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Becoming Mr. Henry
by Aaron Barlow
29 December 2005

Becoming Mr. Henry: One Manís Path From Learning to Teaching
by Peter Henry (Pittsburgh: SterlingHouse Publisher, Inc., 2005. 187 pp., $17.95)

Teaching versus standardized testing: This seems to be one of the core conflicts in education today. Our education departments are turning out better-trained teachers than Becoming Mr. Henryever before, but when they get to their schools, they often find they are expected to be no more than test-preparation facilitators. With an obsession for measurement infecting every level of public-school administration, teachers are discovering that they have to teach the skills of test-taking, not those of citizenship (once the hallmark of our educational system) and critical thinking.

What’s really the matter with testing? How does it stop people from learning to think? Why is this so wrong? It’s just a way of keeping track, after all.

For one thing, tests (especially standardized tests) can only measure what was, never what could be or what will be. They are regressive, always backward-looking. Testing can’t invent, look in new directions, surprise or even delight (except, of course, when one’s score is high). Testing assumes that the test creator “knows” — and can assess what the taker “knows” — a questionable assumption. At best, testing is an aid to education, one arrow in a teacher’s quiver. At worst, it sidetracks education towards the dead end of facts, not skills — though every good teacher knows that, as Peter Henry states in his memoir/reflection on teaching, Becoming Mr. Henry, teaching “kids to build skills, not just knowledge, is essential in education.” Testing also moves control over the classroom from the teacher to the administrator or worse, to the politician. This is no minor complaint; toward the end of his book, Henry writes that he has an “absolute conviction that standardized testing, the imposition of state and federal authority over the content and progress of school curriculum is wrong, dangerous and must be stoutly resisted.” Standardized testing, along with centralized control, ultimately may be the ruination of the educational system that allowed us to create modern America.

Perhaps because the threat is so great, Henry spends part of his memoir discussing what he has seen as the problems of the educational structures around him, and with the trends inspired by a federal Department of Education mesmerized by quantification. He writes:

I am afraid we are embarking on an educational experiment — standardized and uniform testing — that has potential for great harm, especially in the hands of inexperienced teachers. I am wary of critics who have the right answers, distrust dogmatic reformers promising to wring greater “efficiency” from schools as if they were factories.

He goes on to claim:

What happens in far too many classes such as this is not learning; it is a kind of trivia contest, where information is transferred from book or lecture onto a blank line, and no attempt is made at relationship, common experience, or deep understanding.

This, though, is only part of the problem. According to Henry, our current predicament relating to education is compounded by:

Corporate media, the largest single shaper of mainstream information, [who] are unwilling to fully acknowledge America’s faults, shortcomings, or historical devastations…. They have even penetrated public policy to such an extent that the very rationale for mandatory public schooling, what has always been to create a skilled, knowledgeable and independent citizenry, has been subtly but conveniently shifted… toward simply providing our economy with acceptably skilled workers.

When creation of workers, not citizens, is the goal of our schools, there’s very little hope that the “production” of an informed electorate can continue, if it hasn’t stopped already. Henry doesn’t, however, lay the blame solely at the feet of the federal government and the media. Another part of the problem with contemporary education, he argues, comes from the fact that:

school districts and unions, this great two-headed monster engorging itself around the task of teaching kids, are not capable of reforming themselves, just as politicians are incapable of sincerely restructuring or devolving power…. Sadly, major reform will not happen while these two bureaucracies are piloting the ship. It is clear from their concerns and actions that children are not their top priority.

If the situation is really so bad, then why does anyone teach? Why do we still have so many skilled, dedicated teachers in our classrooms?

By describing his own odyssey toward becoming an able professional, Henry tries to answer this question, as well — and his answer is the core of this book. To him, interaction between student and teacher is the heart of education — communication, or as he puts it, stories. Some people are drawn to that through all obstacles; clearly, Henry is one of them. To them, teaching represents enthusiasm for the future and the possibility of a growth in which they can partake. As he put it in an e-mail to me:

This is how we access real change. Why? Because stories hit the heart more than the head, and the heart is a stronger and more vital organ. Numbers don’t mean anything to parents when their kids come home talking about being beaten up, or the great experience they’ve just had. We don’t recall tests or scores or facts — it’s always the stories. They lift us up, or they take us down. The stories we tell ourselves have incredible power, and there is a way to intervene in that process with kids, to get them to see possibility, hope and goodness in the stories they tell about their world and themselves. Too bad teachers are so busy with attendance and giving tests that they can’t facilitate the exchange of genuine stories, stories that revolve around core values — so we remember that we have core values.

Which is why Henry decided to structure his book about education through stories, his own and those of his students. Just as it is why he finally chose teaching as a career.

Henry’s book means to show just how education should be conducted — not through tests but through interpersonal relationships. He tries to help the nonteacher understand just what goes into becoming a teacher by describing his own background, his quest for a calling, and his final climb up the mountain to the peak of skillful instruction. For such a small book, that’s a large task; but Henry approaches it with a sure hand gained through decades in the classroom, years in which he also had to investigate himself in order to keep growing as a skillful, effective teacher. As a result, Henry writes with confidence and understanding of a sort that has become rare these days, when most thinkers seem to undercut their own statements with each new one.

There’s another advantage to Henry’s approach to his discussion of teaching. That is, he can talk about how it is examination of our own childhoods that makes us effective teachers. In his e-mail he explains:

The vulnerability of children is something we forget about too quickly in our own lives. We are all vulnerable, and that’s a prime point of departure in working with kids. The trouble I had as a teen and in public speaking kept my vulnerability front and center and allowed me a certain identification with the world of students, even as an adult. This kind of thing … [constitutes] the “inner landscape” of a teacher. Some intangible aspects of character that make one person better suited to the job than others …. The kids will run you through if you are not real with them. So what is needed is a kind of personal coaching for teachers — not just on pedagogy or the latest research, but on where they are personally in service to their mission. It is precisely here that I say, “The personal is professional,” for … teaching is where the personal integrity of the instructor meets the public demands of the community.

Because he is able to recognize the importance of the personal and personal interaction in teaching, Henry is able to deal directly with the fact that failure is as important as success in the development of a good teacher—and he deals with failure quite openly, both personal and in the classroom, in this book. Why? Because failure is a prime basis for learning. As he writes, “Having miserably failed more than once provided a vivid contrast for me about what worked.”

As he is more interested in showing just what makes a good teacher than in touting his own successes, Henry can explore his own mistakes and errors with a candor that many memoirists cannot manage. After all, “it is an eternal striving to succeed that is the enduring mark of a great teacher” — not knowing that one is “right” before even entering the classroom. The knowledge that failure can and will raise its head is one of the things that keep a good teacher growing.

Perhaps Henry’s point could be summed up by that old saw that teaching is an art, not merely a skill that can be measured by student achievement on standardized tests. If teaching involves failure, learning does too — and failure should not be punished but understood and used. It should be the basis for changes in approach and for future learning and teaching, the basis for a future fruitful relation between teacher and student. It is that simple. “Education should not be the mystery it is,” Henry writes, “Successful learning comes down to a productive relationship, or multiple relationships, between human beings.”

In his e-mail to me, Henry expanded upon this:

Relationships are the key to everything good that happens at school, whether academics or extra-curriculars or just hanging out. We need to see the job of education as facilitating constructive relationships for teens, preteens and children. Better relationships mean better academic performance, less acting out, fewer chemical abuse violations, fewer pregnancies, more motivation, more community, and on and on. Let’s show teachers how to facilitate positive relationships in class and beyond so that kids feel like they belong.

As I read this, I found myself nodding in agreement and thinking about another memoir, one written by a friend of mine about her experience as the fourth teacher of the year for a class of 10th graders in an urban New York school. That book, Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity by Elizabeth Gold, explores just what happens when a teacher is not able to form the necessary relationships Henry talks about. Gold’s experience shows just why Henry’s points are so important.

To me, the main weakness of this book is its lack of a bibliography. Henry refers to a number of writers on education, including Paolo Freire and Parker Palmer, but he does not refer to specific works. His book would be stronger if he had pointed us more directly toward the readings that have influenced him and that could assist us too. This lack may result from the dual purpose of the book.

Certainly there is little really new or revolutionary presented in this book (aside from Henry’s central suggestion for education reform — but that should remain for readers of his book to find). That’s not the point, however. This is a book whose purpose is to move discussion of education back from testing to teaching, from paper to people. It’s an admirable goal; let’s hope Henry manages to help us meet it.

Toward the end of the book, Henry extends an invitation to those outside education to join him:

If you are a person who wants schools to change and are looking for an agenda to push at the local level, it’s this simple: Insist upon the best and brightest, most sensible and sensitive people to work with your children. Pay them well. Then train, grow and support them in a humane way, fashioning a system that allows for creativity, personal development and connection as human beings — things you would want for your own kids …. One more thing. If [people make] an argument for or against any proposal, program or initiative based upon increasing or declining test scores, politely tell them to sit down because they don’t know what they are talking about. Ask them if they have read the actual books or studies that are out there on this issue. Ask them if they can specifically recall the score on any standardized exam that they have taken in their life, or even a single question or answer from that exam. Ask them how it is that a standardized exam will inspire young learners, or teachers, to create or achieve things that we have yet to even imagine. Or simply inquire when was the last time they spent as much as five minutes — like you have — in a public school.

This is a call to action that we ignore at the peril of our own children and their peers. If this country is to continue to be as great as it could be, we need to ensure that we are providing the best education we can. Unfortunately, through the imposition of standardized exams, that is becoming less and less the case.


ePluribus Contributors: Sue in KY, standingup, Cho, Beverly in NH and JeninRI

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