The Highest Common Denominator

I’ve taught in four different countries.  My assignments have been varied: poor urban schools in the U.S, poorer rural schools in the Dominican Republic, an elite private school in the mountains of Colombia, and a city school in northern Mexico packed with kids coming or going from El Norte.

Twenty years breathing chalk dust  leave me with distinct impressions. Most intriguing is that the teaching culture is universal.  No matter how developed the country, or wealthy the community, teaching is pretty much the same.  Generally, there is the same suspicion  of the educator, the same herculean efforts to control the  classroom from beyond, and the same disfunction between teacher and student.

I would say, unscientifically, that hubs of school success occur in rare communities that have faith in the process. If they trust that students make gains when attending school, it tends to come to fruition.
I am not suggesting that there is a magical “feeling” tone that leads to educational success. I do believe that trust  makes us behave differently, and it is that behavior that creates the conditions for extraordinary learning. Too often we focus on the low end of the bell curve. We react to infractions, shortcomings, and deficits – real or perceived.

I’ll never forget “La Pared” (“The Wall)  in a public school in Durango. Folks spoke of “La Pared” with apprehension. I soon learned it was the East wall of the teacher’s lounge where a list was posted, four feet high, of various teacher’s absence during the school year. As well, “La Pared” contained annotations of other violations (smoking on campus, leaving the premises with school property, fraternization with students, and much more). It was scandalous and very public.
Arriving late to punch in at the time clock resulted in a posting on “La Pared” and a scolding from Sra. Alvarez, the teacher’s lounge prefect.

It was meant as an aversion at best, simple justice at least. What it did do for sure, though, was browbeat everyone, even the best teachers. My most professional colleagues were made to feel less than professional even when their names never appeared on “La Pared”.

Would it be a “feel good” gimmick to post, instead, a list of the successes of the best teachers on “La Pared”? Or would it transform the school culture, a transformation that would create the behavior that breeds success?

Maybe it is merely social engineering. But  if our community, the media, and the throngs of non-classroom “educators” were to cast their high beams on  our mightiest teachers, even our weakest colleagues might fall in line. Who knows?  Some of our best and brightest might even strive to become teachers….


Prof. Suave

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