cleverness

Gradfessional Development

I spent most of last week attending an Advanced Placement (TM) Summer Institute, a training program for teachers who teach AP courses. I spent a week doing it last summer, too, with no idea that I’d be teaching it two months later. This year, I went to the session for new and returning teachers, which made it a bit of a grab-bag. I was at a table with a middle school teacher who was simultaneously moving up to high school and about to teach AP Literature as a one-semester class, a teacher who’d gone to the same session I did last summer (and was, like me, one year into teaching AP), and a third who was about to teach AP for the first time. Between the four of us, we had two collective years of teaching AP Literature.

There was a lot more experience in the room, though, people who’d been teaching AP English courses (Language or Literature) for long enough that they really had to work to count up their years of experience. We didn’t really get into which degrees people had, but it came up in passing that a few people had masters degrees (in either English or education). That’s relatively common; a postgraduate degree in your field gets you a pay bump in most districts. (Aside: my summer courses back in Bowling Green were full of music teachers because, in Ohio, teachers were required to get a masters degree within a certain number of years of starting teaching.)

Professional development—and this institute was 30 hours of professional development—is always a mixed bag. It’s common to go a whole day and pick up perhaps five to ten minutes’ worth of stuff you might use. The AP summer institutes, thankfully, are better than that. Even so, there was a lot of repetition. A lot of margins filled with spirals and such:

DSCF3826

From day one, the slowest day, and one on which the slow crawl of my doodles across the page became a spectator sport for the next table over. And the consultant leading the workshop.

We frequently broke to work with our groups (our tables). Those situations had me thinking about my smartest person in the room post. Graduate school and inclination make articulating snap analyses quick for me. Most of the time, I can come up with something that at least sounds smart very quickly. By the second day, I was intentionally backing away from my group because they’d already started to look to me for answers. (I did my best to be a good teacher and ask questions instead.) The situation made me a little crazy, not because my group members were awful (they were great!), but because it frequently put me on the spot in ways that encouraged me to indulge in bad grad school habits. My responses curved back toward my old seminar self and a need to prove not only that my readings were good, but that they were particularly good and that I was particular smart. In among my notes, I wrote a short poem:

I think fast, get to my answers

Fast

Like a fox

Especially when they are wrong

Too clever by half in half the time.

Even when I want wisdom,

I want for wisdom.

As much as I miss some of graduate school—the discoveries, the fun parts of research, the camaraderie—I don’t miss analysis as a competitive sport. As we slogged through sample texts and sample student essays, the institute participants got there. Also from my notes: “By the end of the day, we frequently descended to the worst of ourselves, quibbling like grad students over the minutiae of texts, forcing literature into the procrustean bed of the Hero’s Journey.” English teachers are articulate. We grasp the basics of texts quickly. We also have a related capacity to give slight disagreements undue significance. Doing this to texts is a big chunk of the reason I didn’t go to grad school for English…never expecting that I’d end up in music history and comparative studies, where the arguments just as frequently hop back and forth across the line between inane and inspired.

You know where else I heard lots of self-serving cleverness mixed in with cool stuff? Academic conferences. Those are as close as higher ed faculty usually come to the kind of professional development required of secondary teachers. From my current side of the fence, that seems so weird. Professors aren’t obligated to know how to teach. (That doesn’t mean they don’t, or that there aren’t many who take their teaching at least as seriously as their research, including writing books and giving seminars on pedagogy.) “Continuing education” is keeping up with your discipline. There is a whole section of a tenure portfolio or CV dedicated to “professional development,” but it again comes back around to conferences and committees, to research and knowledge and “scholar” as a profession.

Do I lose my thread? I lose my thread. Let it suffice that in the Venn diagram of secondary teachers’ professional development and academic conferences, there is a space of significant overlap having to do with cleverness and ways of displaying it.   

The thing is that none of the cleverness we participants performed for one another makes us,  in itself, better teachers. We don’t have to win arguments about literary meanings with each other, never mind with our students. We have to teach them to make those arguments in fruitful, responsible ways. Parts of the APSI did a great job of that; I picked up lesson plans and strategies that should help me help my students. Other parts didn’t. The squiggles in my margins testify to that.

When it comes down to it, teaching teaching is not so different from teaching writing: “here is what I did and how I did it and here are a bunch of ideas that might work for you.” There are technical details—what is on the AP test, how they’re scored, what the College Board requires in a syllabus—but so much of teaching is the delicate blend of performance, communication, and knowledge. I’m not going to lie: being clever helps. It’s the rest of the stuff, though, that I’m working to develop. Professionally.

Clever? Yes. Wise? Working on it.

Sometime during my sophomore year of college, I realized that being smart and speaking well were not perfectly correlated. One of my good friends–who has since had the most surprisingly adventurous life of my college gang–was pulling steady Bs without really trying. Grade inflation might have blunted that accomplishment, but this friend was taking a fairly serious slate of biology and Japanese classes. At a selective liberal arts college, you’re not supposed to be able to get away with that. This buddy of mine, though, was managing it even though he talked like a dairy farmer from Wisconsin (which he was). He was plenty smart.

Around the same time, I began to seriously think about wisdom. Being “smart” has always been easy for me. I’m particularly good at clever. (It’s the one way I feel like I’ve actually made an impression on my students so far.) I think fast. I mostly respond to new and changing situations with workable solutions.

Clever kept me afloat in grad school. I was good at the necessary half-bluffs of sounding like you know more than you really do. When something truly caught my interest, I could do a reasonable job of getting below the surface and thinking Big Thoughts about it. Day-to-day, though, I relied on being mentally quick rather than being intellectually strong.

Mental agility is pretty damn handy, but clever isn’t enough.

What I have been aspiring to, what I have written about intermittently for years in stuff that nobody sees, is wisdom.

The definition I’ve come up with most recently is this: wisdom is recognizing your feelings but understanding that they don’t have to rule you. This divide between thoughts and emotions crops up fairly often on the blog. Most often, it’s an intellectual understanding that things will get better, that I am capable, that I’ve overcome plenty of obstacles opposed to a feeling that everything will suck forever and I suck, too. When I’m at my most wise, I can recognize that distinction and use it as a source of strength.

Similar principles apply to dealing with people and situations. It’s easy to get angry about things. It’s often even easier to get angry at people. Maintaining some detachment from my emotions helps me control my responses to the people and situations that upset me.

Writing about “detachment” might seem to equate wisdom with coldness. Really, though, when I’m working on wisdom I’m usually able to respond in the best way. That’s most often a warm one–for both practical and ethical purposes. Wisdom becomes a precursor to kindness and humanity. When I act with wisdom, I can do what’s best rather than what I feel like doing.

That’s what I aim for, anyway. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, in part because I’m still working on the more practical wisdom of getting enough sleep and exercise and eating the right food. Wisdom is hard when the body’s playing catch up. It’s hard to be wise when you’re in your third consecutive hour of 30 eighth graders in a small room. Mostly, it’s hard to be wise because we’re still toting around a lot of neurological wiring that kept us alive thousands of generations ago.

That doesn’t stop me from trying. It is, as I tell my kids (and my students) the only way to get better.