlike the private school administrator, Lemov is therefore less concerned with the nature of that essence and more concerned with what can be taught. “Some teachers have ‘it,’” he writes in the introduction to his chapter on “Strong Voice.”

They enter a room and are instantly in command. Students who, moments before, seemed beyond the appeal of reason suddenly take their seats to await instructions. It’s hard to say exactly what “it” is and why some teachers have it. Much of it is surely intangible and non-transferable, a manifestation of the unique power of individuals and their ability to earn respect and credibility, build relationships, and exude confidence and poise. But even if I can’t tell you exactly how to bottle “it,” I can describe five concrete things that “it” teachers consistently use to signal their authority. These are five techniques that anyone, even the seemingly meekest and mildest of novices, can use…. Mastering these skills may not make you the “it” teacher, but having a Strong Voice will surely get you a lot closer.

Lemov’s approach to the problem of teaching authority is predicated on a particular attitude towards the intangible, an attitude that is pervasive within the No-Excuses movement. The intangible, for the No-Excuses educator—as for his philosophical opposite-number, the Romantic [1]—is the authentic thing; but, whereas the Romantic holds the authentic intangible sacred and seeks no substitute, Lemov abandons it to its intangibility and devotes his energies to constructing a tractable stand-in. The appearance of confidence that Lemov’s “meekest and mildest of novices” can attain by practicing his five techniques is repugnant to the Romantic—it is an unnatural, artificial authority, aimed at control and manipulation. To Lemov, it is the most expedient means of getting an inexperienced teacher in control of a chaotic classroom; it is one of the many rugged, pragmatic tools that the No-Excuses school uses to overcome the vast obstacles that it faces.

Clearly, context matters here: No-Excuses schools fight a dire battle against anarchy, truancy, and academic failure; Romantic-progressive schools, [2] serving primarily middle- and upper-class populations, have the luxury to pursue more esoteric goals. The philosophical questions a stake are much deeper, however, than this contrast of urgency and luxury implies—and their implications are pervasive: the argument over standardized testing and No Child Left Behind is, at heart, an argument about intangibles [read more]. The debate over phonics versus whole-language reading instruction, which breaks down cleanly along Romantic-Conservative lines, points to this same question of intangibles, as do differing approaches to moral education (see my post on moral education from last November). In all these issues, the complexities of the problem defy easy answers.

Lemov’s book is appropriately titled Teach like a Champion—the emphasis, I think, is on the “like.” But that “like” says something not about the modesty of the book’s aims but about its underlying ontology. If he thinks like most No-Excuses educators I’ve worked with, Lemov believes not only that tangible proxies are a worthwhile pursuit, but that they are actually stepping-stones to the intangible—i.e., if you habituate the outward behaviors of confident classroom-management, you will actually become a confident classroom manager. (Again, see my post on values education). The authentic, internal, intangible state (confidence, respect, maturity, understanding, etc.) is arrived at, piecemeal and gradually, through the practice of outward behaviors. Thus, teaching like a champion is the road to being a champion teacher—or, as my old boss at the charter used to tell us, “Fake it till you make it.”

The orthodox Romantic view is that such internal states can be got at only internally—that they exist inside oneself and “arriving” at them is really a matter of finding them within, in that divine, natural self that the Romantic posits. Indeed, I know Romantic educators who disparage teacher training in precisely these terms: all you have to do, they say, is be real with the kids; practicing a bunch of techniques makes your teaching artificial, and kids can sniff out that kind of BS in an instant. (If you ask me, kids are not quite the bullshit bloodhounds that Romantics portray them, but they do have a surprisingly acute sense of when they’re being patronized or talked-down to.)

In the light of these two opposing views, I want to return to the question of how I attained the genuine authority, however circumstantial it may be, that I now have—how I got from weakness, to a half-convincing approximation of confidence, to the actual internal state.

Straight out of college, I taught for two years at the same private school where I now teach my precalc class. I was confident and successful enough to think myself a good teacher at the time, but I see now how weak my authority was. True, many of my students seemed to like me, but I did not command respect; my rule, ultimately, was subject to their approval—and the truth is, I feared to displease them; or, to put a finer point upon it, I wanted their approval.

When I came to the charter school, I found myself in an environment where whatever charms sustained me in the private school were worse than useless. I was not only weird, nerdy, and white, I also had no capacity to rule by force. It took two or three months for the students to fully internalize my lack of authority and for me to fully comprehend the enormity of my problem. The rest of that long, long year was spent trying to dig myself out of the hole I was in, step by step, technique by technique, in the most prosaic, piecemeal way imaginable. All my life, I have been a global thinker, but I learned then that there are conditions under which global, integrated thinking is useless; I learned to live by the AA motto: one day at a time.

I didn’t dig myself all that far. Lemov’s techniques helped me to gain some modicum of control over my classroom, and slowly my students began to learn; but by the end of the year, I was still only a semi-competent teacher. It was, as I have hinted previously, a deeply frustrating experience, and in some ways a traumatic one. But I learned a lot: some of it tangible, some of it not.

When, after a year and a half of avoiding classroom teaching, I returned to the private school this past February to teach precalculus, I was returning to the Romantic style of education and to the privileged New York private-school milieu in which I myself was raised. It was a situation in which I was bound to be more at ease, and this was the first factor contributing to my current authority—what I think of as the Romantic factor: I had returned to my natural environment, to a community and culture where I was comfortable, and of course, that made me a better leader—more confident, more relaxed, more effective. The second factor was the what I had learned from Lemov. The various techniques that I had studied in those training session had given me a sizable bag of tricks for efficiently and invisibly molding a classroom to my will. Knowing I had those tricks made me more confident, and using them made me more effective, which in turn raised my confidence.

I think the most important factor, though, was neither context nor techniques—it was, dare I write it, personal growth. The gauntlet I’d gone through at the charter school had generated internal strength that I hadn’t had before. The nightmares I had used to have, during my first couple years of teaching, of classes turning against me had come true. I had lived out my fears and had gotten over being scared of them. I had gotten over needing kids to like my decisions. I had come to understand that sometimes what they do and do not want is irrelevant. I had come, in short, to embrace my own authority, to accept the primacy of my own will within the classroom. The alternative was anarchy.

(I see now, as I come to the close of this post, that this is a very deep matter, which I had not considered before. That one’s own decisions have validity over the stated desires and wills of 10 or 20 or 30 individuals, no matter how small, is a difficult and frightening thing to accept. It is a tremendous responsibility towards vast, intangible goals. It is a type of self-affirmation that must come very easily to some but which came slowly and painfully to me.)

One final thought. This third factor contributing to the growth of my confidence is one that someone of either a Romantic or a Classical turn of mind would probably accept as valid. The Romantic would embrace it because the strength is psychologically rich and internally generated, the classical because it is got through struggle and experience. It is a synthesis of the two approaches. The man who tried to create a synthesis of Romantic and Classical pedagogy is John Dewey, and internal growth towards an external goal through personal experience is a very Deweyan approach to learning.

[2] ^ Progressive education and Romantic education should not be synonymous, but the two have become so closely associated during the past 80 years that what people now think of as "Progressive" in schooling is actually Romantic. True Deweyan Progressive education was, to my knowledge, never implemented on any significant scale. This needs its own post.

Standardized Testing and Intangibles [back to text]

The values that the Romantic educator holds most dear—curiosity, love of learning, conceptual understanding—are not captured (at least not directly) by standardized exams. Most No-Excuses educators that I know (N = approximately 50) would agree that these less-testable values are central to the project of education; but they assume, and they’re not wrong, that the intangibles correlate with the skills tested on the exams: a student who loves learning and understands the concepts is far more likely to get a high score on an exam, even a very reductive exam, than one who doesn’t. Nonetheless, as I’ve discussed previously in this blog, the current high-stakes testing regime has caused a deep and troubling realignment of objectives in American public education.


  1. Max, this reminds me a lot of my time as an Army officer. I'm still learning a lot of the lessons you mention. Hope you're well.


  2. Interesting. This is the second military analogy in three posts. Check out this conversation. But who is this? Is it Josh Loh?

  3. Wow, you've been through a lot. This whole classroom authority thing is why I only teach willing adults! Are there classes available to activist teachers who want to learn better classroom control? I need this but haven't seen it anywhere. Plus, teaching adults is a bit different, they mean well, but a lot of the same control issues.

  4. I noticed an NPR job interview of the robotics instructor in CA, who discussed how a lot his children come to understand on their personal in interconnection with creating a robot.

  5. Love your writing! One problem though. Your language about Romanticism is crystal clear, but muddy in elsewhere. What do you mean by Classical? You seem to be contrasting Classical to Romanticism as if Classical were synonymous with No Excuses. You also used the word Conservatism. Do you mean to use Classical-Conservative-No Excuses all as synonyms?

    1. Ha. This is such a legit critique. So nice to get a non-spam comment on such a defunct blog. Yes, I was carelessly using those three terms "classical," "conservative," and "no excuses" interchangeably in this post. Back when I wrote frequently about these issues, i struggle to find a good term to oppose to the word "romantic" in education contexts. "No excuses" seems too narrow, too much a description of a specific movement at a specific time; the dichotomy has existed since at least the beginning of the 20th century, so it seems weird to give one half of it a name that's only a decade or so old. There are reasons that I think both "classical" and "conservative" are reasonable choices, but you are right to complain that I'm being quite hazy with them. It would be fun to pick apart these terms a little bit & see what they have to offer. Do you have a preferred term here? Interestingly, Dewey's words for the two sides were "child-centered" and "curriculum-centered." The latter term has entirely fallen out of use, though "child-centered" still pops up all over the websites & literature of romantic schools.