Thursday, October 21, 2010

The First Rule of Teaching: Do No Harm

It wasn't until I went on a field trip with my son and his eighth grade teacher that I started pondering the recent debates about how a teacher's performance in the classroom should be evaluated.
My son and his teacher, Jennifer, were deep in conversation about some machine that my son had built at home out of spare parts. Jennifer listened, asked questions, then listened some more. She's a former engineer, so she has lots of high-powered technical knowledge she might have sprinkled onto my son's head like falling leaves. Instead, she focused on getting my son to ask the right questions, inserting facts only where she had to, until at last he said, “Oh! I know what I could try next. Thanks!”
I couldn't follow their conversation in detail – I barely passed high school physics – but it was suddenly clear that I was in the presence of one of those brilliant teachers who we hope like hell our children have at least a few times in their lives.
What makes a teacher brilliant? It's not easy for me to say, despite the fact that I've ushered three children and two stepchildren through school and into college. Along the way, I've attended countless parent-teacher conferences and PTO meetings. I've been a school volunteer.
But it was only at that moment, with Jennifer and my son, that I really considered what makes a teacher brilliant and not just okay, or downright evil. While we've never had a teacher as evil as Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's brilliant book, Matilda – the one who locked children in a tiny room with spikes on the walls – we've certainly had our share of scary teachers.
There was, for instance, the elementary school teacher who made fun of my youngest son because he was anxious and had facial tics. When he told her that he wanted to be a mathematician, she laughed and said, “You'll never be a mathematician if you keep making those faces!” He also had a teacher who, when it was time to make gingerbread houses for Christmas, called him “defiant” because he didn't follow her A-frame plan and created his own design. The very next year, a teacher told my son that he would “grow up to be another Unibomber” because he had drawn a sketch of a gun he'd seen on YouTube.
Most teachers, thankfully, have not been so woefully ignorant or mean. Among the many teachers in the lives of our five children, most have simply followed their hearts in an effort to do good in the world. They get up every morning, balancing family life with work like most of us – only their work involves the emotional and exhausting rigors of caring for other people's children. They fight for what their students need, and sometimes, like the rest of us, they are irritable or too exhausted to be kind. They snap at the kids, or even, in the case of one math teacher at our junior high who, after being pushed to the limit by a wayward kid taunting him from the doorway, chase kids down the hall while waving chairs over their heads. Really.
Burnout isn't their fault, or at least not entirely. The educational system is overburdened – we all know that – and often more of a premium is placed on crowd control and compliance among students than on anything else. Students come to class unprepared or are confrontational, and parents are equally so. It's no wonder that our teachers are stressed and overwhelmed. If they'd wanted to be cops, they would have signed up for the police academy.
Yet, a few rare teachers continue to do their jobs well, or even brilliantly. My oldest daughter, always fearful of writing, became an avid writer because her sixth grade English teacher made her believe that she could do it – even as that teacher was battling breast cancer. My oldest son's first social studies teacher inspired in him a lifelong love of politics. A French teacher's encouragement led our younger daughter to study in Paris.
What sets those teachers apart? Brilliance in the classroom isn't about a teacher's education, training, or classroom experience. No, the kind of teacher who inspires students to learn because they want to, instead of because they have to, has more to do with elusive qualities, like being willing to meet a child where he is, having a keen and sturdy sense of humor, respecting every child's strengths, and bravely setting forth every day ready to try something new.
There has been a lot of debate about how best to test our teachers, such as asking whether we should use standardized student test scores to evaluate a teacher's performance. But the most important things to measure in a teacher are things you can't test for, like the willingness to trust that, within every child, there is a better person who just needs to be coaxed to come out. How do you test for that?
While we figure that out, the first rule to follow when evaluating teachers should be the same one we use in medicine. Teachers, like doctors, should First, do no harm.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Book Tour: Is It Worth It?

As I was winding down my book tour to southern California recently, I stopped at a cafe with new friends I'd made in a high desert town called Ridgecrest. The four of them had gathered to see me off after I'd done a book signing at the China Lake Navy Base nearby, followed by a discussion with local writers at Red Rock Books, a terrific independent bookstore.
My friends were clearly amused by my observations of desert life. They all ride motorcycles and routinely train their dogs to avoid rattlesnakes on the hiking paths. I'd come from New England and might as well have been dropped on the moon, that's how alien the landscape was: pale brown earth streaked red, abandoned mines, roads with improbable names like Twenty Mule Team Parkway, and even a Silver Dollar Saloon. Not a pine tree or maple sugar house in sight.
How did I get from a small coastal town in New England to the California desert to sign copies of my new paperback? It all started with an email from Vicki Rizzardini. She lives in Ridgecrest and started Red Rock Books; her stepdaughter runs the store now. Vicki had read my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, and liked it, so she emailed me through my web site. I was ecstatic! After all, writers put words on the page to reach someone, and it's tough to know if you've done that. Sending your book out into the world is like having a kid go off to college and never bothering to call.
Vicki gave the book to her friend, Betty, an admiral's wife. Which, in turn, led me to screw up my courage and telephone the Navy Exchange at China Lake to see if I could do a book signing there. When they agreed, I thought what the heck, and called the Navy Base at Coronado, too.
“It's great that you're here, but do you actually make any money doing these book tours?” asked one man during my tour. “Was it worth coming?”
He had logically assumed, as most people do, that authors get sent on book tours by their publishers, and was perplexed when I admitted that I'd bought my own plane ticket.
Alas, the age of book tours is over. Every writer I know, with a few best-selling exceptions, has been told by their publicists and editors to just forget those bookstore appearances. “Nobody comes anymore,” they explain.
Sometimes they're right. At my best book signings, I've had a pretty good turnout – maybe 50 to 75 people. At my worst, I've had only one person show up, and that was an ex-lover I would have dearly loved to impress. Most of the time there are only a handful of people.
So why do a book tour, especially if you have to pay for it yourself? The reason bears repeating: we writers put our words on the page to reach someone.
Yes, I ponied up the money to go to California myself. Not a lot of money, since I could stay with friends in the three different locations I made appearances, but still, a plane ticket equals a lot of groceries. I paid out of pocket because I wanted to meet readers. I was especially interested in reaching out to Navy families, because my memoir centers around my father, a Navy Commander who became so obsessed by gerbils that we ended up on a farm with 9,000 of these pocket kangaroos.
Was it worth it? I mulled this over as I left Ridgecrest and drove through Red Rock Canyon, stunned by the beauty of the purple and red light in the sky over the stark hills. At the Navy base in Coronado, I had met a family with three girls; the oldest, a teenager, bought my book because she wants to be a veterinarian. I also chatted with a Navy nurse who bought the book for herself, because it was her birthday.
At China Lake, I talked with a Navy pilot who has a collection of over 300 books; he dreams of being a writer one day. There was a woman who bought four of my books as gifts for her sisters. At Red Rock Books, I talked with other writers about the future of publishing. We concluded that, no matter what form stories take, there will always be people who want to hear them.
Is a book tour worth it, if you pay for it yourself? Probably not, if you're just thinking about money. (Admittedly, it's hard not to.) I probably signed a total of 125 books that week in California. The royalties wouldn't even add up to a new pair of shoes.
But who knows? For every book I signed for someone, that someone might decide she likes it well enough to suggest it to her book club, or buy it for her mom. Word-of-mouth has always been one of the most powerful marketing strategies around.
Meanwhile, I got to see the splendor of the desert sky, to visit with old friends and make new ones, and to be inspired by readers eager to connect. What better reasons are there to keep writing?