On May 29, 1953, the two men pictured above became the first human beings to set foot on Mount Everest. During their ascent they battled weather, temperatures, ice, and odds, achieving a victory that many of their contemporaries considered humanly impossible.
In this article I seek not to diminish the accomplishments of Hillary (above left) and Norgay (right), but I do intend to prove that, in at least one very significant way, the earnest teacher has a much greater challenge than those two did.
A Clear, Focused Goal
Though the execution of it was unprecedented, Hillary and Norgay’s goal was beautifully simple: they intended to set foot atop the Earth’s highest place. I can explain their accomplishment to my four-year-old, and she can comprehend it with accuracy.
Yet when I attempt to explain to my four-year-old, with similar accuracy and clarity, what it is that I tried to accomplish as a teacher this past school year, I’m hard-pressed. This past year, I didn’t aim at a single Everest — I aimed at thousands.
Thousands of Everests
According to my state and district, my job is to ensure that students make adequate yearly progress toward benchmark scores on standardized tests. At the start of this school year, that mainly meant helping my ninth grade students develop the reading and writing abilities to test as college/career ready on the ACT Reading, English, and Writing tests they would take in two years.
However, midway through the year, my state announced a switch to the SAT. The tectonic plates shifted; Everest moved. And I won’t get into the past few years’ fluctuations in “Common-Core-aligned” testing that my state has had planned for students. First, it was the Smarter-Balanced test; then it became MSTEP. I’m not seeking to cast aspersion onto policymakers — their job is hard. It is what it is.
Meanwhile, my district has goals, and my building has goals, and my departments have goals. Oftentimes and to the credit of the fine people of Cedar Springs Public Schools, these goals align, making them less a conglomeration of disparate Everests and more a series of base camps along the path of ascent. Still — it’s a lot to keep track of.
And then let’s talk about that one group of people in schools — you know, the students, the kids we got into this gig to serve, the human beings who often get lost in the high-level goals and policy decisions. No matter how many generations of standardized tests we come up with, every kid’s Everest is different. Damion may end up a carpenter, or a YouTuber, or both. Mikelle could be an artist, an architect, or a work-from-home mom. How do we connect our courses — world history, English, algebra, band — with our students and their long-term vocations? How do we keep students engaged, motivated, “bought in” to the work they’re doing in our rooms? How do we help them learn about themselves and their lives while debating whether Genghis Khan was a positive or negative force in world history?
These questions are crucial because, for me, the most important Everests at which I aim are those vocations many of my students have yet to discover — it’s the calling that Rashad will land at midway through his twenties; it’s the children Marlena will find herself raising as a 30-year-old woman several years into a promising career.
This is what I mean by long-term flourishing. This is the actual point of schools, though it’s hard to collect data on.
“How are the freshmen?”
Ever have those students who ask you the same. beloved. questions. every. day?
“Hey, Mr. Stuart, what’s up?”
“Hey, Mr. Stuart, what are you doing?”
“Hey, Mr. Stuart, how are the freshmen?”
For whatever reason, that last question resounded this past fall. My students from the prior year seemed obsessed with asking it — how are they? how are they? how are the new freshmen?
The fact is that I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. I heard a coach say once, when asked how this year’s team was, “Ask me in twenty years. Let me see what kinds of men they are, what kind of lives they lead, how attentive they are as fathers.”
That sounds about right. Ask me in twenty years if I was successful during the 2014-2015 school year, if I did my job, which is to be one more encouraging, empowering adult in a child’s schooling, to be one more teacher who shows them how to think, read, write, speak, and develop character.
Data isn’t the devil; there is a science to this job, and we need to be students of that science and doers of that science: making and testing hypotheses, analyzing the results, debating with our peers about what the numbers really tell us.
But Everest for us is way more than data points and school categorizations, and if we as educators don’t define Everest for ourselves — if we don’t, in a single sentence, reduce our work into its essence — I think we’re way more likely to lose ourselves in this job. The times when I became most burnt out this past year were the times when I most lost sight of my own definition of Everest.
So how do we do that?
Given the complexity of what it means to be college, career, and — as Carol Jago put it last year at NCTE — life ready, I think the best way to do our best work in classes of 30 or so diverse learners is to establish high expectations for broad skill & knowledge development in our kids. As an English and history teacher, this means being clear about
- the most critical literacy skills,
- the most critical thinking skills,
- the most critical character skills,
- and the most critical content knowledge for the classes I teach (e.g., in English, how to place a comma; in history, the ten power standards our course-level team has decided upon [a la Schmoker])
The clearer we can be about these things and the more focused we can be about these things, the more doable our job becomes; the more sensible our students’ K-12 experience becomes; the more teachers we have in our schools who operate closest to their potential.
We need to define Everest; we need to be specific and picky about what our students will become excellent at this year in math or art or physical education. It may never be as clear as it was for Hillary and Norgay, but I know we can do better than we are right now.