The Most Objectionable Thing About Waiting for 'Superman'

10/29/2010 01:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Most Objectionable Thing About Waiting for 'Superman' is the cartoon imagery portraying teaching as peeling back the skull of a student and pouring in information.

That Davis Guggenheim chose to use that imagery demonstrates to this teacher how little he actually understands about teaching.

If teaching were only the transmission of information, we would not need skilled teachers. Access to websites with structured lessons that drilled in the key information in would surely be less expensive.

And don't kid yourself: there are people out there who think of education in that fashion, as having the kids absorb a predefined list of "important" facts. Perhaps that is why they think mutlple choice tests are an effective measure of what kids know and have learned, and how many facts they can regurgitate upon the command of the test question a measure of the effectiveness of the teacher.

If all our students were the same, then perhaps we might be able to have them learn "facts" in such a fashion, presuming we could agree on the important "facts."

But as anyone who has had a classroom of eager elementary students or an equal group of bored and turned-off teenagers in front of her knows, if that's all you got, you ain't got nothing at all. And the students will quickly realize that.

Teaching requires knowing one's material. If it is going to be effective, it requires knowledge of one's students as well. At a minimum, it requires an understanding of human growth and development, to understand the appropriate level at which one gears one's effort towards the individual students as well as the collection before you. It helps to know their interests, to find a way of connecting the material to things about which they are already passionate. It helps immensely to be aware of those who need visual reinforcement, those for whom it is not real until they say it aloud, those who perhaps need to form a mental logical map to make sense of the material.

A skilled teacher has an expansive set of instructional tools to which he can turn. It is not, however, merely knowing different instructional approaches, it is being able to match those to the needs of the students in front of you. It may require you to present the same information and structure in two or three different fashions almost simultaneously in order that no student become disconnected because he does not understand, or that how you are presenting is different from how she learns.

There is no silver bullet -- there is no one way that works for all students.

Teaching also requires one to learn humility, to recognize that there will be some students that perhaps one cannot reach. I teach high school students, ranging in age from 13 (yes, occasionally that young in 10th grade) to 19. In some cases I have to let them crash and burn -- even fail one marking period -- in order to have them grasp that they need to be willing to change how they approach things if they want to succeed. That is one of the hardest parts of being a teacher, and it is something very far removed from peeling back a skull and pouring in information.

They tell me I am a very good teacher. I have received awards from my teaching. I get thanks from parents, and from more than a few students. Most of my kids do well on external tests such as those required for high school graduation or to receive college credit for my Advanced Placement Course.

Those things are nice, but they are less important than other things.

When a student who has been struggling finally begins to"get it"...

When a former student who put more effort into fighting me than attempting to learn comes back and thanks me for not giving up on him...

When a student is able to explain cogently why she is taking a position...

When the written and verbal expression demonstrates a more complete and complex ability to think...

Or perhaps I can put it as I tell both my students and my parents at the start of the year. I teach government and politics. My job is not to brainwash them, but rather to teach them to read critically, write and speak more cogently, learn how to listen. I want them better able to express in writing and verbally what they believe. I want them able to take apart an argument without taking apart the person with whom they are arguing, or as we used to say in civil rights, to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. And, as I tell them and their parents, in the process I may create my own worst nightmare; an articulate, persuasive advocate of a position I abhor.

In which case I have done my job as teacher, I have empowered my students.

Recently a student whose politics are very different from my own traveled to another state to volunteer for a Senate candidate who will lose badly this election. That candidate was surprised that a high school student would take the time to travel to another state, and asked my student why she had come. The student explained that her government teacher encouraged students to be active for what they believed, to stand up for what they believed, to work on behalf of candidates whose ideas they supported. That candidate took the time to write me a thank you note.

The note was nice. What was more important was what my student had learned, the key thing I hope all my students take away from our course in government and politics -- that as the owners of the nation they have a responsibility to act on its behalf as they thought best.

Which ultimately is more important, the facts the young lady learned in my class -- and trust me, there are many -- or the understanding of what it means to be a citizen in our form of government? Which is a better indication of my effectiveness as a teacher?

I know my answer, and it is not represented by that cartoon in Waiting for 'Superman'.