Strengths or Weaknesses?

A young teacher, about to attend some job interviews, asked the Latin-BestPractices email list for advice about what to say if asked how Comprehensible Input approaches might impact students’ “college readiness.”  My first thought was, “Friend, if the school is looking for a teacher now, for this year, they are probably not in a position to ask those kinds of questions!”  My next thought was that I can’t remember being asked about teaching techniques in any job interview I ever had at a factory-model school.  Classroom management approaches?  Sure.  Philosophies of education or discipline?  Probably.  Familiarity with That Particular Textbook or with the Required State Curriculum?  Quite possibly.  But as I think of the school administrators I’ve known over the years, and of my friends who “have schools of their own” these days, it strikes me that most of them don’t have time, interest, or energy to delve deeply into different brands of world language pedagogy.

It might be different, of course, if you were a language teacher yourself in your “classroom days.” But as I read my young friend’s question, I wondered if there was a deeper question behind it … perhaps a question rooted in those issues of proficiency or perfection that inspired my post yesterday, or maybe a question related to strengths or weaknesses.

“I just know I bombed this,” said W after his Mid-Quarter Proficiency Check yesterday.  In fact, W had met all the requirements for the highest rubric level … but his response wasn’t perfect, at least from his point of view.  As I thought about W’s response and the fears some of my District Q and District Y students felt going into the proficiency check, I realized that they, too, had a deeper question related to strengths or weaknesses.

Where will we focus in this joyful learning community of ours, they were wondering?  Will we really focus on our strengths as we seem to be doing?  Or will we revert to What Schools Usually Do and focus relentlessly on our weaknesses?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I try hard to keep the focus on strengths.  Over time, weaknesses tend to mitigate themselves, or if we have ownership of the process, we find ways to leverage our strengths in our areas of weakness.  “I’m not good at tests,” a friend of mine in high school said, “so I make sure to do all my homework in Ms. X’s class, and I still end up with a pretty good grade.”  Another friend, who “tested well,” could “ignore the stupid, petty homework” and still do acceptably well in Mr. Y’s class.  And of course I’ve known dozens, even hundreds of Latin Family members over the years who leveraged their strengths in those ways, and many who leveraged strengths of other kinds.

But in the Age of High-Stakes Testing and Lots of Data, factory-model schools are ever more focused on weaknesses … and not on leveraging strengths to overcome them, either.  That focus obviously explains W’s concern: all he could see was “the word I didn’t know” or “the place where I think I messed up.”  But does a focus on weaknesses also explain the young teacher’s fear about that possible interview question?

I think it might.  My suspicion is that after years and years in a weakness-focused system, the young teacher expects everyone to focus on potential weaknesses all the time.  Having received calls from schools that describe themselves as “college preparatory,” he probably assumes that their mission is to prepare every student for the Latin program at Some Elite University … and he also probably assumes that the Powers That Be in those schools and districts know and care what the requirements of That Elite University are.  Two huge assumptions!  He also probably assumes that Latin instruction at all levels at That Elite University consists of naming the grammar and writing literal translations … and then it’s an easy step to fear that you won’t get The Job because They will “just know” you can’t deliver what They want.

“If you’re looking for someone to teach a traditional grammar-translation oriented Latin class, I’m not the person you’re looking for.”  I said that this summer to the folks at The Company when they initially approached me to see if I’d be interested in working with them to build the District Q and District Y programs.  “Oh, no,” they said, “that’s not what these districts want at all!  They want something innovative and cutting-edge.”  Unlike my young friend, I wasn’t afraid of a potential weakness; I was curious to see if we’d be a good fit for each other.

It’s a small difference in perspective, but it makes a huge difference.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I want to tell that young teacher.  He’s already received a number of helpful responses, and I’m not sure what I could add to their good advice.  My first thought was to ask if he’d want to work in a school whose priorities were totally different from his … but then I remembered a Much Younger Me who was looking for a job and didn’t think he could be choosy.  I thought about walking him through the chain of assumptions I’d seen in his question and asking if I was right … but I’m not sure that’s worth the time or the effort on his part or mine.

What I think I want to tell him (and all the other young teachers out there, and anyone who’s sad and dissatisfied in a school is that joyful learning community is worth seeking, worth building, and worth waiting for.  I heard from a friend at Former School the other day: “We miss you,” he said, “but we’re doing well.”  I miss some individual people there, but I don’t miss the Whole Thing … and I’m grateful for the new joyful learning communities that we’re building at District Q and District Y.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on October 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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