When I was a Carpenter

I miss the time when I was a carpenter – being  outdoors, building physical  useful objects, the sheer physicality of the work.  But most of all I miss the talk – the blunt, intense conversations. It seems as if we were always talking about the job – how to lay out plates better, how to install new materials, how to cutout an elliptical hole, what other contractors were building or paying for that matter.  We discussed our work at all levels of detail constantly.  I am reminded of a scene in the movie The Right Stuff in which, as I remember it, the future astronauts were at a backyard barbeque enacting with their hands flight maneuvers.  They were intensely discussing their work, how to solve inflight emergencies, learning from each other and since they had dangerous jobs possibly saving their lives.

That is what I miss.  I have never been fortunate enough to have a teaching position where this type of talk happened on a regular basis.  I mean a sort of debriefing of the day – discussing what worked and didn’t work, different approaches to a topic, good problems to challenge the students, good quiz questions or homework exercises.  Our teaching loads, the structure of our days makes such talk nearly impossible. (To be fair, carpentry talk was much easier since we worked together each day.)

I have said that teaching is a lonely business.  This is what I mean.  Most of the time we are on our own in the classroom and in our offices.  We self-assess in a vacuum and we are always self-assessing.  The students got it or they didn’t (Our classroom assessments tell us this).  Could be have prepared a better example, answered a question more concisely?  Should we have emphasized a topic more or discussed a different example?  We self-assess constantly usually with no discussion with our colleagues and no sharing of resources.

When I used to facilitate instructional workshops, I knew I could get a positive evaluation if I set aside substantial time for instructor discussion of classroom activities.  We so want to talk about our vision, our techniques, our students, our subject matter.  On the rare occasions when teachers do get together outside their classrooms, they start talking about their work – a sort of expelling of pent-up thoughts and ideas and really self-justification.  This is a necessary thing but does not replace continual discussion of our work over our teaching lives.  I am reminded of Liping Ma’s wonderful book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, comparing education in the U.S. and China.  In China, teachers have structured time to discuss the details of their work.  I envy them.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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