May I Please Find Mr V?

In China teachers typically have their work spaces in shared offices rather than in their classrooms. I have written elsewhere about the professional advantage this arrangement confers by making casual meetings among teachers easier. When closeness becomes a bit burden­some, there are ways to find peace and quiet at need; but most teachers do most of their work in the teachers’ offices.

At our school the Upper Division (grades 7 – 12) has three teachers’ offices, of which one is for the I.B. teachers. The first I.B. coordinator, who advised the architect on our educational needs as the building was under design and construction, and who occasionally got the architect to listen to his advice, insisted that there should be an intercom and P.A. system allowing students at the door of the office to ask to see their teachers.

Consequently, teachers work with an ear cocked to hear if students are asking for them. At four times of day—before the Morning Assembly, at recess and lunch, and after school—our office sounds a bit like an airport lobby, the main difference being that someone is actually listening. Outside the door we sometimes find a scrum of students and teachers, though for long talks or privacy, teachers take students to nearby rooms for sit-down meetings. The hubbub usually centers on assignments, upcoming tests and deadlines. Teachers sometimes set up boxes on the umbrella stand at the door so that students may turn in work even if they don’t see the assigning teacher on deadline day, or are working till the last minute (sigh).

My name has been popular on the intercom this week because the 12th-graders are doing their Theory of Knowledge presentations during class and in groups after school and on weekends. The presentations require a degree of abstraction and application that is comparatively new to them, at least in a culminating assessment, hence the questions. The need to adopt a position while balancing it with the judicious consideration of other perspectives on the same “knowledge issue” takes some getting used to. A gratifyingly large number of students are not just going to the internet to download potted talks, but that means that they have questions.

Yesterday I had a rather long talk with one of my 12th-graders. At a couple of points I thought I saw a head peer around the pylon to look in to the room where we were talking, but by the time I turned around, the head was gone. After our talk ended, the mystery head appeared again—this time attached to another one of my students. He has an aversion to speaking before large groups and is nervous presenting to a group of any size, so we had agreed that he would present alone after school. He was absent from class, so I thought he would be at home the whole day; but he showed up for his presentation date after all. The presentation was nervous, but not painful to watch—a minor triumph, if you will.

The obvious lesson of this week’s interactions with my students is that schools and teachers should be arranged or organized so that the possibility for such interaction is great rather than small. But there are a couple of other lessons, too. Every time a student meets a teacher for one of those scrum talks or a meeting in a nearby classroom, he is learning how to conduct himself with another, to shape a discussion, to handle himself socially—and, of course, to learn his lessons. None of this will be available to students at on-line or “virtual” “schools.”

The other lesson must come from an inference drawn from all this contact: that the students are engaged in their work enough to take extra measures to talk to teachers or to nail down their thoughts. I naturally hope that when I meet with students, I make the meetings worth their while. Good for me if I succeed. But much of the success is also due to the students: to their native gifts, their upbringing as engaged young people, the attentiveness they have acquired at home and from their prior academic experiences, their readiness to think through talking, their receptivity to spontaneity of thought. Some success is due to an accession of courage that comes from some imponderable source and gets them over an obstruction that had seemed insurmountable. “Value”- “added” “metrics” take account of none of these things. VAMs say only that if a student answers more multiple choice questions at the end of the year than at the beginning, his teacher is good; if not, not. Some not!


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