Context is Everything

I was sitting in a restaurant once, on a date with my wife, enjoying the ambiance of the nice restaurant where we were dining, mesmerized by the cacophony of sounds filling the air – inanimate chatter, the clinking of silverware on porcelain plates, the tap of wine glasses being softly sat on the table after a gratuitous sip – as my mind began to wander to whatever predominant notion was on my mind at the time. My wife had excused herself to the ladies’ room and I sat at the table alone, essentially daydreaming. And as I stared-off into nothingness, contemplating this or that, essentially zoning-out my surroundings, I was snapped back into full consciousness by the sound of a plate breaking in the kitchen; and at that moment, I found myself in an awkward position. As I was staring into nothingness, marinating in deep contemplation, I had apparently been inadvertently staring at a gentleman across the restaurant, square in the eye. And when I realized this, I also realized his look of major confusion and mild discomfort as to why someone was staring at him. I was so deep in thought, I didn’t even notice that I was staring right at him. Of course, I immediately looked away and made a feeble and transparent attempt at playing-it-off, but that did not remedy my embarrassment.

Sometimes, we don’t see the details of everything right in front of us, simply because of everything right in front of us.

I once had an interesting conversation with a former student. I’d been out of prison several years and she was a senior in college at the time. And as we had occasion to catch-up, enjoying the banalities of a typical shallow conversation, she said something that prompted a deeper line of thought. As a twenty-two-year-old college student, she said, “There were high school kids on campus the other day, and they looked so small!” I, of course, laughed and agreed, but then she said, “I don’t remember being that small when I was in high school.” And that led to a more interesting dialogue.

“Well,” I said, “that was your context at the time. That was your setting.” I paused, but received no retort. “Right now, you’re surrounded by college students. That’s your context – your setting – now. So of course the high schoolers look small. Yeah, you’ve ‘grown,’ but not all that much. You’re seeing them in the context of being high school students and your own mental predisposition to yourself being ‘older’ makes you view them in a context of smaller.” (Yes, I actually use words like this in casual conversation.)

“Huh,” she said in a syllable of contemplation.

“High school students didn’t seem small in high school because that was your peer group,” I continued. “They were neither big nor small nor old nor young – they just were.” I paused. “Context is everything,” I said in an (admittedly) overly-declarative tone.

It occurred to me during this conversation (and even more-so afterwards) that this perhaps was a significant element of my own cognitive distortions as a teacher. To the average person, high school students look like high school students – annoying obnoxious smart-asses who think they know everything while fully grasping nothing. But as a high school teacher, these annoyances were my context – my setting, my canvas, my work product – and it was the nexus of my professional existence. And my biggest mistake was my casual willingness to view them as social equals in my feeble and errant attempts at being the “cool” or “popular” teacher. Once I began to view high school students as social equals and attempted to insert myself as a variable of their warped socials hierarchy, I was already on my way to blurring the lines of propriety.

Simply-put, I began to rate my status as a teacher by my popularity with the students, not my ability to effectively convey the content. (In my opinion, this is the #1 problem with high school teachers today.)

If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop out. However, if you drop a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly but gradually turn the heat all the way up, the frog will boil to death.

I used this analogy in class all the time; the irony was, as I said it – over and over again, to class after class, year after year – I was the frog, swiftly coming to a boil.

And I didn’t even see it coming.

This, obviously, was never what “made me do it.” (I must continually reiterate this point: Nothing “made me do it;” but the message keeps getting construed that way. There is an inherent need by the populous to assign blame to a person while ignoring all underlying variables; ignoring the variables upon which a situation is predicated is the most effective way to not solve a problem.)  People who see this issue from such a black-and-white perspective either aren’t intelligent enough to understand or simply refuse to understand that these situations aren’t merely shades of gray, but a full pallet of colors. This isn’t something I “blame” for my behavior. However, this is a mindset of which teachers must be fully-cognizant because it is much more common than one might think. Television shows and movies glorify the “popular teacher” while only sparingly making him/her also the academically strong teacher. So many teachers strive to be John Keating from Dead Poets Society, but instead end up becoming Harry Senate from Boston Public. There is an inordinate amount of teachers currently in the profession who desperately seek popularity over educational effectiveness.

One conversation I had as a teacher – one I will never forget – was with a guidance counselor. He asked me during my second year how everything was going, and I think I made a half-comical statement about striving to be John Keating. And his subsequent reply has never left my consciousness; “Well, just be careful,” he said, “because people seem to forget that John Keating was fired at the end of that movie.” I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and yet, I would give anything to have fully-grasped it at the moment those words entered my psyche. Because he was absolutely right.

Being a teacher through the wrong lens is dangerous. Granted, it doesn’t always end the same way my tale did, but it certainly happens all-too-often.

Context is everything.

And until we admit and acknowledge this one simple concept, many of these cognitive distortions will continue to ring true in the lives of teachers and bring strife to the lives of students.

Context is everything.

And until all teachers are willing to prioritize their educational effectiveness over their status of popularity with the students, the quality of education given by teachers and received by students will continue to be lackluster and unproductive.

Context is everything.

And until educators cease being narcissists and start being pragmatists, teachers will continue to function in the mistaken context that teaching is about the teacher – it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I want to be a great teacher.” But perhaps the point-of-view should instead be, “I want to teach great.” That was where I – and many – went wrong. Being a teacher was all about me. I relished in the praise I received on evaluations and from peers about how good I was at teaching. But instead of prioritizing how well I conveyed information to students to maximize student achievement, I instead prioritized image, ego, and arrogance. And, from my vantage point, I was nowhere close to being the only teacher teaching in this context.

Allowing oneself to become enveloped in a flawed context is dangerous because an altered context means altered norms. Norms exist for a reason – both customary and regulatory – so when those norms are ignored for the sake of an errant context, student achievement suffers, student safety is jeopardized, and tragic choices are made.

Never underestimate the power of context.

Context is everything.