One day, decades ago, during only my second year of teaching, I bumped into my department chair by the photocopier. “Tell me,” she said. “Do you think these two problems”—she pointed to the precalculus test she had written and was about to run off—“are basically the same?” I stared at them a little. “Maybe so,” I said, asking more than telling, wondering why this 30-year classroom veteran wanted to know anything from me. “I think they are,” she said. “Thanks for the help. Back to the drawing board!” I believe I learned as much about teaching in that accidental moment as I did that whole year.
The teaching of mathematics is vulnerable to repetition without innovation. The subject of the test that I was asked to cast eyes on by the Xerox machine that day was conic sections, the principles of which haven’t changed a whole lot since Euclid first explained them about 2,300 years ago. Lesson #1 for me in that moment was that an expert teacher and faculty leader was still writing new tests on such old material so far into her career. Lesson #2 was that an expert teacher and faculty leader would humble herself to seek the advice of a rank amateur like me.
My father is a recently retired attorney. Once when I was a child, I heard him say that he “practiced law.” Sometimes when it was just the two of us in the car, he would forget that I was there and begin to rehearse his arguments to an invisible court. “How much longer are you going to have to practice law?” I asked him one day. “When are you going to be good enough to do law?”
I remember reading once that the best teachers—“best” as measured by student engagement and learning outcomes—experience a nearly constant sensation of coming up short. They plan and they plan, and then their classes meet, and afterward, they can only remember what could have gone better. “Back to the drawing board!” They are practicing teachers. The word “amateur” derives from the Latin verb amare, meaning “to love.” Why should I have been surprised that a 30-year amateur like my math department chair would consult with a two-year amateur like me?
This week I bumped into one of our MICDS teachers at the start of the school day. (Okay, not “bumped” exactly. We kept six feet apart.) “It’s been tougher lately,” he said. I channeled my inner cheerleader. “You’ve been doing this a long time,” I said. “Many years accomplished, many years to come. In the grand scheme of things, this will have just been a difficult time.” My mistake was thinking that he was talking about himself. “I wish I could be doing more for them,” he said. It was the same song sung to me at the photocopier so many years ago, now in a minor key. “Back to the drawing board!” How lucky I am to work with this man, this practicing teacher. How lucky his students are to learn from him every day.
Our exceptional MICDS faculty are working as hard as they ever have on behalf of the children in their care, and I am humbled and grateful beyond expression. I hope that you are, too. We are all novices in this pandemic. We must remember to be amateurs instead.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a very happy weekend with your loved ones.
Head of School