Paul Steffan: Education of a Teacher

At the end of this teaching life all I will have is what I've left behind of me. 

Saturday October 3, 2015

How Much Do We Value Our Inconveniences?

 How much we pride ourselves on our values can be measured by how much we practice them against our own inconveniences. For instance, many teachers preach to their students about environmentalism, climate change, and the eroding nature of the rain forest. These are, to be sure, important real life problems that do not seem to be on the brink of being solved. But our own sense of self-importance can get in the way of practicing these values on a daily basis.

 Driving to school is one example. Wouldn’t it be better to partake in the public transportation system? But there are many excuses why a particular teacher will not do so. Public transportation in my area is sketchy, too many connections; I will arrive late, have to wake up too early, my kids need to get dropped off at grandma’s, the nursery, the other school; I can’t be travelling all day, I need to get to school on time to teach my students. This isn’t an all out criticism of teachers being hypocrites, but rather, how we justify our inconvenient behavior to others when attempting to prove our own values.

 Our sense of self-importance allows us to scoff at big companies who pollute, countries that ignore treaties and protocols, but our own sacrifices are put into neat categories, such as those that are doable, and others, which are near impossible. We will recycle, reuse, maybe not cut the lawn or water the grass on some days, but when real time, real effort, real sacrifice is demanded in order to put values into practice how many live up to it?

 Values are measured not by what is easy, but what is hard. Values are not managed like a stock portfolio—trying to cope with the market and what is best for the wallet—but by a mindset of doing the right thing when no one is watching. Possibly it is just a modern contradiction that we live in? No one expects monk like attitudes, but surely, there is sometimes a living up to some sort of expectations—especially when preaching about saving the world from disaster in front of young people.

Sunday September 20, 2015


Vision is long term, but the slog is daily. There will be bad days. Combat these days and surround yourself with positive, open minded people.

Negativity and cynicism need to be cut free

LIKABILITY AND RESPECT
 These two words link. It is very difficult to respect someone you dislike. Why would you want to or have to put the effort in. Don't confuse authority automatically with expertise. These same tenets play out in the classroom. Students must believe that you believe in them. They must buy into what you are selling. Teachers who say that I don't care if my students like me or not are confused. There is a big difference between being friendly and being friends. Friends are your peers, but being kind and caring applies to all age levels. 

KNOWLEDGE
 Have a deep and comprehensive knowledge of your subject matter and have the ability to teach it at the level in your charge. These two combine. The ability to not only transmit the teaching, but the reasons why it is important and why you love it will come through to your students. 

PASSION
 One of the most overused words in our daily life. We tell people to follow their passion, but at the same time we know that most adults in the working world do not enjoy their jobs. This isn't hypocritical or even contradictory. Rather, these are choices that people must make on a seemingly day to day basis that leads into years as a question of survival. 


 So as teachers we should not only love and believe in what we do, but by doing so we will change our schools and our students for the better. We are here not to change education, but to change the world.

 Go big and fail. This is a risk, but at the end of your career what will you look back on?

AGENT OF CHANGE
 A willingness to change course along with your students to show that teaching and learning is not static. The best laid plans sometimes come across accidentally, by happenstance. Embrace it and lead change. Staying the course when the course feels wrong is harmful. 

 Boldness: Think big. Be audacious. Leave the little stuff and go for it. Don't just leave footprints and fingerprints that get washed away by the changing tides. Build a legacy

Sunday October 18, 2015

Athletes and Gamers: An Opinion on Biases in Determining Passion and Obsession

 In education the intersection of hypocritical and disingenuous is littered with outdated values disguised in language to suit the needs of a particular, but often powerful, subset. This seems obvious in how we not only delineate two terms, passion and obsession, but what educational paradigms we elect to place them in. In schools, teachers are constantly exhorting students to live their lives with passion, to follow their passions, to be passionate about something and that passion will bring their life meaning. All well intentioned, but unfortunately, these decent intentions seem to be guided by the prevailing winds of society and our own biases. It is what we legitimatize that shows off not only our school colors, but what our schools value. Permit me to introduce the athletes versus the gamers.

 Take, for example, a well to do school where competitive sports are important. In some respects, this school represents a larger part of society. Many of the staff

who partake in the competitive nature of sports more than likely will enjoy not only the competition, but see it as fuel to further personal development and excellence. In fact, competition to their mind is inherent in children and adults. Take it out of a school and you are not only eliminating a part of real life, but hurting students’ futures by removing a necessary function in order to live, gain status, and move ahead in life. Many staff members will look to professional sports, not as guidance per se, but as an honorable way to live life, and if the breaks and opportunities fall correctly, the ultimate goal. It is not only the fulfilment of athletic and school achievement; it is the genuine belief sport creates a fundamentally better person than those who do not partake.


 Those involved will espouse an elite view of sport that will distinctly divide them from the rest of the school. Whether this is intentional or not, is most probably beside the point. What it is, I believe, is the elevation of sport, at a young age, to demonstrate not only the beauty and physicality of the human form, but also the separation from the ones who can from those who cannot. While this can be seen as a statement of fact is not the real point. There is no actual dispute about this. 

 The point is that the problem is much more attitudinal. Sport, it clearly seems, is allowed to invent its own persona in educational institutes. Unmistakably we see

this in American universities. But this persona is also present in high schools and elementary schools. The worshipping of the body to exert itself is much more valued than the exertion of the mind. Awards and rewards for first, second, third and beyond are cherished. Sports need to have losers in order for the obligatory celebrations to occur. In the classroom, where learning is paramount, the need for also-rans has been vacated in order for all to succeed on their own level. In the classroom, everyone receives their own trophy according to their abilities.

 It is what we view as important that gets placed in front of the school. Physical excellence is prized not only highly, but also as an indispensable part of some schools. With that prevailing perspective it begets more and more attention. Whereas once the physical pursuit itself was prized, it is now the winning. We crave this winning as it proves the worth of not only the player, the team and the program, but of the school itself. When winning becomes the goal, the irony is that no longer does the physical excellence, or doing one’s best prized, but instead it is the awards and subsequent adulation which is prized. The lines that meet to form the corners are met; how they get there is secondary.

 This in turn skews our own perspective as to why competitive sports belong in schools. Sports no longer complement, but compete—often vigorously—against the school’s academic programs. No longer are sports viewed as an additional function that benefits students, but as a competition against the reason it was allowed to breathe and stay alive in the beginning. We have high schools, which under the guise of educational institutions have become de facto feeding factories for high performing universities. This is not new news. The student athlete was born, but in the truest sense, we have the young, future (and often sold to the student) professional star. If they don’t make it as an adult that is fine, too. They are sold not only the sports makes a better person story, but in the pride it affords them and to their school. They are part of the machine. It is hard to confront the monster that you helped create. But is there a price to pay to this beast?

 In the 2005-6 American school year over 7 million students actively played in competitive sports in high school. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), “High school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations annually.” High school football accounts for over forty percent of high school sports concussions in the United States. Between the ages of 15 and 24 the second leading cause of brain trauma is sports related. The first cause? Car crashes. The CDC, with its affiliates, support and train schools in high school injuries and sign of concussions. This is good of course. But that, in itself, is the point.


 The institutions recognize the inherent danger of many of the sports. They are trying to recognize injuries when they happen. Some even are trying to see how

players can be protected during games. The one thing they aren’t trying to do is to think about a simple, but to them, a horrifying, yet never asked question: what is the worth of all these injuries?

 For contrast, we would view gaming as an obsession, one with little individual, let alone, societal value. It is a danger to the fabric of the mind of a young person. Physical concussions may be ignored as part and parcel of the sports mindset, or more commonly as a necessary byproduct of being a young man, but gaming is viewed as a corruption of a young person’s mind from almost the first game, to the endless games that a young person plays. Now, this is not a speech on the virtues of endless gaming, but instead a view that it isn’t the activity that gets scrutinized as much as our own biases are never questioned on either side of the street.

 Students who go home and game online and connect to others in the world are often viewed by schools and parents as loners; socially inept, obsessed, unable to relate to others, and as having a problem. Compared to their sporting peers they do not even have a chance to defend their interests, as the biases against them are insurmountable. Online poker, which was seen as in the same domain as gaming, has taken on a sort of mainstream acceptance; not because people originally overcame their biases, but because there was a competitive, and more importantly, a financial market, for these young (mostly male) players to excel. Just as sport can make a few financially viable, online poker offers the same incentives. We prize the young athletes, even if they don’t make it pro, and exhort that they will have life long benefits, while ignoring the physical ailments, or, and this is important to note, prize and brag about the injuries, even the concussions. Talk about not remembering is not seen as worrisome, (except in private) but rather as the proverbial badge of honor. Gamers or online poker players who do not financially succeed are seen as potential wasted, a useless life, not as young adults who are pursuing passion, but as obsessives who are crippling their lives. Our institutionalization of sports allows those who crave to play as young adults an avenue. Gamers, slowly and surely, are trying to grab some of the spotlight.

 In the gaming world, though, the deficits are immediately identified in teenagers, and, said to accelerate dysfunction when one enters adulthood. Any benefit is summarily defeated as unrealistic and useless. The refusal to see our biases at work in both cases does not help a dialogue from happening. It institutionalizes the in crowd and the out crowd at school. While some may indulge in both, it is only the passionate ones in sport, with full support of the educational institutions that is allowed the prestigious status. Gamers are viewed in a sad light, as young people who either have, or will have, severe social and mental problems. It is only with the legitimatization of the market for online poker players has it been allowed to shed some of its baggage. And it is still not viewed by those who live in the sporting sphere to acknowledge that there is an equivalent nature to both worlds. The bias, which acknowledges the financial rewards of a gamer, is still reluctant to value any inherent value it brings to human life, let alone to a school setting.

 So in the end we view the sporting world in schools as a passion. It has a longer history and tradition to be sure which is upheld as unique and honorable to a school. After all, no one puts gaming awards up in the school trophy case. The gamer’s unique individualization, the physical isolation of being in a room by oneself, but at the same time inimitably connected to others in similar rooms, is either dismissed or seen as perverse—something to be fixed. It is not to be celebrated, but something to be shelved, scorned, pitied, and above all, looked upon not as a passion, but as an obsession that needs to be eradicated so the young person can learn to be a well functioning member of the school and society at large.

 Gamers are in essence asked, more probably ordered, not to play their games and not follow their passion in order for entrenched biases to be confirmed and for the status quo to play out until the next whistle starts the only legitimate game allowed in schools. Injuries be damned.