Common myths about teaching that deepen the divide

Teachers, maybe even more so those who teach in the middle level, may feel like they are currently under attack. Myths about teaching, especially teaching young adolescents, are circulating in social media, podcasts and other public forums.

Here I outline five of these common myths, separating fact from fiction along the way.

Myth One: Teachers do not have control of their students. This myth is grounded in common sense and reminiscing about how schools used to be in the “good old days” when students were respectful and classrooms were orderly and quiet.

Truth: Student compliance and quiet classrooms do not indicate learning. Students need to be engaged and work collaboratively with others in a ways that are positive, productive, and prepare them to be rational and empathetic members of society. Student success goes far beyond knowing how to behave and “do school.”  Engaged, student-centered classrooms lead students to think and understand content. Students become intrinsically motivated when the classroom focus is on meeting students’ needs rather than controlling their behaviors.

Myth Two: Teaching is telling information and learning is listening to remember information. Learning is quiet, and the teacher’s role is to tell information to students. Students sitting quietly and taking notes means that they are learning. If the same few students answer questions this means everyone is following along and understanding.

Truth: Teaching is not equivalent to covering content. Active, student-centered, engaged approaches are the best way to cultivate meaningful learning and higher-level thinking skills as well as increase student motivation.

Myth Three: Pacing guides and set curriculum assures that all students get the same learning experience and holds teachers accountable. Curricular consistency assures that unwanted lessons and perspectives do not find their way into the classroom. Scripted teaching does not require licensure or teacher preparation, and can solve the teacher shortage.

Truth: Students do not all learn in the same way. There is a strong research base to support multiple intelligences, individualized instruction, reaching diverse learners and the necessity of the human elements of teaching that enable all students to learn. Students who do not fit the typical mold of learning are often left behind, mislabeled, disengaged, or disruptive. A focus on differentiated instruction and embracing teachers as professional, diagnostic decision-makers is essential for all students to learn to think and thrive in school and beyond.

Myth Four: Schools (especially middle schools) are using time-wasting, unnecessary programs that usurp a parent’s authority to rear their children how they see fit. Teachers become too personal with students and push their own beliefs. Approaches such as social and emotional learning, student advisory, community building and multicultural/diverse learners approaches are forcing children to become more susceptible to manipulation of their thoughts and challenges  family’s role and impact.

Truth: Teaching and learning are human endeavors. Relationships between students and teachers play a fundamental role in successful academic learning. People bring their prior experiences and social interactions into the learning process. Social and emotional learning is in response to current societal struggles for people to learn to get along and work towards common goals. In many ways this is at the heart of democracy. Young adolescent students, in particular, are learning how to manage their emotions and form their identities while navigating complex social dynamics. Considering other perspectives and developing empathy without compromising your own identity and beliefs is vital to being part of a community, not only within the classroom but in the world beyond school.

Myth Five: Teachers are pushing radical, liberal ideas that threaten parental rights. Current teaching methods run counter to American ideals and methods dissolve the boundaries between right and wrong. Curricula and teaching methods that cause students to feel bad about themselves and deny their beliefs and closely held values are dominating public schools. Teachers pontificate and push their own opinions and typically liberal biases on children. Books and materials that express negative opinions and falsehoods about our country and society as well as those that are morally objectionable are easily accessible and perhaps even part of required learning. Strong minority factions are forcing their way into schools and diluting and replacing long held school traditions.

Truth: In many ways the opposite of this myth is occurring in schools today. Books that some parents or groups find objectionable are being banned from schools and libraries so that no child may have access. Sanitized approaches to curricula are becoming increasingly less focused on higher-level thinking, decision-making, and developing understanding, not only of content, but out of various perspectives in our world. Scientific inquiry and findings are being increasingly questioned. Alternate explanations that are grounded in beliefs, opinions or religion are being presented as equally vetted and accurate. Considering diverse perspectives and using first hand sources to understand why historical events occurred has long been the backbone of Social Studies curricula. Yet still an increasing number of school boards and legislative bodies are beginning to ban any social studies approaches that consider alternative perspectives about historical events and learning to question historical narratives to better understand events.

Dispelling the myths

So, what can we as middle educators do about these increasingly pervasive myths that not only misrepresent what is going on in schools but also run counter to best practices in meeting all students’ needs and the middle school philosophy?

Finding common ground

One of teachers’ strongest allies has traditionally been parents. We need to reach out to parents as they not only are the primary advocates for their children but also wield the most likely political power over school boards and other elected officials. We may be able to create podcasts, Facebook posts, online parent groups and even face-to-face conversations and meetings with parents that help us to counter the myths that are continuing to degrade parent and teacher relationships as well as teachers’ abilities to do what is best for their children. Teachers cannot continue to let outsiders paint a fearful picture of education. We need to work with parents to create voices that challenge the media created parent/teacher divide.

Holly Thornton is a professor at Appalachian State University with over 30 years of innovative, student-centered teaching at both the public school and university level. Her mission has been to touch the lives of the educators with whom she has worked to help them all build a movement for research-based, progressive, and democratic education and teacher leadership, with the whole student at the center.