Category Archives: Teaching

Dan Frechtling: An Educator with Peace Corps Liberia

Dan knows everybody. When we were in college together, whenever we went anywhere on campus, people would stop us every few minutes to say hi to him. And they usually did it very enthusiastically. You’d have thought he was a local celebrity. This all seemed so odd to me because, as one of our mutual friends likes to say, “There’s quiet, and then there’s Dan.” The guy really doesn’t say much unless he really has something to say. How on Earth did he know all these people?

After knowing him for a couple of years, things started to make sense. While we were in student government, he worked his way from assembly member to the executive board in just a year. By his junior year, he was an RA and president of a state-wide residence hall student government representing dozens of colleges and universities. Throughout that time, he became fast friends with just about everybody he met. He’s always ready with a quick smile and a kind word. In short, Dan puts himself in a position where he can make an impact on people.

He did this quite literally in June of 2012, when he arrived in Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer. His assignment was to teach high school science at a small public high school. While I knew he was undertaking an incredible commitment, I wasn’t surprised by his desire to do so. He’s all about making meaningful commitments and seeing them through.

Dan has gotten to meet some fascinating people in the last couple of years (yes, that’s Bono above, along with a US Congressional delegation and some fellow volunteers) but knowing him, I suspect that his favorite part of his volunteerism has been building relationships with his students and colleagues.

You can read a fascinating account of Dan’s work and travels through the Peace Corps in his blog The Winding Road: Twenty-seven Months as a Member of Peace Corps Liberia. Anyone interested in education, especially international education, should take some time to read his writings.

Please give us a little background about your educational experience, including any social identities that impacted you as a student or educator.

I grew up between the small towns of Williamston and Perry, in Michigan. I attended school in the Perry Public Schools system from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. I was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Michigan by the Cook Family Foundation, and so I attended the University of. Michigan from 2007 to 2011 and completed a Bachelor of Science in Cellular and Molecular Biology.

After a year as an intern with the Michigan Department of Community Health (working on science outreach for students) I entered the Peace Corps and came to Liberia, which is an education-only program.

Volunteers in Liberia are placed in junior and senior high schools to teach math or science. My training consisted of two weeks of technical sessions followed by two weeks of model school. I taught 11th grade chemistry during the model school, during which I was observed by experienced volunteers and staff. I wrote about that experience on my blog in this post. After the remainder of Peace Corps’ training I was sent to Gorblee Central High School to teach chemistry to the 10th-12th grades. GCHS is a small, resource-poor government high school. As time went on and teacher shortages became more pronounced, I started teaching physics and math classes as well. Somewhat ironically, I never taught a single biology class in Liberia.

After one year I became a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader and was put in the role of training new volunteers to be teachers. I worked in the training of 38 new volunteers during July-August 2013.

In my role as a teacher I was definitely helped by the social identities of being white and male (I’m actually half Vietnamese but am generally perceived as white in Liberia). I was afforded respect for those identities that was greater than the respect given to a host country national of the same age.

What about your personal experience inspired you to pursue this career? If this doesn’t apply, why has a career in education been the right choice for you?

You know, I didn’t choose to pursue a career in education; I applied to the Peace Corps and it was decided that my educational profile fit what was desired to help with Liberia’s shortage of trained teachers. I enjoyed a lot about my time as a teacher – I got the opportunity to work with classes of up to 45 students (that’s small for Liberia) of very different ability. It definitely gave me a different perspective on education and the challenges that teachers can come up against. My time as a teacher and my subsequent job as volunteer leader have given me a glimpse of how the overall health of a system can impact the quality of education.

Please share a time when you were working in education and you were strongly reminded of being a student yourself. This can include memories of instructional techniques your former teachers used, teaching a favorite subject, interacting with educational institutions, etc.

The differences in ability level between the students at the high school that I attended and the one I taught at in Liberia is so vast that as a teacher I often thought back to how my favorite teachers had approached topics and wondered how they would approach a topic. Teaching physics, chemistry, and math is very different when you can be reasonably certain that the students know how to multiply and divide. I remember my friends and I breezing through assignments because foundational skills from earlier grades allowed us to focus on the concept at hand.

Tony Danza (yes, that Tony Danza) recently wrote a book entitled I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. In it, he details working as a first-year English teacher in a Philadelphia High School. Time and time again, he experiences a great deal of remorse for his behavior as a student now that he finally understands just how difficult teaching is. As an educator, have you ever experienced this sort of remorse and empathy toward your former teachers, counselors, coaches, or administrators? Please explain.

I won’t say that I ever experienced this sort of remorse, no. I like to think that I didn’t make life too tough on teachers, and I certainly spent enough time making copies for teachers! But you do definitely gain a deeper appreciation for how difficult the job is – coming up with lessons that hit different parts of the experiential learning cycle, assessing students fairly, differentiating lessons for different ability levels, and so on—so I would say that I probably never thanked the faculty at Perry Public Schools enough.

You may contact Dan with any questions or comments at dfrechtling@gmail.com.

Dan would like you to please note that the views expressed here and the contents of his web site are his personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

#TeacherTuesday: Tony Danza Is Sorry, and So Am I

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I’m not a parent, but it seems to me that every parent I know experiences a wave of remorse from time to time. Remorse for every crummy thing they ever said or did to their parents while growing up. It’s the type of remorse that only comes from all of a sudden having to deal with that same crap from their own kids.

Recent years have shown me that many teachers experience the educational version of this exact same dynamic. I certainly dealt with it when I was teaching in AmeriCorps, and those guilty feelings pop up the more I research education and teaching. For the most part, I was a good kid who liked school, but there were plenty of times that I made things way too hard on my teachers while growing up.

My interest in this was sparked by reading Tony Danza’s book I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. Perfect title. Danza talks extensively about how he was your quintessential ‘too cool for school’ student when he was a kid, giving his teachers a hard time and not taking school seriously. He felt like he really got his comeuppance when he became a 1st-year teacher at an urban high school in Philadelphia, where he finally discovered just how difficult it is to teach kids who don’t always want to learn.

Reading that book made me wonder if other educators experienced the same feelings of guilt, which led me to plan an interview series with some close friends and colleagues. I’ll be kicking that off tomorrow with an interview with Dan Frechtling, an old college friend who is currently working in education through the Peace Corps in Liberia. Through this series, I hope to learn more about the connections that these people make between their lives as students and their practice as educators. It’s also a good excuse for me to hear about people’s personal experiences in education, which I can never get enough of. I hope that you will enjoy these interviews as much as I will.

Further Reading

Danza, T. (2012). I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High. New York: Crown Archetype.

 

Teaching Is Hard Enough Without All the Haters Out There

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I just began reading The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, or Be One by Carol Frederick Steele (2009). I came upon it in a rather odd way. My dad was buying gas and a cup of coffee a few weeks ago and somehow struck up a conversation about me with a fellow patron. He mentioned that I had just gotten a degree in educational studies and she, who turned out to be a lecturer at Michigan State University, insisted that I read her book about teaching. My dad scribbled down her name and the book title and relayed them to me that evening.

Having never received any sort of formal teacher training (and very little informal at that), I’ve been wanting to gain some insight on pedagogy for a long time. I’m not sure yet whether this book is what I’ve been looking for, but I appreciate Steele’s desire to help all teachers improve their craft, regardless of their current levels of skill and experience. I’ve been intrigued by her discussion of a set of 8 qualities shared by expert teachers. Her list includes:

a strong sense of mission,
a desire to improve their teaching,
a holistic sense of teaching to develop individuals as well as impart facts,
a high degree of confidence in their own personal and professional views,
a peer support system that reinforces their sense of mission,
a form of support from significant others,
a sense of professional autonomy, and
a refusal to permit interference with their teaching mission.

I couldn’t help but consider how these traits related to the teachers I had while in school. I even went so far as to begin a chart in which I designated certain teachers as particularly good or particularly bad in each respect. Like probably everyone, I had a handful of favorite teachers through the years and a few that I really didn’t care for. It felt good to deeply reflect on my favorites and realize that the qualities on this list are indeed what made them great, or at least contributed to that.

But my analysis brought up some uncomfortable feelings as well. Feelings of guilt. I felt guilty for putting some teachers in the ‘bad’ column, even though I was trying to make an honest assessment. Why did I feel like I needed to do this? How much can I gain from reflecting on what I found to be bad teaching? How much of the big picture might I be missing?

I don’t think I was being unfair in recognizing that some of my teachers could have improved, but I was almost certainly wrong in labeling them as bad. It’s pretty unfair to label someone who has made a career out of an underpaid, usually thankless job as a bad teacher. As Steele points out, many teachers never progress beyond a ‘capable’ level of practice. Some might not believe it’s possible to get better, and some might not feel it’s worth the even greater self-sacrifice that’s required in order to do so.

It’s hard to blame them. The modern teachers’ college focuses on the practice of teaching much in the same way that medical schools train doctors in the practice of medicine. Teacher preparation has only recently taken on this clinical structure, but considering the import of the educator’s task, it certainly seems that saving a child’s livelihood is akin to a doctor saving her life. The American teacher sees only a shadow of the respect garnered by physicians, however. And certainly a mere shadow of the payscale.

As observed by Button and Provenzo (1983), the social prestige of the teaching profession is directly correlated with the difficulty of the material being taught rather than the difficulty of actually teaching that material. Hundreds of years ago, school masters taught Latin, a language that hardly anyone know and thus carried a great deal of prestige. When values shifted toward teaching all children, regardless of class, just enough to read the Bible and perform basic math, teachers’ stock plummeted. Naturally, it fell even further when women got into the profession.

My point is this: even today, society thinks that teaching is easy. They think kindergarten is babysitting, elementary school is a recitation of facts, and secondary school means handing a kid a book to read and a stack of worksheets to fill out. Maybe you’ll get some respect if you’re an astrophysics professor with a PhD. In reality, a college professor never has to worry about a little kid who wet his pants in class. Or a teenager who just won’t put her phone away. Or a middle schooler who somehow never learned how to read. Teaching is so much more complex than knowing one’s subject. It means staying attuned to students and their needs, along with a big dose of introspection.

I ended up reading this book because my dad bought a cup of coffee one day, but I wish I had come across it sooner. Being an inspired teacher is a monumental task, and most people—myself included—need to appreciate that more. A lot of teachers have more work to do and more improvements to make. But so does everybody else.

Further Reading

Button, H. W. & Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1983). History of Education & Culture in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Steele, C. F. (2009). The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, or Be One. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The Educational Wonder of Pudding

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When I was in 1st grade, I got to make pudding at school. In the classroom. Real food that a person could eat. This blew my 7-year-old mind. How could anyone ever possibly be allowed to cook in a school? Kids have rules upon rules set before them with the explicit intent of keeping them from having a good time. But not this time. This time my pint-sized world got turned on its head.

I’m not sure that my teacher thought herself to be a mastermind based on a box of powdered whatever and two cups of milk. Or perhaps the simplicity of it was the genius part. Like cats and a laser pointer. She totally won at teaching that day.