Thursday, May 13, 2010
As I have mentioned previously, I was let go by the high school I was teaching over the fact that, while I was a good lecturer and put together intellectually stimulating classes, I failed to properly "connect" with students. One of the administrators was kind enough to send me an email, thanking me for what I had done for them, even if they could not bring me back:
Benzion—you have done a lot of good things this year. The effort that you have put in to your classes and to the school has been nothing short of exemplary. Your knowledge of the material is superb, your preparation for your classes (with the Powerpoint notes) was admirable, and the level at which you taught was sophisticated and challenging. Your willingness to engage the students in questions and discussion improved over the course of the year, and while there is much growth still necessary on this front, I applaud your effort in making some positive changes.
All of that being said, your way of relating to kids made it a challenging learning environment for them and contributed greatly to the classroom management problems that existed all year. Whether in comments on report cards or in class, there seemed to be a constant series of difficult interactions that helped to create a gap between you and the students. You tried hard to overcome that gap, and worked very hard to become part of the greater fabric of the school, and you deserve a lot of credit for that effort. Still, this gap remained and I believe will continue to be an obstacle for you in teaching this age of students.
You are very bright, thoughtful and knowledgeable and I believe that you have a bright future ahead of you, but I also believe that working in a university or an adult setting—people who will appreciate your expertise and your knowledge for their own sake—is one that is better suited for you.
You began to explain to me on Wednesday the challenges your Aspergers poses for you. In many ways, I don't truly understand them--just as you probably don't truly understand the way that I see and read people--the difference being that you probably have thought a lot about these differences whereas I have not thought about them all that much. Given what you describe, though, I can tell that you have worked very hard to overcome most of these challenges and probably are conscious of it every day.
Over time, with experience and learning, you may well become a very good high school classroom teacher, but I still believe that your strengths would be better used either with adults or in a setting such as a library, where you can be extremely helpful to those who need it but would not need to worry as much about group dynamics and classroom management.
I must admit that I was impressed by this administrator's willingness to take Asperger syndrome seriously as a legitimate way of viewing the world and not simply as a disability. As I have said before on this blog, I view myself, as an Asperger, as a member of a minority group.
Here is a thought experiment I offer readers to consider how to understand my situation. Imagine this school had a black teacher, who was very talented, but for some reason did not relate well to the students. This is perfectly reasonable; there likely would be a major gap in terms of style and personality between such a teacher and our white student body. Maybe he teaches history as if he were a black preacher, expecting "amen" responses and likes to stick it to students as he challenges them about "white privilege," precisely to make them uncomfortable? (I actually teach very much in a preacher mode. Usually the second thing people notice about my teaching is that, besides for being very smart, I am also very intense.) What if our administrator were to write this black teacher the letter he wrote me, saying good job but you lack the right "touch" with students? There is a good chance this teacher would sue the school for discrimination on the grounds that what was really meant was that he was black. It is not clear that this person would win, but the school would certainly be hard pressed to respond. Where does one draw the line between color and ethnic background and personal relations, particularly as it is precisely the person's color and ethnic background that is causing the difficulty with personal relations?
The opposition would argue that part of multiculturalism is that the school has to prepare students, as part of their education, to deal with all sorts of people even those they might not naturally feel comfortable with. How are the students going to be prepared to deal with black superiors unless they have had the experience of being taught by black teachers? Does the school simply assume that blacks cannot or should not be in positions of authority so students do not have to worry about it. The school would be challenged to distinguish between the administrator's actions and the white shoe law firms of early twentieth century America, who did not hire Jews on the grounds that they did not "fit" with their sort of clientele.
One of the great lessons of the civil rights movement, and a confirmation of an "Asperger" truth, was the necessity of judging people by hard empirical standards as these are the only kind that are actually meaningful. All vague claims of comfort or how someone affects group dynamics are meaningless; merely cover for those in power. What these claims really mean is that "the person is not like us so we do not want him."