Tuesday, April 1, 2014

hero worship

Consider a question like, “How many pairs of shoes do you own?”  I am guessing most people in the U.S. would answer somewhere in the neighborhood of two to thirty pairs of shoes.  According to the Daily Mail, the average woman in the U.K. owns nineteen pairs of shoes but wears only seven.  But that’s not important.  What I want to talk about is the woman that owns two hundred pairs of shoes.  She is unusual by almost any standard and statisticians would call her an outlier.  Outliers are pieces of data that alter the outcome in significant ways, so much so that sometimes statisticians throw them out on the grounds that they are not reflective of the general population.  Outliers are impactful.  We can decide how much impact we want them to have.
So there.  You learned a little statistics.
Now consider this movie plot.  An experiment in a lab causes a spider to become infected with a radioactive virus.  The spider then bites a man.  The man dies.  The spider dies.  End of story.  Not much of a story is it?  No one tells this story because it is both predictable and unexceptional.  No one cares about the story where Peter Parker dies.  But we love the story where Peter Parker becomes a super hero.  Spiderman is unusual.  He is an outlier.
Our deep worship of and fascination with the outlier is culturally entrenched.  Everyone loves the story of a person that overcomes incredible odds to excel.  We also watch the fall of our heroes played out in the media with glee. 
So how does this relate to education?

It seems love of the outlier colors our every desire, our every
Photo Credit

decision.  We want our schools to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” no matter the budget or the challenges of poverty, violence, and health that the children face.  We demand that teachers meet every child’s needs, differentiate every lesson, overcome every setback, because that’s what Jaime Escalante and a few other teachers somehow managed to do.  We envision our schools and our teachers as somehow able to work miracles and fix what has taken decades to break.  And we don’t even apologize for our expectations.

Part of what's hamstringing education today is the demand for outliers.  Heroes do things faster and better, and so do our best schools, teachers, and students.  But this cannot be the expectation.  We can certainly use excellence as a model, to use awesome as inspiration, but in the end, to expect it from everyone is not reasonable.  There's a reason why everyone cannot be an outlier.  Outliers are rare.  Heroes are rare.  Demanding more does not make a hero. 

On the flip side, I think it’s perfectly o.k. to want these things, to hope for a hero. But hope is not a plan.  I am a math teacher.  My job is to teach kids math, assuming they want to learn, and they had breakfast, and they didn’t have a fight with their boyfriend, and they can concentrate for more than a minute, and.. and… and…  If I’m lucky, in the process of teaching math, I might just stumble into some lessons of hard work, compassion, leadership, overcoming adversity, and helping others. 
That’s it folks.  That’s a good day. I’m not a hero.  I’m a teacher.  If you want me or my school or these kids to be heroes, to be outliers, you’re going to have to help.  And by help I don’t mean inventing more hoops for us to jump through, more tests to take.  I mean putting your time, your money, and your wisdom where your mouth is. I mean actually doing something to help schools, teachers, and students.
Does your school have the supplies and computers it needs to be successful?  Do your school’s teachers have the time and training to do the job well?  Do your school’s students have the tutors and one-on-one attention they need to be successful?  No?  So what are YOU going to do about it? 
What if I expected YOU to be an outlier? Hey hero, how does that feel?