Thursday, September 19, 2013

How to be a better teacher than Miss Perkins (it's not hard)

by Anne White

I discovered a short story, "Against the Odds" by Martin Gardner, in his book Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?  It was first published in the College Mathematics Journal in 2001, but (according to this summary and the Amazon linkBlackberries is the only other place you're going to find it.  I found my copy at the thrift store, but you might check the library.

The plot is almost too predictable, too simple.  Luther Washington is a young African-American boy (so he is described), around 1960, who has a gift for abstract mathematics.  He runs up against a female (white) teacher who doesn't know much more math than her students do and thinks he's just showing off.  Luckily, he eventually gets (more or less) sent to the principal, who does know something about math, and who puts the boy on the road to a college scholarship.  Ten years later, after earning his Ph.D., Luther wins a major mathematics prize.  The teacher, now retired and married to the basketball coach, doesn't recognize the newspaper photo of her former student but mumbles something about "affirmative action."

The story raised some questions for me, besides obvious ones like "could that ever happen?" Actually, that could be taken either way, as that summary points out: the first part of the story certainly could happen.  It is depressingly realistic about ignorance in teaching that kills the desire to learn.  The second part is, of course, a fantasy, a wonderful Cinderella solution, but one that probably doesn't happen often.  It's nice to see Luther's career success, but it's just a bit of luck, really, that he suddenly gets noticed by the right people, and doesn't have to bury his dreams.

It's with the earlier part of the story that we, as parents and educators, need to concern ourselves.  We can even ignore the question of racial prejudice to some extent, though it is largely what keeps Miss Perkins from seeing Luther's brilliance.  But based on the description of the teacher's limitations (an American-history major who got stuck teaching math), is it likely that she would have been more accommodating of a white student whose talent for math surpassed her own?  Would she have been more accepting of a student who showed great aptitude for American history, or would she have been as narrow-minded about the correct response to questions in history and government?  Is it not also something of a stereotype to assume that an American-history major would not recognize vectors, or that she would be so uninterested in her own teaching subject, however accidentally acquired, that she wouldn't go the library that night, or phone up a colleague, and find out what that confounded boy was talking about?  Or ask him to stay after school and show her how his proof worked?  That's what you'd do, isn't it?

Well, you and I aren't Miss Perkins.  She may be a Dickensian stereotype (especially in the "devout Baptist" part), but she's got enough truth in her to make it worrisome.  Stories pop up in the media about teachers who can't spell, can't punctuate, and yes, can't do math.  More stories come up about families who turn to homeschooling after encountering their own version of Miss Perkins. We know there are problems in the public school system.  We know there are bad teachers.  We know that exceptional learners of all kinds, including gifted students, often get shortchanged by "the system." What does all that have to do with Charlotte Mason?

Just one, maybe two things.  Miss Perkins might seem to be mostly racially motivated, but as teacher-detectives we need to look at what else is going on. Stick with me, class...who can tell what educational principles Miss Perkins violated?  What was her biggest mistake?  Pride?  Sloth?  Misuse of authority?  Not recognizing Luther as a born person?  Not giving him the respect due to his personality?  Messing with Luther's desire for knowledge?  Stomping on his living ideas?  Putting all the stress on the idea of the teacher having to put information into the student's head, instead of recognizing that he could figure things out aside from her?  Thinking that if she didn't know something, there was no way that a teenager (let alone a minority-group teenager) could know it?  (It's always a temptation to think "I can't learn anything from this person, because I'm X and he's Y.")  Ignoring the Gospel command (quoted by Charlotte Mason) to "Take heed that ye offend not--despise not--hinder not--one of these little ones?" All of the above?

I think that list covers most of her educational sins, but there's one other point, and perhaps it is a greater problem for some of us...who are, like Miss Perkins, teaching outside of our own fields, or without any "official" teacher training.  Yes, we have wonderful educational resources to draw on; even "scripted" ones that practically guarantee teaching success without having to have deep knowledge of a subject.

And there's the problem.  We are not teaching machines, any more than our students are learning machines.  What kills learning for the student goes double for us, even if we have such thought-out-in-every-way materials that we can now teach on auto-pilot.  Especially if we have such materials.  Charlotte Mason did not approve of too-elaborate manipulatives and models for students; and, by the same token, she would probably not care for lessons that don't let any unscripted learning sneak in.  Especially lessons that go so far as telling us what we, as well as the students, are to think.

If Miss Perkins seemed determined to shut down Luther's learning, it appears that she had already shut down her own. (Ignorance breeds intolerance?)  Her teaching had been reduced to one-lesson-at-a-time, and please don't ask me any questions that might make me look foolish or take us five minutes over the time limit.  This is what this lesson's about, this is how you do it, and this is the right answer.  Some people say they like math because there's always one right answer...but no, it's not true even in math.

Yes, teaching is "easier" if there are lesson plans, assignments, printable tests with answer keys.  "Open the book and teach" brings high praise from reviewers. Homeschoolers are, proverbially, always looking for "curriculum" that does everything but diaper the baby and cook dinner.

Charlotte Mason would say, run from anything of the sort.

A little help, yes.  As someone who has attempted to "help" by writing several AO study guides, I'm sympathetic to all the reasons of our lack of time, lack of background, having several children to teach, and all the rest of it.  The reason I wrote my first Plutarch study was simply because nobody had written one for me to use.  If there had been a set of notes, I would have used them, but I couldn't find any, so I just kept reading and looking stuff up until it started to make sense.  To keep others from having to reinvent that particular wheel, I put the notes online.  And I've been extremely grateful for other people's work in other areas.  But especially with Plutarch, I can't tell you why he says everything he says, what everything means, or what, exactly, to say next.  Or what not to say.

So if we take Miss Perkins as a cautionary tale, let's be careful about thinking that any written lesson or teacher's manual (short of the Bible!) contains complete and final knowledge of anything; and let's also be open to truth wherever we find it.  Even in a murder mystery that turned out to be so graphic I'd never read it again:
"'My mind would make these magic little leaps. You know what I mean?' I nodded. I knew about minds making magic little leaps."  ~~ Sue Grafton, C is for Corpse
Here's to our students' success.  May we not offend these little ones.  May we not take ourselves and our educational materials so seriously that we close our eyes to curiosity and new ideas.  And may we take our desire to learn...and the humility to learn from each other's magic little leaps...out into the world. Because there are still a lot of Luthers out there.


  1. Great post, Anne! Lord, let me not be a "Miss Perkins"! It is tempting sometimes, to take the easiest way. I have found that doing my own leg-work in a subject sparks further interest of my own and I gain a much deeper understanding than if I just read the end results of someone else's work.

    1. I just hit published and saw you had just now wrote a bit of the same I thought, LOL, that doing my own leg-work (I like how you put it), sparks further interest and makes you learn much deeper. Ditto.

  2. I needed to read this, remind myself why I do what I do, and humble myself for the moments when I mess it up and became Miss Perkins in my own little world.

    And thanks for Plutarch. Next year we will grab it by the horns, and I know the notes will assist us. But it is true that those things we have to, for any reason, put effort, result in great learning times for all. In my case it was Pilgrims Progress. It was not just an instant hit. Girls did not connect, I twisted my tongue, we had to put it away. I persisted. We read a bit of Little Pilgrims, it worked some, but it tired me and I wanted more then, girls did not. I got a very abridge Spanish version, but the little snippets, with comic like illustrations well done, had good vocabulary. More time simmering. This year, my oldest, of her own, declared she WANTED me to read Pilgrims Progress because she said, "I am interested in Christianity", and knowing his story... today we read in small portions, the real thing, savoring it. My tongue is not tangled any more, because of the familiarity with the first part, I was able to dramatize the reading properly... success... they understand what I read, love it, and can give me a short but good narration of the portion read. Sweat brings sweet. Or it did at our home.