Distraction Matters

I spent a large portion of my Thanksgiving Break doing things like watching The Walking Dead and Dexter. (I don't really love either of the shows, but my affinity for both end-of-the-world scenarios and serial killers doing good work keeps me interested enough.)

I should have been mapping out my world history curriculum for next semester, which I've been telling myself I would do since the year began. I had also planned on doing some research into valuable media outlets for Washington State education policy and news. (Keeping up with education news was so much easier in the big urban districts on the East Coast.)

Instead of being even moderately responsible, I pretty much slothed away my five-day break. And while I had a blank word document out on a number of occasions and had begun searching the internet for Washington education media sources, I repeatedly found the distraction of mediocre entertainment too hard to resist. I began school on Monday disappointed in my lack of productivity, and I wondered why I hadn't done more.

I realized I hadn't done more because I'd been distracted. Time and again, I'd allowed myself to sacrifice a moderately challenging/rewarding cognitive task in the name of relatively worthless entertainment. And here I am with nothing to show for it, except for perhaps the following realization.

The single largest battle I fight in the classroom on a daily basis is against distraction. Most of my freshmen literacy and sophomore world history students would prefer a distraction to the effort of real thinking. On the other hand, most of those same students will engage in real thinking if you force/encourage them into situations in which they realize distraction will not be available for a meaningful amount of time. Providing such situations for students drastically improves the quality of not only their education, but the education of students around them.

Unfortunately, I teach in a small room without enough desk space for the thirty students I have in some of my classes. I also teach those classes to students who are not getting their social/emotional needs met at home or outside of school. Class time, for some of them, is among the only time in their day during which they have an opportunity to relate with people who like them and seem to care about them. "Sorry. I just don't feel like working today," they'll tell me.

I can teach my face off offering them stellar direct instruction, but facilitating meaningful work and thinking is the majority of my job, which means giving students time to practice and experiment with the skills I'm trying to teach them. Given the constraints of both space and a student/teacher ratio of about 30:1, offering students a quality education in this environment becomes an immense challenge, if not an impossibility. Many students who might otherwise complete their work around more studious peers are unable to resist the lure of distraction coming from students who need that attention they're not getting at home. How can I blame them? I'm grown with two college degrees and I often have a difficult time resisting distraction.

I was working with a few students today during my advisory on some simple algebra. One of them was having trouble solving a problem and clearly lacked a basic understanding of even rudimentary arthritic. Bogged down with the burden of low self-efficacy, he did everything from ask why there's a scar above my eye, to bang on the table, to ask his friend what his favorite kind of music was, to scream, "I LOVE CHICKEN!" while I was in the middle of explaining how variables work. And despite the way I've just made it sound, he's a pretty good kid overall, with the capacity to learn in the right environment.

But contrary to popular ed reform talking points, the right environment for this student simply cannot include 29 or 34 of his similarly distractable peers, especially in a small room with barely enough desks or chairs.

In a clip from an episode of Persepectives from last week, Leonie Haimson (NYC Education Activist and Director of Class Size Matters) explains (at 4:40) why smaller class sizes are beneficial for students, particularly at-risk youth who may be significantly behind their more affluent peers. My experiences in the classroom seriously jive with what Ms. Haimson says, ESPECIALLY when she says poor and minority students receive twice the benefits of smaller class sizes. Unfortunately, smaller class sizes are nearly always afforded to more affluent students, who also, unsurprisingly, are regularly afforded more experienced teachers.

Whether we admit it or not, the quality of a given educational experience has as much to do with the number and personalities of a student's peers as it does with available resources or the quality of the teacher. I am positive that every one of my students is capable of receiving an excellent education and using it to better their lives. I do not, however, believe that I am capable of providing it to them under current circumstances.

You begin your teaching career believing (either due to arrogance, idealism, naivity, or misinformation) that you alone have the capacity to offer any given student a path toward a positive future. Organizations like Teach for America rely on this belief, tweeting things like: "Join Teach for America because poverty is NOT destiny." Then you step into a real classroom. When you fail at first, you think that you need more experience. If you just knew more about teaching, you could honestly offer every student an amazing education. And then, eventually, you run up against reality. You've been doing this for years, constantly rethinking your approach, and while you know you could always improve, you also realize that there is a political/economic reality greatly hindering what could be. And it's a simple reality: we refuse to admit that education is expensive, especially the education of the underprivileged, and therefore refuse to pay for it.

My students need more space, more teachers who have time to develop curriculum and reflect on student work, and fewer peers in the classroom offering them opportunities for distraction. That's expensive, but not prohibitively so for the richest country on earth by far, not by a long shot.

In the same way that humanity has the capacity to feed, clothe, and provide shelter to every human on earth but chooses not to, Americans equally have the capacity to provide an excellent education to every student and choose not to. We apparently prefer using students as guinea pigs in attempting to prove asinine ideological contentions far removed from the everyday reality of the classroom in the name of ego, reputation, and keeping money away from public services to basing our reform efforts on the quite sufficient knowledge and experience of those who have worked long and hard in schools for decades.


  1. Yes James smaller class sizes is expensive, but so was spending a trillion dollars on NCLB/RTTT reforms. We have the money, but our leaders lack the will. Our policy makers and politicians demand people follow the data. Well, examining NEAP and SAT scores of our 17-year olds reveals the lowest scores in three decades. One wonders when these people will start following their own data?
    What we have with NCLB is the most massive reform failure in American education history.The achievement cap is not shrinking it is growing.
    Class size matters, and we have the money to reduce class size. Lets just do it, and follow the data for a change. At the very least every student deserves a chair and a desk of their own.
    Jesse Turner
    Children Are More Than Test Scores

  2. This entry is why I liked (and still like) the name Reflective Educator. Most of us would just beat ourselves up over not getting our weekend or holiday work done and then go back to school on Monday trying to catch up with the never ending stacks of paperwork. Not all educators would relate their own lack of ambition on the weekend to their students.

    There's a reason for distractions...a place for them and a purpose to them. I agree that distractions restrict the amount of curriculum which can be covered in a classroom...and that those distractions increase as the class size increases. You acknowledged the reasons for the distractions...the needs of the students. Disruptive (aka "needy") students can't repress those needs.

    The problem is not you. You can make the best lessons ever...dance your greatest dances and tell your best jokes...the effects of unmet basic needs in a child's life (or adult's life, for that matter) will not be changed by your teaching ability or bag of tricks. There are, of course, ways of distracting them from their disruptiveness...and, as a former primary grade teacher I know some of those tricks (which, btw, don't always work). The problem is the combination of too many unmet needs, too many students, not enough space, and not enough support from the outside world.

    Most of us start our teaching careers with the goal of changing our students' lives for the better...and somewhere along the way we realize that, if we're lucky, we'll be instrumental in changing SOME students' lives. It's a disappointment that we have to live with and adjust to. It helped me to read the Starfish story (http://www.starrbrite.com/starfish.html) and post it in my classroom next to my desk.

    Over the years it also helped to hear from former students...the student who was struggling as a first grader whose parents told me that I was the change he needed to learn to read...the student who wrote to me from his prison cell and told me that I helped him make the Father's Day card that was the last communication he had ever had with his father...the student who told me that I had inspired her to become a teacher. Those are the things which will helped me realize that I had made a difference.

    I know that it takes years to get to that point and there's a lot of soul searching and "reflecting" that goes into surviving all those years. Moving from school system to school system...and from state to state will delay that as well. Teaching children of poverty will also limit the number of students who will eventually come back to tell you about the difference that you made in their lives. So you have to look for that difference yourself, note it, and reflect on that. You have to convince yourself and prove to yourself, day after day, year after year, that you do make a difference.

    You have an extremely difficult job despite what the corporate reformers and the ignorant pundits tell you. It's true that we, as a nation, can and should do more to make our classrooms better places for learning...and class size is an important factor in that. However, just like your students, there was a purpose for your distraction last weekend. "Nothing to show for it, except" the insight into your students distractablitily? I disagree.

    You also gave your brain and your emotional strength time to recoup from the day to day stresses of being a teacher in order 1) to come to the conclusion you made relating your distraction to theirs, and 2) to meet your own physical and emotional needs. When you meet your own needs you are a better teacher for your students. Ignoring your own self-care doesn't help your students and leads to burnout. If you want to be a teacher who continues to make a difference year after year, you need to take care of yourself as well as your students.

  3. The class size arguments naturally go back and forth about size, but what about the class part? I'm continually surprised that we still think that sticking one adult in a room full of children is an invigorating learning environment for either adult or child.

    People have been learning for thousands of years in a few basic ways: purposeful trial and error, by accident, and from experienced others, often in intergenerational groups. The motivation to learn in the past probably was the result of an immediate practical use or simply a natural interest. Our modern idea of legally compelling children to sit in a room (or several consecutive rooms) with their same-age peers and learn arbitrarily divvied-up curricula is a relatively new idea in the human history of learning. I think it's a tired one, but somehow it's become sacrosanct. I certainly don't see how it reinforces democratic principles.

    Maybe it's not simply your distracted students or the quality of your management skills, but also the absurd environment we work in. I taught for 15 years and now, as a principal, I am trying to promote our teachers' "professional development" in meaningful, "embedded" ways. The truth is, though, despite all of the collaboration, professional learning communities, critical friends, etc., adults working in schools still spend the vast majority of their time alone with children. I don't think that's a recipe for professional growth or for student learning.

    For affluent children, it doesn't really matter since they have learning opportunities outside of school; besides, the system works for them. For poor students, it's often a waste of their time.

    1. Good point. People should argue more about the class part.


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