Interesting problems: the different priorities of teachers and non-teachers who want to change education

This is an ambiguous title, for which I apologize. It is meant to imply both "teachers who are interested in education" and "non-teachers who are interested in education". 

Until this autumn, I was a "non-teacher who was interested in education", now I'm a teacher. On the morning that I'm writing this, I have regained some of the luxury of my old job, because today all of the first-year teachers at the chain of shools where I work are going to a "Winter Odyssey" to reflect on what we've all been doing so far. 

As a result, at 7:56 in the morning I'm sitting at the kitchen table writing this, having been inspired to write it by the New Yorker article I was just reading. I had the extraordinary luxury of waking up at 6:15 (an hour later than usual) and today (a tightly-scheduled set of workshops in which we will be discussing our classes in detail, and sharing work that our students have created) feels, to every single new teacher I've spoken to, like a vacation. 

What I'm realizing at this moment is how little time for reflection I have most of the time. Teaching is, to a great extent, and adrenaline-based reflection. It is one of those jobs, like acting, being a chef, and sales, where to be at work is to be be "on". These jobs are precisely the opposite of research jobs. 

So now I'm reflecting. I've just been reading a New Yorker profile of education campaigner Diane Ravitch (paywalled, unfortunately), and one innocuous-looking paragraph stopped me in my tracks:

One of the constants in Ravitch's thinking, throughout its evolution, has been a demand for a rich, challenging, and varied academic curriculum [...] for all students. In part, the education debate can now be seen as a clash between Bill Gates's technocratic notion of Americas needs [...] and Ravitch's humanistic ideal of the well-rounded citizen.

I read this and immediately thought "it takes a WHOLE lot more than a well-rounded curriculum to develop a well-rounded citizen." Now, so far, "researcher me" and "teacher me" are in accord on this: we both believe that pedagogy is criminally undervalued in these debates in favor of "curriculum", and, pedagogically speaking, we are both advocates of project-based learning*. But here's where things change:

Researcher me says "design powerful projects that different students can access in different ways, and then guide your students through the project, and they'll be on the road to becoming well-rounded citizens". 

Teacher me says "OK, thanks, but three kids don't seem to have an access point for this project and aren't interested, one kid is continuing to struggle with organization and it's really making it hard for them to achieve anything else, several just keep seeming to fade into the background, and meanwhile a few kids are just making progress that's leaps and bounds beyond anyone else!" 

Here's what teacher me's anxiety boils down to: "Whatever ideology drives my vision of education, whatever pedagogy I espouse, the progress that my students make is dependent on my ability to provide them with the structures and support that they all need in real time. When I was a researcher, the basic unit of time I focused on was the year (or, more fine-grained, the six-week project). As a teacher I design multi-week projects, I plan the week, I outline the two-hour class, but the most important unit of time is the minute - if not the second. Nothing feels more important than what the kids are doing, and I am doing, right now. And if my awareness is blinkered, or my judgment is off, I'm not helping kids. 

Of course, the good thing about this is that if this moment is important, so are all the other moments, and I have plenty of opportunities to fix my mistakes. But what matters most to me now is not the big structural changes that I used to advocate for in schools, and which, I felt, were pretty much guaranteed to improve kids' life changes. What matters most to me now is what happens, in the words of Matthew Moss Headteacher Andy Raymer, "on a wet Thursday afternoon."


*and student-driven enquiry as well