By Adrin Fisher
This fall, I began a rite of passage to familiar to all adults over a certain age: I got bifocals. Though I am by no means ready to retire to the rocking chair on the porch, I am no longer a spring chicken, technically speaking. My doctor suggested progressive lenses, which are one benefit of living in a first-world country: they are hidden in plain sight. No one sees the line where your prescription changes, so no one knows that your glasses are magical, allowing you to see much more than nature permits.
My first set, however, were less than magic. Turns out, I move my head around a lot and expect my eyes to focus regardless of what section of the lens is in front. During my four long, angry days with those lenses, my students’ faces rippled before my eyes, I got headaches from squinting, and my default move became shutting my eyes and moving my head in search of a sweet spot of sight.
It occurs to me that my adjustment to those dual-prescription lenses is a perfect metaphor for teaching: as reflective practitioners, we must teach ourselves to switch seamlessly between the near and the far to find the right vantage point.
Up close, we see a student as an individual person, a human being with the potential for self-actualization. Maslow teaches that the development of our “true self” is the goal of life. We see students as joys or as conundrums—as collections of abilities and not-quite-abilities and school-appropriate (or not) behaviors. We know their allergies, their WISC-IV results, their reputations from classrooms past, their avoidance strategies. We know whether someone at home is checking their grades or helping them study. We know whether they can spell or which type of sentence error they’re most likely to make. We see them up close. And sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt—or at least, exhaustion.
Likewise, we have to focus on the small things of our content. Though I’m fond of saying that literature is not like math in that there are many right answers, there are still right answers. There are perfect paragraphs and logical inferences and expressive reading. All these things are the near view.
On the other hand, teachers are tasked to see students from a distance. Elementary teachers in our state are tasked with far-seeing too frequently: benchmarks on the cores three times a year through purchased assessments and scripted programs promise far-seeing results. While the idea is not completely abhorrent, the reality is that the network goes down, the passwords are unavailable, strep throat rages through the school on your computer day—and the teacher’s time is spent managing assessments that are designed to use a snapshot predict the future. The results my sons have gotten predict their Lexile and quartile levels in college: provided their lives remain smooth and predictable and their Hierarchies of Needs continue to be met, provided they are engaged in high-quality learning activities with a qualified teacher in a classroom with limited behavior problems and disruptions, provided they put in the effort needed to master even difficult topics, and provided their parents remain motivators interested in their success as students. That’s quite a tall order for one test to predict. However, we can’t reasonably eliminate all the testing either.
Likewise, in the long view, we predict the future for our students. That tendency to chat during whole group instruction? That bossiness in small group activities? Those behaviors lead to success in the marketplace. That divergent thinking (marked by questioning the teacher aggressively) shows creative leadership skills—the kind needed for an entrepreneur. We, teacher-friends, can work with all those up-close behaviors if we remember the long view. We can try to teach students the connection between success on the SAT writing rubric in November and success on the SAT in March, and the connection between a high school diploma and a real working wage. And to some degree, we can cross our fingers that the long view will be correct.
The other evening, I took my sons for haircuts. I was paying the bill when a man called out, “Mrs. Fisher! I thought that was you!” I turned around and recognized him immediately. This man was a kid—Dusty—who was in my class both in seventh grade and in twelfth grade. He graduated a few years ago and now has a good job, an apartment, and a son. We talked a minute and then I left just ahead of him.
As my kids and I were walking through the parking lot, Dusty came running out of the shop. “My baby’s in the truck!” he called to me. “Come see him!”
So I went over to his truck to see the baby and his mom. I complimented the lovely child and his proud parents. Then Dusty said, “Do you have any kids this year that are as bad as I was?”
“Yes, actually,” I laughed. “I have a couple of challenges this year.”
“Well, I hope they get better for you,” he said as he and his family headed into the grocery store.
Dusty was a challenging student—for sure. At age twelve, he bounced off the walls and into detention and though he got older, he wasn’t exactly mature when I had him again as a senior.
I wish, though, that I could have seen his competent adult self when I was his harried middle-school English teacher or when I shook him awake in the midst of that co-teach senior class. It would have given me peace to know that—in the long term—he would turn out ok.
Teaching is in large part the struggle for the right vantage point, near or far—or somewhere in between. And so, teacher-friend, here is our challenge: to find the sweet spot as we look at each of our students both near and far.
And just in case you were wondering, I went back to the eye doctor and had my lenses remade. I’m still getting used to them, but I’m grateful for the healthcare and the life lesson. Sometimes we have to be patient, because it’s just a bit blurry in the middle.
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Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin