The Hollywood prototype of Silverscreen Superteachers presents a mythology that the best teachers are those who go into rough areas, make a huge difference and tell their stories in the process.  The goal is to make a difference and change the world. Similarly, conferences and teacher books tout the newest, latest reforms each promising that if the teachers do just a little more, they will make a bigger impact.

After awhile, it becomes a mask that teachers wear - a mask of professionalism, of authority, of knowledge and expertise.  Unfortunately, masked crusaders are not what children need.  They need alter-egos more than superheros - regular people doing great things when they stop trying so hard to do bigger and better things.

What if more is not better?  What if changing the world is not a better goal?  What if the best way to teach content is by teaching less?  What if the best way to lead a classroom is by serving it?  What if the solution missing in most of educational reform is not "more" but "less?"

Through the use of metaphor and story-telling, Spencer uses his own experiences as a teacher to demonstrate the main premise of a paradox of humility. It is the notion that learning increases when teaching decreases.  It is the idea that teachers who quit trying to change lives are those who end up changing lives.  It is the belief that the best way to achieve is by de-emphasizing achievement.  
thank you and dedication

Thank you to all the people who have followed my blog for awhile and who leave comments pretty regularly. These people include Doyle, Angela, Kelly, Uninspired Tom, Brazen, Bibo, Betty, Sean, Steve and Tom and the Nerdfighteria Misfits, Matt, Alan, Jerrid, Miss Teacha, Joel, Russ – I know that I'm leaving people out here, but I want to thank all of you who have challenged my thinking.

I also want to thank the friends mentioned in this book who have helped me through my teaching career. Thank you, Christy, for all loving me so well and helping me to become more humble and authentic. Thank you Javi and Dan and Quinn – I am forever shaped by our numerous coffees together. Thank you Brad for mentoring and shaping my thoughts about teaching.

This book is dedicated to Joel, Micah and Brenna. Being a father has been one of the best experiences of my life.  Ultimately that's what this book is truly about, taking off the mask, being transparent, learning to listen.  The three of you have taught me more about that than anything I learned in professional development.


One of my favorite elements of a Russian novel has nothing to do with the pastoral connection to the land, the complexity of characters, the insane amount of bloodshed or the intricate plot details. Instead, I love the list of characters at the beginning. Therefore, I'm including a list of characters at the beginning of the book. If I could make the list perforated, you could simply tear it out and it would be a makeshift bookmark so that you're not stuck using scraps of paper, neatly folded unused tissues (to let the world know you are still classy), or dog-eared pages. Unfortunately, I have no perforating powers, so you're stuck with a traditional page. However, I encourage you to bust out some scissors and perforate it yourself.  You could even go Martha Stewart with it and glue on some decorative macaroni.

So, here is my list:
  • Christy: The love of my life. We are opposite in nearly every way and we are incomplete without one another. She's amazing. And she's hot. 
  • Brad: My mentor. He introduced himself to me as a philosopher and that's what he is – a man who loves wisdom, but who loves people even more.
  • Javi: A close friend and a phenomenal teacher. He's got the soul of an artist and he works harder, with more passion, than anyone I know.
  • Quinn: A business bohemian, he's a man who with the heart of a troubadour and the lifestyle of a corporate executive.
  • Doyle: A man I know only in the cyber-vapor kind of way. I think he's the best blogger on the planet. He's the man responsible for my newfound love of science.
  • Johnny: A kid I tutored from fifth grade through high school. We still see each other sometimes. He's a fighter, in the good kind of way and has faced tough odds to succeed in his learning journey.
  • Joel, Micah, Brenna: My kids have taught me so much – how to laugh and be silly, how to dance, how to notice a moon or an ant hill and how to make up a song along the way. They have been a bigger part of this journey than I could have ever imagined.

about this work

While I strive to be honest in my depiction of the classroom and I base my stories on incidents within my own life, there are details, names and events that I change in order to protect the identity and narratives of my students. It is not my job to tell their story, but only my own. Some call a personal narrative narcissistic and maybe this is.  However, ultimately I feel that the only expert knowledge I have to offer is that of my own story. If it can connect to the larger conversations on education reform, I am grateful. 

the impetus

The work began as a challenge from Tom Roth, an educator I admire. After reading Sages and Lunatics, he suggested that I take the work from my blog Musings from a Not-So-Master Teacher and turn it into a book. I quickly realized that most of what I wrote was either currently irrelevant or a topic that no longer interested me.

Within the same time frame, I wrote a blog post called “The Impact Paradox,” about the notion that the way to have an impact is to focus less on having an impact. As I began to outline a potential book, I realized that the “less is more” concept was not so much about impact or choice, but about humility.

I can be arrogant. Real arrogant. Mean in my arrogance. I can be a bulldozer or a brick thrower. Yet, I've found that my best moments as a teacher happen when I am humbled. That's what this story is all about – it's an ideological journey through the paradox of humility.

I readily admit that much of the source material is taken from my blog. If it feels like a real bad string of re-runs, I apologize. The good news is that the book is pretty cheap, so it wasn't entirely wasted, right?


This work is a little different in the fact that I want it to be interactive. It is available in hard copy, as an e-book, as an audio book and in a blog format. Please visit the blog at to comment on any sections within the book, to view a few videos about teaching unmasked and to join an ongoing discussion.
narrative: from reel to real

"Mr. Spencer, you're not talking much today," a student points out as we line up for class.

"I'm losing my voice," I explain.

"Just because you can't speak doesn't mean you lost your voice.  There are lots of people out there who have a voice, but aren't able to speak.  And there are lots of people who talk all the time and never find their voice."

I smile, realizing that on some level, she has internalized our conversations about developing a social voice and an individual.  Oddly enough, I didn’t try and change her. I never developed a plan for this student to internalize my own ideas about the importance of voice. It just sort-of happened mysteriously.

*     *     *

When I share stories it can feel like a highlight film.  I want people to see that "this generation" is not a bunch of lazy screw-offs and sometimes I overstate my case in the process. The truth is that teaching is much more banal.  I spend hours walking around asking clarifying questions, reminding students to use words more creative than "stuff" and "thing," using my body language to suggest that a discussion of schoolyard crushes should stay in the schoolyard and attempting to manage the administrative side of teaching. Not exactly Freedom Writers.

It's not that teaching is a boring job (at least not in the sense that bagging groceries was boring).  It's just that it's more like the real game than an episode of Sports Center.  My classroom includes the usual missteps, false starts and occasionally an intentional grounding or two.  It can get as lethargic as a full count in the fifth inning and on my worst days I'm just trying to handle the hecklers in the bleachers.

And yet . . . it's real - which means it also includes the subtle drama, the serendipity of story and the moments of glory that inevitably make it to the highlight reel. For what it's worth, I'd rather have real than reel, because it is the unpredictability of the narrative that makes it exciting.

*     *     *
Javi meets up with me to have a microbrewed pint.

“How was the conference?” I ask.

“It was good. The speakers were great. So were the workshops.” Educators always call them workshops despite the fact that no one really does any work. I guess it sounds fancier than, “sit and watch someone give a passionate Power Point presentation.” Still, I wish for once I would go to a workshop and there would be elves building toys for children or perhaps a guy from This Old House telling me how to build a cabinet.

Javi is careful to avoid criticizing people and so he mentions key things he “gleans” from it. Not being a farmer, I have to ask him to define the word "glean" and he says, “I think it's about taking the leftovers after everyone is finished. So, I guess it's the other way around. I picked what I liked best and dropped the rest.”

After awhile, though, he tells me, “I just wish people had been a little more vulnerable, that's all.
Teaching is messy and confusing and, if we're honest, really hard.”

“What would you ave wanted a speaker to do?”

“Everyone shows us exemplars or they hand out the best possible work from all of their classes. I would have pointed to some mediocre work and asked people what we, as teachers, could have done to prevent the mediocrity. We would have talked about it together and shared our own expertise. I mean, it's crazy to think that I'd be the only expert in a room.”

“I know what you mean. After awhile, it feels like Sports Center, where no drops a ground ball. You start thinking through this lens of perfection and if you're not careful you end up leaving a conference either dejected or with this false notion that you can create perfection in your classroom."

"Even the terminology starts to grate on your nerves. Everything is 'cutting edge.' Wow, so it's a program that can show you visually how many words are being used.” Javi's right. A flying car that shoots lasers is cutting edge. Splitting an atom is cutting edge. A stop-animation program is probably not cutting edge. Novel, but not revolutionary.

“Everyone wants something great and revolutionary,” I add. “Revolutions are bloody ordeals. I just want my students to read better.”

Javi is a humble teacher. He's never written a how-to book of the Essential Fifty-Five. (If there are really fifty-five, can they all be essential?) However, he knows his students well and despite the language barrier his ELL students have deep classroom discussions that often surpass the expectations of an honors class. Javi does service projects and documentaries and holds debates with his students. Yet, if you ask him what he's doing to make a difference, he'll speak honestly about his mistakes.

Javi makes a difference because he is humble. It's counterintuitive, I admit, but he's a phenomenal teacher because he doesn't have seven steps and eight keys and forty essentials. He offers himself and as a result, the students love him and learn from him.

*     *     *

I'm not against practical advice. I've bought books with seven steps or nine keys and sometimes they work. Sometimes. I'm not against conference speakers, either. I've known humble speakers who provide honest insights about teaching.

My issue is more with myself. See, if I start reading too many of practical guides, I turn toward the Sports Center mentality. I get arrogant. I start believing I have the secret formula, the best ideas, the perfect classroom. I tell myself that I'm thinking outside the box when, in fact, that very phrase is so cliché it fits well within a box. What happens is an ugly spiral of self-competition and goal-driven directives to try and validate my existence as a teacher.  I teach out of shame.

It can get worse. I once gave a presentation called Social Studies 2.0, where I provided insights about all the paradigm shifts that we need to make in history classes. People seemed interested and I fed off their excitement. When it was over, a friend offered his critique. “It was interesting. Parts were actually pretty funny. It was missing one element, though.”

“What's that?”

“Humility. What are people supposed to do with this presentation? Either they write you off as deceptive or crazy or perfect. That doesn't motivate them to embrace new ideas.” It was painful to hear, but he was right. I was the emperor refusing to recognize that I'd been exposed.

My friend Quinn once told me that he read Three Cups of Tea and it was more depressing to him than a book about genocide. “I was supposed to feel inspired, but it made my life feel worthless. I kept thinking, 'Man, what am I supposed to do with this?' I'm sitting in an office cubical writing procedures right now and I'm not inspired.”

“Those books make me feel tired. I read a few pages and I have to fight back a sense of jealousy or defeat. For me, those are the only two options. I know that I should feel happy for the guy, but I don't.”

I don't need more stories of great achievements or more steps to a perfect classroom. Instead, I have found that I am stronger when I am vulnerable. It is when I am humble that I can lead. It's when I focus less on behavior that students change and when I focus less on making a difference that I actually make a difference. It's not a new idea. Jesus taught the same concept twenty centuries ago.  Fortunately for me, his thoughts are now in public domain.

So, the bad news is that I don't have seven steps or three keys or the magical formula for education. I'm still figuring out this whole teacher gig . . . and my place in this universe. This is a story, a philosophical journey of the reality that teaching is a paradox of humility.

*     *     *

I say a lame joke in the morning before school and a boy interrupts me with, “that's not funny.” It's not that he's offended. He just feels that he has the go-ahead to be the conversational comic critic. It's the type of comment that brings back a narrative I don't want to relive – one of being the outcast, the Strike-out King, the Teacher's Pet and the kid who can't stay in sync with the my classmates whose humor revolves around quoting movie lines from Chris Farley.

At one time, I would have kicked him out of the room. Or perhaps I would have turned his humor upside-down and left him feeling wounded and ashamed. It's awful that I consider going to those places, but it's easy if I play the “I'm the Ever-Important Teacher” card.

This time, though, I see him as he is: a scared, broken, insecure thirteen year old. I see a part of myself in him. Too often, I am the critic, the cynic, the one who uses words as weaponry to try and conquer others in hope of becoming important. Too often, I stand up arrogantly and lob insults with the hope that people will believe the lie I'm trying to portray.

“Hey, what you said kind-of hurt. I know your motives were probably mixed, but I need the freedom to be myself and that includes lame jokes. What happens is if I don't feel safe being myself I lose my smile and my sense of humor and it's not as fun both for me and for everyone else.”

It's a vulnerable moment that moves both of us into a humble place of transparency. It's nothing spectacular. Nothing that would make a teacher's highlight film. But it's real and it's honest and as he musters up an awkward apology, I am reminded of the reality that I am more of a teacher when I am less of a teacher.
mystery: my day in black and white

things begin to make sense when they don't make sense

     It's Spirit Week, which conjures up images of ghosts or alcohol. However, it's really just a chance for students to dress up as nerds in the name of school pride. For what it's worth, I'd rather have students feel a sense of pride in their learning rather than in the institution that houses them. Yet, I can see that dressing up for Eighties Day does give kids a sense of belonging (Incidentally, the day is about a decade and not a day to celebrate octogenarians) and if dressing up as a marginalized group is necessary to empower students in their learning, then perhaps Nerd Day is necessary as well.
     Kids are wild during Spirit Week, but I am able to round the class up  and direct them toward Bell Work. We call it “Bell Work,” but our school doesn't really use bells. I guess it's better than, “silent work to do while I take attendance and make last-minute changes to the lesson.”
     I walk around and read the student answers to my question, “What are the pros and cons of being proud of your culture?”
     I smile smugly at my class at work. Students are thinking deeply and working quietly. I've arrived. After half a decade, I've figured out this whole teaching gig.
     As I walk by, I read a student connecting the dangers of nationalism in the Holocaust, current fear of the Mexican culture and his own experience of discrimination as a Haitian living in the Dominican Republic. The student next to him sputters out a sentence and whispers to me that it's too hard. She's not the only one. Two boys send instant messages instead of writing blog entries.
     Maybe I haven't arrived.
     One boy raises his hand in confusion. “Which culture do I choose?” He then describes living on the reservation as half-white and half-Navajo and never feeling at home in his own skin. “Except it gets worse. I'm not really half white. My dad was white and Indian. Not the kind of Indian that they name baseball teams after. The kind that own convenience stores and work as doctors.”
     Do I even begin to confront the racial stereotypes in his comments? Is now the time to engage in that discussion? Or should I appreciate his honesty in exploring cultural diversity? There is no handbook, no memo, no conference speaker that can hand me an easy answer.
     As the class moves into small group discussion, I watch a few conversations turn intense while others trail off into conversations about the weekend. On some level, the lesson works and I'm shocked by their ability to articulate a complex philosophical concept. On another level, I'm lost. I'm wandering in a cave with a flame that flickers from bright to nearly extinguished. The minute I become convinced that I have reached some sort of expert enlightenment, the flame dwindles back down and I come to terms with my own ignorance. It's a mystery.
*     *     *
     Rewind five years and I'm sitting with liquid happiness in my hand. “Brad, people really pay attention when you teach. What's your trick?”
     “There is no trick. I think people seem engaged, because I'm provocative.”
     “What makes you provocative, though? What do you do to get people so into it?”
     “I plan like crazy ahead of time,” he says and takes a long sip from his pitch black coffee. “Then I set
down my notes and I teach in the moment. It's serendipitous.”
     “So, you ditch your notes entirely?” I ask.
     “I actually throw away all lessons after I write them. I want it fresh. I need it to be in the present tense. Does that make sense? So, I'm totally prepared and yet completely unprepared. That's a mystery or a paradox. I can never keep it straight which one is which, but the ideas are held together in tension,” he says and locks his hands tight.
     “What if you get off track?” I ask.
     “It's something you feel your way through. It's a dance, I guess. You lead, but then you follow. Sometimes you step in and correct and sometimes you let it go and sometimes you end up stepping on toes in the process.”
     Brad warns me that a teacher could fill up a white board with observable objectives and start to believe that learning is an observable behavior, missing the mystery of a person's mind. He believes the most dangerous place to be as a teacher is in that place where you are convinced you understand everything about a person or a subject or an idea or even about oneself.
     It's hard to believe that education isn't a commodity and it's not a behavior. It's a mental process and any assessment is a fuzzy picture at best. For all the talk of the importance of data and research and daily reflection, I do best when I don't over-analyze or try to chop up the pieces into a highlight reel.
      When I think I see what's going on, I am most likely lost. When I let go and feel my way through it, things begin to make sense.

*     *     *
     When I was in high school, I tried to argue my way out of an F on a test.  It was a real lame attempt, based mostly on the fact that a failing test would mean I'd miss a cross-country meet (to most kids, running was a punishment, but for me it was freedom).

Me: Does math have to be binary? Does every question have to have a right answer?  To me, this word problem could work a few different ways based upon interpretation.
Mrs. D: There's either a right answer or there's not.
Me: Or there's both.
Mrs. D: The answer was wrong.
Me: But I got the right answer.
Mrs. D: But you used the wrong process.  If you try that on other problems, it won't work.
Me: Maybe there are many ways to solve one problem.
Mrs. D: See, that's why you and I are different.  I see the world in black and white.
Me: I do, too.  But black is the absence of all color if you look at it as light.  If it's pigment, it's every color combined.  So is white.  So black and white are both non-colors and all-colors co-existing at the same time.  That's a paradox I can't wrap my brain around.

     I still earned an F and missed a cross-country meet, but I knew, even as an arrogant high school student, that the world is not held together by a series of two binary options. I knew that even something as "cut and dry" as math was often only partially cut and more muddy than anticipated.

*     *     *
      I believe in absolute truth.  It's an offensive idea to many of my trendy hipster friends, who like to "send positive energy" my way instead of saying a prayer.  I believe in mystery and paradox and relativism and sometimes that makes my church friends just as nervous, fearing that I'll someday transform Jesus into a pot-smoking Hippie at a folk concert.
     I don't buy into left-brain and right-brain theory, as if all people are more of one than the other.  I think everyone is capable of using their entire brain and that, when push comes to shove, we're a whole lot more motivated by the Amygdala than we like to admit.
     The mind is a mystery.
     People warn me not to trust my emotions; that they are a fleeting vapor.  So are thoughts. Consciousness is a stream.  But some things will always be permanent. Witnessing a kid getting bullied will always piss me off and a certain acoustic Eric Clapton song will always remind me of the first time I danced with Christy and genocide will always stir up feelings of anger and sadness and even a certain level of guilt for my middle class apathy. The mind is fluid and permanent, linear and disjointed. A sage of the past said, "The heart is deceitful above all things and without cure.  Who can understand it?"
     I tend to agree.

*     *     *
     This week my students will take a drill-and-kill test to prove what they don't know. I will walk around pretending to proctor while my mind conjures up plot lines of imaginary graphic novels I'll never draw.  The only reason I won't cheat and grade papers is that I care about my administrators enough to play nice. “Play” is the key word here. It will be a game of pretend.
     Multiple choice cannot measure knowledge, much less wisdom.  Still, the results will be sixty percent of their final grade in the core subjects. Most special ed students will fail and it won't be the fault of the students or the teachers. Point this out, though, and the elusive "they" will accuse you of low expectations. Many English Language Learners will fail as well.  Mention this and you'll hear a lecture on high standards.
     It seems to me that if the mind is a mystery then maybe we should be a little more humble in how we approach assessment.  I say "we" because I often end a grading period with a lingering sense that I have let students down; that I didn't get to know them well enough or offer enough feedback or spur them toward deeper thinking.  If I'm not careful, I'll get as bad as the textbook conglomerates in wanting something measurable to validate my efforts.  Maybe the old sage is right.  "Who can understand it?" It's a mystery.
     So, students will walk into my class and I will try and engage them in a dialogue about technology and how it is reshaping their world.  I will fight a battle against online games and Facebook status updates and a site promising free music in exchange for one's personal information.  I will try and convince my students that a book might speak as much truth into their lives as a screen. I'll feel like a hypocrite for having them use technology to criticize it and then I'll tell myself that it's necessary to speak their digital language to get them to see the dark side of technology. Eventually, I'll settle on both and recognize that my students need to be part technophile and part Luddite. While they tap away at a binary machine, I'll ask them to think in paradox.
     Sometimes I get tired of technocratic futurism and grand predictions of "a new pedagogy." Yes, computers are cool, but so is Socrates. I want my students to be mindful of the past and interested in the future and present in the now. I want them to engage in the mystery. Perhaps that is too much to ask of a twelve year old.  I'm thirty years old and still haven't figured it out yet.
    I will encourage my class to criticize that which they use and use that which they criticize and when that feels to schizophrenic, I will break this up with some humor. Yes, I want them to laugh at a fart joke or a funny accent or a song parody.  Laughter is just as human as abstract conversation and on a good day I'll remember that I'm still teaching kids and that as much as I want to prepare them for adulthood, I still want them to savor childhood.
     I will engage them in a conversation about whether or not the computer world of binary reality is as pretend as The Matrix and the act we put on is as poor a performance as Keanu Reeves. If I'm humble enough, I'll be transparent and maybe even a little vulnerable. I won't try to make a difference, but in the process I just might shape a mind or two. And I'll be baffled that they can learn from someone who is broken - not despite the fact that I'm broken, but because I am broken.
     The end result will be a beautiful mystery.  Not sloppy, but not exactly planned, either.     
     After all, it's black and white.
shards: a backpack full of toast

I understand when I no longer understand.

      Quinn once asked me how I motivate students and I told him that I try and think back to my own experience as a kid and figure out what would have motivated me.
     “Didn't you feel, at the time, like people didn't understand you?”
     “Yeah, I guess I did.”
     “So, what if you were right? What if people didn't understand you, because they never knew your story? What if your teachers were trying to motivate you through their own narrative? And what if they were trying to push their narrative onto you and the conflict was not that you weren't on the same page, but that you weren't even in the same book?”
     Quinn's right.  As a teacher, I tend to forget that what interested me as a child is not necessarily what interests my students.
*     *     *
     Imagine walking into a movie theater ninety minutes into a movie. Now take that movie and chop it into pieces, framing together each story with duct tape. The actors are amateurs and some of them don't want to recite their lines, so you grapple as best as you can with the periods of silence. Sometimes the films get really boring like those artsy French films and you're stuck reading through long subtitles hoping for an explosion every once in awhile.
     Now take that movie theater and add another thirty screens all playing a different film. Just to cope with this reality, you begin to develop a science for movie watching. You predict the plots, find similarities in the narrative structure and the accuracy of your predictions make you a bit of a prophet-movie-critic. You start to think you know the characters even when they are playing pretend. Other times, you're developing an impressive highlight reel to try and justify your existence. All the while, the movies stream and you try your best to make sense out of the whole theater experience.

*     *     *
     I'm sitting in the dingy cafeteria, trying to avoid the smell of bleach and sweat and spoiled milk. I notice a student in my Summer School class gathering travel-sized boxes of sugar cereal (can't we just call it what it is, which is candy?) and stuffing them discreetly into her backpack.
     When I see her in class, I'm not sure where to go with this. I've walked in on an incomplete scene. I know nothing of the context or character and only a fragment of the plot.
     “You're doing really well in here. I'm surprised that you ended up in summer school.”
     She responds on with “thanks.”
     The next day, she gathers toast. She takes the dry pieces of burnt white bread and stacks them neatly, wraps them with industrial paper towels and stuffs them into the backpack again.
     I'm scared to ask, feeling that I might compound the shame. So I ask her more carefully, “Why are you here?”
     She misinterprets it as an existential quandary and responds, “I guess we're all trying to figure that out. Why are we here? Some say religion has the answer. I'm not so sure.”
     “I'm not talking about that. See, I know that you're smart. Your answer tells me that. I'm trying to figure out why you are in Summer School right now instead of having fun with your friends.”
     “I didn't do my work,” she says.
     “Can you tell me what's going on? You and I both know that you shouldn't be in summer school,” I repeat.
     She pulls out her backpack and says, “It was my turn. My mom cleans houses, but they raised the rent and she has to decide if she wants air conditioning or food for us. So, we have to take turns going to summer school so that we can have lunch. The school will give free breakfast, but if one of us is in summer school, they can also get extra breakfast stuff to take home.  The food banks start getting empty this time of year.”
     “Why didn't you talk to a teacher?” I ask.
     “They just thought I was being lazy. They called me in for a meeting and told my mom how to make me do my work. They handed me printout sheets of what I was missing. They were being good teachers.”
     She's right.  One could judge a teacher for missing her story and creating a Shame-and-Blame meeting without ever asking the questions. However, I can empathize. It's easy to believe that since I know a child's writing style, I know her voice. I'm sure I've missed backpacks full of toast because I saw myself as an expert on children and I never took the time to ask.
*     *     *
     I try and meet one-on-one with students during cooperative learning time (read: fancy educational jargon for group work). As students work on projects, I engage in a dialog about writing.
     “Some of your homonyms are getting in the way,” I explain.
     “What's that?”
     “Those are the words that sound alike. See, to you chips and ships sound the same. So, really, it would be hard to ride a chip, right?” I laugh and he gets quiet.
     “Don't worry, it's a common mistake with people who are from Mexico . . .”
     “My family is from Argentina,” he responds. “It's a whole different continent.” Thanks for the geography lesson, kid.
     We go through the editing process carefully and he gets fidgety when I tell him that it's impossible to get cancer from smocking. “Smoking does. But smocks, not so much. They don't usually give a person cancer.” I don't even get into "just barley" and the notion of grains participating in social justice.
     Finally, he says, “Why don't you write the paper for me? It's all beginning to sound like you anyway.”
     I don't know him. I don't know his story, his family or his culture. I am not yet trusted with the story that the night before his dad had been deported and in my desire to fix his writing, I fail to know him on a personal level.   I am not wrong in doing a conference, but I slip into the expert role too easily. I bulldoze his voice, asked no questions. It will take a few more months to regain his trust.
     Other times, it works better. These are the moments when I feel less like a dictionary and more like a listener who guides a student through the learning process.
*     *     *
     “Thanks for being honest about tagging in your article. It's not easy to share that with teachers. What can you tell me about this work?”
     “I worked hard on that article,” he adds. We talk for awhile about word choice and mechanics, ideas and insights. Eventually, I ask for the story.
     “Do you mind me asking this: Why do you tag?”
     “You wouldn't understand,” he answers.
     “You're right. I don't understand, but I'd like to.”
     “I want to be known. I want to have my name painted in big letters somewhere in the city. I want people to notice what I've done.”
     “But nobody knows that it's you.”
    “I guess I want to be known without having to be known.”
    When I tell Quinn this story, he says simply, “Don't we all?” We want anonymous stories, a painting of heroic tales. We want the ultimate trailer for a movie that might be a little too bland, but sounds just a little more interesting with a passionate voice narrating the key points, begging people to stop talking for a few hours and listen. We want to be known, but not completely.
     At one time, I would have taken the “you don't understand,” as a challenge. I would have written him off as a vandal and a thug, because it fit my initial prototype of student stories. When I started, I had this list of “student types.” There was the jock, the skater, the gangster, the nerd. It was pretty much Freaks and Geeks meets Saved by the Bell. Pretty sad, really, that I allowed television to shape my very conception of students.
     What happened, though, is that as I abandoned the expert role, things changed. I quit trying to become the critic-prophet in the crowded theater and students began to share. I quit trying to pry stories out of students and instead simply admitted that I don't have it all figured out. Don't get me wrong, I continued to engage in stereotyping and labeling and arrogant claims of relevancy. However, on good days, kids began to feel safe enough to share their stories.
     So, the expert tagger begins to share his story.  He's vague on the details and a little scared that I'll rat him out.  When I listen to his story, he listens a little closer to my advice on his writing. He uses my "transition list" to help him go beyond always using "also" and he busts out my Editing Checklist after he writes a draft.  He's open to improving his writing, because he believes his voice matters and he believes his voice matters, in part, because he believes someone will listen.
     It's when I admit that I don't know my students that I get a chance to know them and it's when I begin to know them that they trust me to teach them the basic skills they need.  True, the process is mysterious and sometimes I still screw it up.  However, when I check out a documentary or a mural or our Social Voice Blog, I'm reminded that taking the time to know a story will lead to deeper learning in the long run.
impact: from fireworks to fire works

we have an impact when we quit trying to make an impact

     Many of the teachers I know seem really focused on summer plans.  They bust out calendars and cross out big X's in red marker.  I can't blame them entirely.  Teachers are tired, kids are anxious we're in the beginning of another blazingly hot summer.  We're tired, every one of us. I can't even muster a simple, “hey guys” or stern look when kids spray water at one another.
     Despite all of this, I always feel the need to finish hard.  I pack the end of the year with more service projects, a documentary and a major art project.  I teach my favorite, most practical unit and I don't show videos. This is the time for guest speakers and debates and a “mocumentary” on how the economic downturn has hurt the sock puppet population.
     I realize I might sound a little self-righteous, but it's my method of survival.  Weeks go by faster when I'm passionate about a project. I could be wrong, but it seems that students are less apathetic.  It's not that students are tired of learning at the end of the year.  It's that they're tired of school. So, I turn my class into a counter-school project and I finish with a smile.
     I suspect it's something else, though. It's an act of penance for all the times I checked e-mail during Bell Work or I pretended to listen to a long, meandering story from a student who wanted to visit while I was out on duty. It's make-up time for the instances when I promised a service project and then gave up when I hit a wall of bureaucracy or the days I spent my prep period taking off to QT for forty-four ounces of artificial happiness.
     Even when I attempt to finish hard, I always have a nagging sense of guilt.  It's strange, I know.  I believe in grace.  I wasn't raised around angry nuns who shamed me and hit me with rulers.  I don't think I have a Freedom Writers styled hero complex, either. I get it. It's not my job to save the world.    
     Still, in the middle of May, I always feel that I should have done more.  I should have given better feedback on work. I see some students and think, "I hardly know you," and I shudder at the thought that some are slipping through unnoticed and unknown. It's a dangerous place for me to dwell. If I believe my job is to make a difference, I will end up in arrogance or despair. I'll either view myself as Atlas, holding up a broken world with my duct-tape solutions or I'll slip into Sisiphus rolling back an enormous rock, growing depressed with the cavern I've dug for myself below. I'll decide to give up when I see a backpack full of toast and I'll consider walking away from the crowded theater or the dark cave.
*     *     *
     So, it's one of those prep periods where Javi and I both need to get away from the reality of flickering florescent lights and word walls and binders. We drive to the convenience stores for the artificial happiness. In the parking lot, a man yells out, “Mr. Spencer.”
     “You don't remember me, do you?” he asks.
     “I'm sorry, I don't.”
     “I was this big when I was in your class,” he adds, holding his hand down low.
     “I graduated. Remember when you said you thought I could do it? You wrote that note to each kid at the end of the year. I kept that . . .” his voice trails off and he gets nervous. It's an awkward moment in a convenience store parking lot and I don't make it any easier with my silence.
     “Hey, remember the time you did the career philosophies? I remember that I had wanted a job that would make a lot of money, but you mentioned the vocational idea of a job that would fit my beliefs and personality.”
     “So what job are you thinking you want to do in the future?”
      “I remember you said that you'd be sad if your students lived meaningless lives as accountants.” It's true. I once knew an accountant who said some jobs are dangerous because they can take one's body, but accounting was a job that can take one's soul.  It was a joke, but he took it seriously.         
    “I vaguely remember that,” I add.
    “Well, I want to be an accountant. I think it's really meaningful. It's creative. I can solve problems, real problems that aren't just ideas. Plus, it's the right kind of career for a guy like me.”
     “I'm sorry I insulted your future career,” I add.
     “No, don't be sorry. You made a difference. I never would have done service projects if it weren't for your class. I still volunteer each week in the food bank.”
     As we drive off, Javi reminds me that it's a rare moment. Most stories are left incomplete. I never know if I made a difference. I never know whose feelings I hurt or who I encouraged. It's a blurry picture. I made a difference in an unexpected way. I simply tried to teach him. My desire wasn't to change his life, but to serve him. Yet, when I abandoned the notion of having an impact, I made a difference.
*     *     *
     I think of that moment when I meet with Brad after his first semester teaching Family and Consumer Sciences.
     “John, I get letters from students thanking me for lessons I taught.”
     “Was your goal to make a difference?”
     “I guess I wanted to make a difference, but I knew that I was dealing with people. They aren't Play-Dough for me to mold. They are humans and we cannot control what they will do with how I teach. The best I can do is be faithful and serve and the mysterious part is that I occasionally make a difference in the process.”
     “John, some of the kids in my class fell asleep. Heads on the table, eyes closed, out. Some listened. Do you think I had total control of that? There's a freedom when you realize that you can't change people, but simply being there can help them change. It's confusing and messy.”
     “So what is your goal then?”
     “If students begin to ask themselves 'why' because they were in my class, I'd be satisfied.”
     Doyle mentions setting bugs inside of jars for students to observe. His goals are humble. If just one of them picks up a rock on the way home from school and observes a little critter, he's made a difference. He's not out to create scholarly scientists and develop the future in technological innovation. He simply wants students to observe their world.
     But here's the rub: he'll never know. He can't measure if he's made a difference. Sure, a few students might come back and tell him that they fell in love with science when they sat in his class, but many more won't. It's a crap-shoot.

*     *     *
     I'm lousy at trying to start a fire.  Blame it on my suburban upbringing or my lack of tactile learning or the fact that I never joined Boy Scouts. I begin too big, with large logs and lots of smoke.  Sometimes I cheat by trying to douse the wood with lighter fluid.  Christy, however, seems to have a method.  It begins with smaller wood, some starter sticks and a little flame.  After awhile, the fire grows until, without realizing it, we have something warm and powerful and capable of turning an ordinary marshmallow into something magical.  I'm not exactly sure how fire works, but it seems to be the opposite approach to fireworks.
      Fireworks are more entertaining - huge explosive displays of color, ear-splitting booms, the murmuring of "oohs" and "ahhs."  I realize they are technical and scientific, but to the person using fireworks at home, they are simple compared to starting a fire.  Light a fuse and watch the explosion.
     In sitting in front of a fire in an Autumn evening, my mind meanders to teacher movies.  They seem to glorify the firework approach to teacher.  The character, a Lone Ranger prototype, ascends to the furthest reaches of the sky and passionately explodes with huge results.  They're loud and colorful and entertaining. Yet, like fireworks, the teachers only last a few years.  Whether it's Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers, each career takes the firework approach of amazing results followed by a burn-out from the profession.
     I can't blame Hollywood.  Watching the dedicated veteran teachers grade a stack of papers wouldn't be much of a box office draw.  However, I want to be a teacher with a working fire - with a steady passion that lasts a career.  Instead of a loud, thundering message and a flashy display of lights, I want to be a steady fire that can maintain a small community and provide a platform for dialogue.  The best campfires do not provide attention to themselves, but serve as a place of warmth where others can grow close together. It's a slow impact and on tough days it it's completely thankless. A firework show might be more entertaining, but a long campfire is more memorable if, for no other reason, it's more authentic.

*     *     *
In my first year of teaching I develop a plan to “create civic-minded community leaders.” (For what it's worth, I already cringe at the word “create” here.) As a result, I demand that every child completes four hours of community service per quarter. Just for a little extra proof, I glance at the bar graphs and smile at the difference I am able to make. “I want the community to know that my generation isn't selfish,” one boy wrote.
     So it's the end of the third quarter of that first year and I overhear a student ask about the reflections. “Make sure to put something about how life-changing service is. He digs that kind-of mushy stuff. Say it made you less selfish and it's changed you forever.”
     The other student says, “That's a good idea. I think he wants to turn us all into Cesar Chavez or something. Can't we just be normal kids?”
      My first response is anger. How dare they resent the service project? After all, I've worked really hard planning weekend projects? I thought of it as a social contract instead of a crap-shoot. I had expected my students to take on a paradigm of slow and subtle service and yet I had modeled fireworks. I had pushed hard to change them and they pushed back with the desire for normalcy.
*     *     *
     I have a boy in my fourth hour who is pulling an A, but is failing all his other classes.  He drew about half of the icons on our Social Voice blog. When he first arrived in my class, I asked him about his sketch book and he said he would enjoy doing a few drawings for our website.
     His globalization collage is amazing, but his description is even better, "We smashed the world into pieces, leaving shards of culture and humanity and politics.  To make money, we chopped it like an onion and made our own global pico de gallo.  It was tasty at first, but now we're realizing that we're not whole."
     I didn't shape him into a little social justice artist.  Instead, I allowed that part to move to the surface.  I engaged him in conversations about life and when he realized I wasn't trying to convert him into my philosophy, he allowed me to speak some truth into his life. Slowly, he started attending service projects. However, if I had mandated it from the beginning, he would have done so grudgingly or simply checked out in apathy.
     I would love to claim his story as a success, but I have completely lost touch with him. Ultimately, that's the humbling part. It's the scary reality that I may or may not have made a difference and I'll never really know. It's a crap-shoot.
wisdom: nothing to teach

I become the expert when I quit trying to be the expert

There is a certain type of English teacher who loves the subject, not because of the power of the written word, but because words can feel like a candy store or a trendy coffee shop where you are part of the in-crowd if you never make the mistake of using “your” instead of “you're” and they give you high-fives and fist-bumps for ridding the world of dangling participles.

There is a certain type of math teacher who loves the subject, not because of the power and practicality of numbers, but because it feels fun to live life by an algorithm and have a binary set of yes or no answers dividing through the messy mystery of life.

There is a certain type of science teacher who loves science, not out of the acquaintance with life and death, but because it is fun to feel like you're in the smart people camp and talk research and data and laugh at those who believe in the lyrical poetry of Genesis (the book and not the once-popular power ballad band of the eighties).

There is a certain type of history teacher who loves the subject, not because of the power of story and the danger of ever-shifting public memory, but because it is fun to dress in Civil War regalia and imagine a nostalgic glory day that never existed and it is convenient to use dead men as talking points on a crusade of indoctrination.

It's novelty, affinity, perhaps even comfort, but it isn't love. The subject is a warm blanket or a cozy pair of slippers or, on the best days, a golden lab that wags her tail and tells you that the world is not as broken as it first appears as long as knowledge remains manageable and measurable and tidy.

At some point, if a teacher is attentive, the paradigm changes. Perhaps the English teacher is in a conversation and finally realizes that words shape reality.  The math teacher sees the loaded, often political reality of data-twisters and now math becomes terrifying.  The history teacher sees an event effect the "people from below" and grasps intuitively, the sense of connection with the larger human story.  The science teacher smells death for the first time - real death, unleashed, outside of a jar, lacking any scent of formaldehyde - and sees the life cycle, not as a diagram, but as a vapor.

It is in these moments that the teacher realizes that the knowledge is not bound to a textbook or a set of standards or a curriculum map.  It is a mystery, not in the New Age, “let’s light some incense and play Enya” kind of mystery, but in the jagged, uncomfortable, “adjust your tie since it makes you sweat and tremble” kind of way.

When I first began teaching, I viewed the subject as exactly that – a subject, a slave, something that could be chained down and tamed.

*      *      *

I introduce our school counselor, who was a few blocks away when the 9-11 terrorist attacks happened. She shares the human side of the story - the fear and anguish, the unity that ensued when people welcomed strangers into their cars. She mentions the white powder that covered everything and warns us that she the real white powder covering everything now is the way we have trivialized the event with action movies.

She never gets sentimental and her delivery is a bit unemotional, but a few of the kids begin to cry when she talks about the classmates she lost. "New York might be a big city. But everyone knew someone who died in the World Trade Center." When she leaves, one girl remarks, "I thought I knew about 9-11, but all I knew was the overall causes of it. I never knew what it was like for a regular New Yorker. I think I'm beginning to understand the even when I admit that I don't understand it."

When I tell Doyle this story, he responds, “I've wondered how the rest of the world sees it--everyone here knows of someone lost or a relative who lost someone. I spent the day on Liberty Island waiting for wounded that never came. I fear we will make a cartoon of it before much longer, just as we now have cartoon versions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus. We're good at rewriting history, even as it happens. And that might be the biggest lesson of all on September 11.”
If my students learned anything that day it is to come to terms with the fact that knowledge begins when they face their own ignorance, by humbly stepping down from the expert role.

*     *     *

Joel asks if we can do an experiment.  His latest favorite phrase is "let's test a hypothesis."  It can be anything, really.  "Will the remote work without batteries, Micah? My hypothesis is no it won't." or “If daddy tries an olive, will he hate it? My hypothesis is that he won't like it.” So, I ask him what we should test and he explains that we should test what floats, so he goes on a scavenger hunt for items that will and will not float.

“This lemon will not float, daddy, it's too heavy.”  When it floats, he looks shocked.  "It's heavy and it doesn't have air in it.  Most things that float have air in them."

I drop in a paper clip.  "How come the paper clip sinks and the lemon floats? The lemon is heavier."
How do you explain buoyancy forces to a four year old? How do you explain the forces of friction? The truth is you don't have to. The power is in the process and not in the lecture.

“I'm not really sure how to explain it.”

“That's okay, daddy, neither do I,” he answers.

He pauses for a second and asks, “Will more things float if it's salty water?”

“I don't know.”

“You're joking me, right?” So we try it with salt water. He then asks about Jello and chocolate syrup and hot lava and each time I have to admit that I don't know. I can't think of the last time I've used that phrase with students.

So, Johnny is enrolled in our local university, sitting in a dorm room when he tells me that he thought he was an expert until he reached college. “I became really good at finding the answers, but I also learned to lose the questions.” I get it. If I want my students to pursue a real education, I don't need high test scores. I need scientists asking why things float or citizens taking the time to draw out the story from a tragic event or a child who admits that they haven't figured out the universe. I need my students to embrace the mystery of what they are learning.