Sunday, August 07, 2011

How Do You Measure Success?


If you read my previous post (straight through to the end), then you saw my call to action where I shared Education Nation's teacher essay contest. Hoping to help others feel more empowered and not sure how many of my readers already knew of the contest, I was hoping to spread the word so that we could get more in-the-trenches-educator voices to this very important conversation in September. I added, if anyone was interested in sharing their essay with me, I promised to consider it for publication here (and on my space on Huffington Post). 

I'm thrilled to share with you this essay from Daniel Hamm, a Social Studies and Communications instructor in Louisville, KY. (Best of luck to you, Daniel! Thanks for sharing your passionate essay.)

What are the biggest challenges you face in your job, and how do you measure your own success on a daily basis?

By Daniel Hamm
When a surgeon performs an operation well, the successful outcome is immediately recognized and understood by all.  When a trial attorney secures a “not guilty” verdict, it is easy to see that he or she has done a good job.  However, when an educator has successfully passed on vital knowledge or skills to a student, in most cases the only evidence is in the inner workings of the individual’s mind or years later in the application of skills to life challenges.  In a world that craves instant feedback and evidential certainty of every outcome, it has become increasing difficult to determine what constitutes “success” in the world of education.  Additionally, the challenges facing educators continue to mount and as each new problem adds to the complexity of the unresolved issues that preceded it, we search in vain for easy answers.  We are confronted with a problem that would confound the theoretical physics of Stephen Hawking, so we stare blankly at the board and answer, “thirteen.”  And everyone in the world, including us, knows we’re guessing. 
It is difficult to narrow down the challenges facing teachers today in an effort to decide which is the most important.  It would be much like saying which ingredient, if left out of your mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe, would make it the most inedible.  Each challenge facing an educator must be met with equal determination and with an approach targeted to the situation.  However, every list has an order, or perhaps more accurately, every building has a foundation. The underlying challenge that must be faced is a radical misunderstanding of human nature that has infected education.   At some point in the relatively recent past, we became enamored of the idea that education is something that is “given.”  Despite all of the evidence and wisdom of thousands of years of educational practice, we arrived at the conclusion that there existed a magic formula for transferring quality education into an unwilling mind.  We focused our attention on a frantic quest for that formula so that no matter what the nature of the student in the classroom, the teacher could magically impart education to the individual.  It many ways it became the Holy Grail of educational theory.  Unfortunately, like the Holy Grail, this particular quest is doomed to failure.  It will never be possible to make students learn.  What may be possible, though, is to help students to want to learn.  This important perspective shift is what separates successful education from fruitless pedagogy.   We must realize that the motivation for successful learning will always be internal, therefore our practices as a profession and as a society must address the internal motivations of all participants in the education process.  Education must become something valued, and we rarely value what we are given for free.  We value even less what we feel has been imposed upon us, perhaps to our detriment. 
How can success in this regard be measured on a daily basis?  If by measured, one means charted, compared against a yardstick or calculated in a spreadsheet, then the answer is it cannot.  Growth is rarely radical.  Usually it is gradual; an infinitesimal process that defies the ability to notice it as it is happening but rather to recognize it after has occurred.  Such is the case with the development of a student’s internal motivation to learn.  Fortunately, there are outward signals that students give when we have begun to tap into their motivations.  When my students begin to ask questions that they did not find in their texts or hear in class, I can see that they are making connections and becoming curious for their own sakes.  Not surprisingly, they listen much more attentively to answers given to these questions.  When my students come to class and mention that they were listening to a song, watching a video or reading a story and they understood a concept in a new way by applying what they had learned in class, I am allowed to glimpse the internalization of their education.  When a student suggests a research concept or an approach to an issue that I would not have thought of, I realize that she has moved beyond anything I can “give” and into a world where she is in control of her learning, because she is motivated by her own needs, desires and curiosities. 
The successful teacher will never have the immediate satisfactory feedback of the successful surgeon or trial attorney.  He or she will have to wait, sometimes decades, sometimes forever, to know if the efforts were successful – if the challenges were overcome.   Success is recognized in much the same way in each case, however, in freedom:  freedom to live a healthy life, freedom to choose one’s own path, freedom to learn and understand.

Daniel Hamm
Social Studies and Communications Instructor, grades 11-12
Assumption High School
Louisville, KY

No comments: