Here’s What I Would Have Said

Today was the last day of the 2013-14 school year, and as always, Trinity took the time to celebrate together over lunch.  At the end-of-the-year luncheon, Trinity honors those who have worked the longest and those who are leaving.  Each year, I sit and listen to some very beautiful and kind words being said about faculty and staff members I know well and those that I barely know at all.  I also listen as those who are leaving say their parting words.  This year it was my year.

Unfortunately, as so many of you know or have gathered by now, I am not comfortable standing up and speaking to large groups of people. Strange, right?  I mean we kinda do that for a living.  We stand up in front of the most frightening creatures known to man, i.e. teenagers, day after day.  Teaching, I’ve learned, is different.  When I am teaching, it’s not about me; it’s about the content and the students so I am not self-conscious.  (Well…I’m not usually self-conscious.)  Standing up in front of 100 colleagues and speaking, however, just isn’t going to happen no matter how much I care about you. 🙂  I am much better in writing, so the following is what I would have said.

Dear Trinity Family,

Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me over the last 6 years.  When I came to teach here, I’d never taught at the high school level before and I was overwhelmed with three preps, two of which were AP courses.  I really don’t completely understand how I got hired or why they thought I could handle the load they gave me, but I am forever thankful that they did.

I received so much support from my principal at the time (David Yohn) as well as from my colleagues.  No matter how much I might have struggled that first year, I never felt alone.  Someone always came alongside me to cheer me up and cheer me on.  Sure, they looked at me a little strangely when they first heard my midwestern accent, and sure, the name “Siebenthaler” sort of threw a lot of people for a loop, but they embraced me as part of the family anyway.

I would especially like to thank my department.  The people in my department are much more than colleagues; they are among my best friends.  Leaving them is one of the two hardest things about leaving Trinity. (Leaving students is the second.) Trip Franklin, Lucy Thrasher, and Kristi Weeks taught me so much about being a teacher to my students, but they also taught me about being a friend and a mentor.  At one point or another over the last 6 years, each has been a teacher, a friend, and a mentor to me, and sometimes they’ve all done it at the same time when I most needed it.

This year I got the chance to try my hand at administration, and I made many, many mistakes, some of which I still regret.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your support and your patience.  I’m really glad that I got this opportunity, however, because it’s reaffirmed for me that the thing that I’m most passionate about is teaching in the classroom and from the classroom.  I look forward to teaching history full-time again to high school juniors (my favorite grade!) in the classroom, but I also look forward to teaching other teachers…from the classroom, not an office.  I think this is where I can ultimately do the most good and serve the most people.  And so the old saying must be true, things have a way of working out for the best.   I wouldn’t have known this without this year of administrative work though, so I’m grateful to Kerry Palmer for giving me the opportunity.

I can’t wait to hear what the next few years bring to Trinity, and I hope we will keep in touch.

All the best,



Disappointment Cuts Deeper Than Anger

Like all teachers, I can get angry from time to time.  I can feel angry over disrespectful students who interrupt me or their fellow classmates.  I can get angry over student apathy, and I can get angry when students fail to follow the directions that I’ve given multiple times.  I dislike getting angry with my students, and I do what I can to work through my frustrations before the proverbial “blow up.”  I think my students would say that I don’t often get angry, but you’d have to ask them.  No student likes when his or her teacher gets angry, even when that student realizes the teacher’s anger is justified.  Anger is unpleasant and awkward and makes all concerned feel kind of crummy.  But I would much rather someone be angry with me than disappointed in me, and I hope my students feel this way as well.

Anger, at least the kind I’m talking about in the context of a teacher feeling angry with her students, is fleeting.  It’s also usually not completely rational.  A few students fail to follow directions, perhaps for a few days in a row, and it can seem for a moment like no student follows any directions ever.  But it’s just for a moment that the anger flares up.  The teacher walks away, has a laugh with a colleague, and realizes that all in all she has a great bunch of kids to work with and she’ll take that group of kids over any other.  By the next day, she’s apologizing for being short with the students, and the students are promising to get the next assignment in on time.  No biggie.  The anger is gone.

Disappointment is different.  Disappointment cuts deeper.  Disappointment, unlike that kind of fleeting, ephemeral anger that I just discussed, is intimately connected with character.  Anger is often about someone’s actions; disappointment is often about someone and the disconnect between who we thought that person was and who we now perceive them to be. Whether our perception is accurate or not is to a certain extent irrelevant.  The feeling of disappointment makes it unlikely that in the immediate future our perception will be accurate; it masks our very ability to perceive the person who disappointed us outside of the feeling itself.

If we want to convince our students that honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness matter, we need to help them see that it is far, far better for a teacher or a parent to be angry with them than to be disappointed in them.  We need to help them buck up a bit.  So your teacher got angry?  Did you deserve it?  Are you going to self-correct?  Good.  Now, move on.  Take your lecture, take your punishment, and get on with it.  Chances are if you do this – if you take responsibility without complaint – you will actually rise in the teacher’s estimation.  He or she will actually think better of you.  Imagine that.

BUT, and this bit is important, if you attempt to lie your way out of or around a little bit of justified anger or irritation, you’ve just entered disappointment territory, and disappointment territory is much more treacherous to escape.  Recently, I thought one of my students was headed for disappointment territory, but by telling the truth, accepting the punishment, and then moving on, the disappointment evaporated.  Sure, there was a little bit of anger or frustration, but it didn’t last long at all.  Now, if we could just convince all students of this.


Do We Still Believe Knowledge Is Power?

I’ve written about what I believe is the false dichotomy between knowledge and application previously both here and here, and for a full understanding of my position, please refer to those posts.  Here I’m just adding another layer to my previous arguments.

I recently had a conversation about whether K4-12 educational institutions should focus on knowledge acquisition or knowledge application.  The person I was speaking with brought up what I consider to be a rather tired example in support of knowledge application as more important than knowledge acquisition.  It went something along the lines of the following: “Nowadays students can Google all the information they could ever want, therefore, they don’t need to memorize as much as they once did.  We would serve the students best by focusing on application.  Applying knowledge will enable them to practice problem solving.  And since we don’t know what problems they will face in the future, the ability to problem solve is most important.”  Let’s pull this apart because, while there are bits of this statement with which I agree, taken on the whole, I vehemently disagree.

“Nowadays students can Google all the information they could ever want…”  A true statement as far as it goes.  However, and it’s a big “however,” students don’t automatically know what is important information and what is not.  Unless you are a complete relativist, in which case please go to a different blog, some knowledge is more important, more useful, or more worthy of knowing than other knowledge. Thus, simply being able to Google information is meaningless.

“…they don’t need to memorize as much as they once did.”  If the object of memorization is simply to have singular bits of information floating in one’s head for no apparent reason, then I suppose this part is true.  Students can simply look up those singular bits of information on the Internet when the mood strikes them or the need arises.  But of course, we know that we want kids to convert information from short term to long term memory because that information helps them to problem solve, helps them to synthesize new information, helps them to have a semi-intelligent conversation with someone they meet on the street without having to look every sentence up on the Internet for reference.

“Applying knowledge will enable them to practice problem solving.”  Very true.  Application is important.  Application is actually a very important component in converting information from short to long term memory.  Students who don’t apply the knowledge in their short term memory (i.e. practice and play with the information, repeatedly) will never manage to lock it into their long term memory.  Without locking information into their long term memory, they might as well have not learned it in the first place.  It’s what I like to call “Teflon Learning.”*  Unfortunately, the statement as it stands does not take into account the full complexity of what “applying knowledge” entails.  First, students have to have something in their short term memory to begin applying.  Then, they have to have information in their long term memories in order to figure out how to apply their new knowledge and integrate it into what they already know, in order to have it make sense and be synthesized.  Even I am simplifying this process incredibly, but at least I’m acknowledging there is a role for knowledge acquisition and memory in the process.  The statement above does not.

“And since we don’t know what problems they will face in the future…”  Sorry, but the historian in me screams when I hear people talking about how we don’t know what problems the future holds for us.  This is not as new as everyone seems to think.  I teach my students that pre-history was like a movie in slow motion, history up to the Industrial Revolution was like a movie at regular speed, and history since the Industrial Revolution has been on an ever-increasing fast forward.  So I agree that we don’t know what problems tomorrow’s generation will face, but I would contend that is not exactly new.  The problems that my generation is encountering (FYI – I’m 35) look vastly different than the problems of my parents’ generation, and the problems that my parents faced were not those my grandparents faced.  This does not give educators a free pass to jettison knowledge acquisition in favor of knowledge application, yet many educators will try to use this idea in just that way, in large because they don’t understand the role of knowledge acquisition in knowledge application as I mentioned above.

“The ability to problem solve is most important.”  Agreed.  Unfortunately, everything that came before this sentence is erroneous, at least in my opinion.  It is a true statement built on a shaky foundation that will make the end goal of teaching our students to problem solve less likely to be reached.

*More on Teflon Learning to come.