Musings

“Some people wouldn’t know strength if it kissed them on the face.”

“As a teacher, I resent being called greedy because I want adequate health care for my family and a pension when I retire.”

 “We live in an age in which we must be the media.”

This essay explains very clearly why teachers should not be judged by their students’ test scores:  Understanding Immediate and Surrounding Context

Simultaneous Immediate and Surrounding Context

By Jay Rehak

Close your eyes and imagine a state of the art school, with the benefit of the finest books, modern technology, the best teachers, and the most qualified administrators utilizing the best practices. How well would one expect the students to perform in that school?  Now place that amazing school in the middle of war tornAfghanistan. Does a school’s location make a difference in student learning? Would measurable student performance be impacted if that same school was placed in a well-heeled suburb of Chicago?  If the location of a school is relevant to student learning, the question is why?  Why does it matter where a school is located?  The simple yet incomplete answer is this:  what a student experiences outside the four walls of compulsory education has a direct effect on what happens inside those same walls.

This answer is incomplete and ultimately misleading because of the misconception that once students enter a school they are completely sheltered from their outside experiences (even if that shelter only provides 7 hours of protection in a 24 hour day).   This common misperception stems from the idea that somehow people “live in the moment” and thus, at least while in school, students are completely isolated from the issues they must confront on a daily basis. A more complete conception of learning requires an understanding that each one of us lives in what I call “simultaneous immediate context and surrounding context.”

Living simultaneously in immediate context and surrounding context means that human beings confront every moment of existence with both a “present” (immediate) reality and a “background” (surrounding) reality. The “present” reality is what can be seen, heard and felt at the immediate moment in the immediate circumstance.  The background reality involves the complete context of a person’s life.  What the individual is going home to, the neighborhood he/she lives in, the familial issues unique to him/her, as well as a thousand and one other issues, much of which cannot be immediately assessed by others, is “surrounding context.”

For example, as I write this, I am sitting in the English Department at Whitney YoungMagnet High School in Chicago. I am sitting alone at my desk, typing this essay. The room temperature is 70 degrees, and I can hear music coming from a room down the hall.  It is 5:15 Central Standard time. What I have just described is my immediate context. 

My “surrounding context” is less readily observable, but no less “real.”  I am surrounded by talented teachers and students, and a supportive administration.  I have enough books for all of my students.  The neighborhood that surrounds my school is safe, and I am subconsciously aware that it is safe.  I say subconsciously because I am not immediately aware of the safety of the surrounding area.  The understanding of my school being in a safe neighborhood is embedded in my surrounding context.  I presume it when I walk in the door and do not actively consider the surrounding environment of the school unless I am forced to consider it (perhaps a nearby police siren or an ambulance or fire truck passes by my school window and thus enters my “immediate context.”).    Additionally, I am married. I have two healthy children, one of whom is away at college, some 350 miles away from my immediate context.  My employment pays me enough to feed, clothe and house my family.  In short, excluding issues of the larger world (wars, hurricanes, famine, disease – which are also a part of my surrounding context) my surrounding context is very positive.   It is still 5:15 Central Standard time. Thus, as I am writing this, I am living both in an immediate context and a surrounding context, and my life is impacted by both. 

Now, as a teacher, I need to remember that every child that comes before me in my classroom also has an immediate context and a surrounding context.  On the one hand, it is quite easy for me to understand, for the most part, my student’s immediate context, because as the teacher, I influence it for my students.  My behavior sets a tone, and helps create the immediate experience each of my students will have.  For example, imagine that tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. I call on a student to answer a question, and her answer elicits a positive response from me. At that moment, that student is positively reinforced. If that student respects my judgment, then my competence reinforces the positive reinforcement I am providing to the student, and as a consequence, the student has a positive “immediate” experience.  But at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, while I’m asking that question, what are the circumstances that confront that student (and the many others in the class) beyond what I can see?  Is she hungry, tired, anxious about her trip home, fearful of something or someone?  Concerned about a family member or feeling economically inferior to the student sitting next to her? Or is the student at ease, with her needs sated, for the most part?  Is there a varying amount of both positive and negative surrounding contextual circumstances?  What is the surrounding context at 9:00 am tomorrow for that student?

I cannot completely know the answer to this question, but I can and must recognize it as a fundamental aspect of that student’s learning.  Because, by including consideration of “surrounding context” into my understanding of each student in front of me, I can better gauge her/his performance and contour a more meaningful response to that performance.  

What if upon asking that question that child looks at me and says, “I have no idea and I don’t care.”  My immediate contextual response might be to say something like, “That’s a shame, because you should care, this is important!”  Should I be criticized for such a response?  What if the surrounding context of the child was that she had just learned that morning that her mother had a serious illness?  Would it change the value of my response or of hers?  As illustrated, it should, even though I could not have known from the immediate context that that child had just received such difficult news. Clearly, it is not enough for any educator or educational structure to assume that the immediate context of a child’s learning is all that matters.   

Yet, the idea that immediate context is the only important aspect to learning is what is currently driving national educational policy.  Many educational leaders, from the Head of the Department of Education down to local school boards and myopic administrators, insist that students’ immediate context can and must be measured, compared, and ultimately dissected irrespective of surrounding context, as if meaningful analysis can be derived from such lopsided analysis.  What these well intentioned educators fail to understand is that immediate and surrounding contexts are inextricably linked. Thus BOTH must be considered in any calculus attempting to measure learning.

In Chicago and elsewhere around the country, schools are being abruptly closed based exclusively on immediate contextual evidence.  Test data, devoid of consideration of students’ “surrounding contexts” is being used as the primary rationale for destroying entire educational communities. 

A better way to assess school performance is to enlist the help of professionals (sociologists, psychologists and mental health researchers) and use existing and new frameworks that measure both the immediate and surrounding contexts of students’ lives. Then this information can be added to test scores to gain a fuller appreciation and more valid assessment of a school’s process, one that takes the surrounding context of all individuals into consideration.

This essay provides the top ten attributes of being a master teacher: Ten Aspects to Being a Great Teacher

 “There is a personal and a communal interest that motivates each of us.  The personal motivates us to focus on our families; the communal motivates us to recognize that we must, at times, join with others for the collective good.”

“Society doesn’t have much left when its politicians denigrate teachers.”