Actors? Seriously?

The other day I came across this on social media:

… teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. …. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. … My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments … It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart… Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. By NICK RIPATRAZONE

Underneath it were comments about how this is what we teachers all strive for and what a wonderful piece of writing it is and how true and wonderful. Now, I’m not pugnacious by nature, so I just let it go. But here in the private space of my blog, where only a handful of people will read it, here is my response:

What twaddle.

I’m tempted to leave this post there, because I think that would be funny. But I won’t because that would be doing Nick Ripatrazone a disservice. I’ve since read his entire piece The Last English Teacher and I realise that what I read was an unfair representation of all that he’s saying. It’s a lovely piece and I’m sure that he’s exactly the sort of teacher that I would have wanted for myself and I do want for my children. In terms of our teaching I’m sure we are more alike than different. However, that first line “teachers were born to perform… We are actors without stages” troubles me greatly. Here’s my hot tip. If you want to be an actor, be an actor. If you want to be a teacher, stop inflicting your thespian fantasies on your students and start focusing on how they learn. Seeing yourself as an actor is putting yourself at the centre of the classroom. You’re saying “Watch me, kiddies. It’s all about me.” Now I often actually say this to my students ironically in the hope that they realise that I know I’m dominating the conversation and that we all know that’s wrong.

If I were capable of being the sort of teacher I think is perfect, my students would hardly know I was there. They wouldn’t look back on their schooling and think of the teacher at the front of the room performing for them. They’d look back and think about the great things they did. If there’s going to be an actor in my classroom, I want it to be one of my students. If we’re to continue with the drama metaphor, I think teachers should be producers. Producers make everything possible, but they shouldn’t be getting involved in the directing or acting unless something’s going wrong. Basically, my students’ performances should be the important things, not mine. And as a place full of people producing things that they have put their hearts into, I certainly don’t think the classroom should, or even could,  be described as mundane.

Since starting this post, two days ago, Aaron Davis has posted this wonderful piece in which he reminds me that I once wrote:

“I think the important thing is remembering that we’re all in this to help our students. So we’re all on the same team even when we disagree about the strategies we’re using to achieve what we want. So everything I read, whether it’s a tweet or a blog, I remember that the writer is coming from the same place as me.”

And I suspect I’ve been a bit harsh. I still think that what I wrote about my own classroom is right, however, I know that a school is a place where students come to learn from a variety of people and in a variety of ways, and if everyone was like me the world would be a very dull place indeed. So thank goodness for those teachers who perform for their classes. The world is a richer place for their presence. Thank goodness for Nick Ripatrazone.



I’m good with computers

I’m good with computers. I don’t know much about how they work. I certainly can’t program them. However, like many people, I’m “good with computers”. But what does that actually mean? I guess it means that I can generally get them to do what I want them to do. So how do I do it? Well, it’s certainly not intelligence. I’ve known many super-intelligent people who struggle in front of a computer. My job involves trying to help people to use computers effectively, and I’m starting to think about how to actually help people be good with computers, rather than just teaching them individual software processes (over and over again).

So, here are the things that I think have made me “good with computers”, whatever that means. Very few are actual skills, and none of them are things that can’t be learned or adopted.

1. I’m precise. Sometimes. I know when it’s important to be precise. I also know when a problem is most likely to be because I’ve mistyped something. If my log in doesn’t work, for example, I know that the service I’m using hasn’t forgotten my details. I know it will by my fault, and the first place I look is at my own typing. I also know to look for things like spaces at the start of a username. These things are incredibly frustrating and lead to people throwing up their hands and saying “I’m just no good with computers”. You’re no worse with computers than anyone else. Just look for simple mistakes.

2. I practise. Working with computers isn’t like playing a musical instrument. There’s not much art to it. However, like anything that involves remembering a process, you need to do it a few times before you can feel really confident with it. Those people who are “bad with computers” don’t remember something after doing it once, and take this as evidence that they’ll never be able to do it. Put in a little practice and guess what? Also, like learning a musical instrument, learning one piece of music makes it easier to learn the next piece.

3. I know that Google isn’t cheating. If I don’t know how to do something, I press F1 and if that doesn’t help, I use Google. That’s not cheating. It’s research and it’s okay. If you don’t know how to get somewhere it’s okay to use a map, too.

4. I’m fearless (more or less). I know that I haven’t been given enough power to do any actual damage. As long as I back up regularly, there’s not much I can do that will create actual problems. So, I don’t hold back from pushing buttons just to see what they’ll do. Be brave and see what you learn.

5. I know what to expect. Sometimes this means limiting my expectations (for example, I don’t expect my computer to remind me of things I haven’t set it to remind me of. Sometimes this means not settling for doing too much work. I know that if I’m doing the same thing over and over, or matching boring data, that the computer can do it for me. I’m amazed at people who will happily type in 150 email addresses, when they’re already sitting in a database somewhere, but who will complain that the computer didn’t know that they meant “.com” when they wrote “.cmo”.

6. I think computers are magic. I don’t mean this literally, obviously. What I mean is that I still get a thrill from watching a computer do something in 4 seconds that would have otherwise taken a week. And I get a little sense of pride knowing that I got it to do that. And I love showing people and watching them get that thrill as well.

So there you go. People who are good with computers are like good readers; they have a set of strategies that they use to work effectively. People who are bad with computers are like bad readers; not only do they not have the strategies, they don’t believe the strategies exist. They think they were just born a bad reader and good readers are just born lucky. I’m a good reader, too. If my mind drifts while I’m reading, I go back and reread. That’s okay. Bad readers don’t do that. People who are bad with computers don’t practise vlookup functions in Excel. Not only have I practised them, I love them.

So, what have I missed. What else makes someone “good with computers”?

A bit of a disclaimer here: I’m not “good with computers” in any way that anyone who works with computers is. I’m the first to say “take it to the techs”. I’m good with them in a consumer sort of way. I’d hate anyone to think I actually know anything. I seriously don’t.