Teaching is Interpreting

April 22, 2018
Along with the Bahrain Teachers College, the Bahrain Polytechnic is celebrating its tenth year in 2018. On April 22, 2018, the Polytechnic held its mid-year Academic Symposium Opening Ceremony under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Representative of the King for Charity Works and Youth Affairs, Chairman, Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, President, Bahrain Olympic Committee, and Captain, Bahrain Royal Endurance Team.
Bahrain Teachers College Dean Dr. Ted Purinton was asked to deliver a keynote address on the theme of Unconventional Education: Supporting Quality in Teaching and Learning. His address is as follows:
I have two stories to share. The first is from a half year ago, in Cairo, Egypt. I lived there for seven years until this January when I moved here to Bahrain. I was living in a building in the middle of one of the diplomatic districts of Cairo. As it is all throughout the city, constant traffic, honking, pollution, and pedestrian noise wafted from the street up to my third floor flat. Now, it gets hot in Egypt, but not as hot as the Gulf. I’ve been in Dubai, Kuwait, and Bahrain in the summer before, and I can say that as hot as it gets in Egypt, it is not that bad by comparison. Yet, it is not possible to open the windows in the summer and get any breeze. What you get instead is the fumes of old cars, the clanking of gas canisters, the yelling of boys selling fruit, the honk-honk, honk-honk-honk of Cairo cars talking to one another. Air conditioning is essential. And wouldn’t you know it…  the week prior to Eid Al Adha last year--the end of August, the hottest time in Cairo--my air conditioner started acting up.
First, there was a terrible smell. We called the repairman. He was in the countryside, visiting his ailing mother. He sent someone else instead. The other guy came, and it seems just as he walked in, the smell disappeared. A few hours later--after he left--it came back. We called him back, and this time, the smell was there. He didn’t smell it. We did. He did not. He left.
The smell got worse--so bad that we couldn’t stay in the flat. We called him back. He came and tinkered around a bit and said he saw no problems. He could not figure it out.
We endured the on-and-off smells for a few days, attempting to air out the flat with fans. In some cases, we just endured the heat or the noise and pollution. We called him back, sure that if we keep bothering him, he will just look harder.
Nope. Nothing. Nothing wrong.
Then suddenly, at night, with the A/C working (yet the smell persisting), we were woken by the sound of dripping water. I turn the lights on at around 2am and investigate. So much water had come from the A/C vent that not even all the bath towels in our hall closet could keep up. The water smelled horrible. The air smelled horrible. The A/C was still working, but clearly this was a problem.
7am, we called our regular repairman. He was still out of town. He sends another guy. We explain the whole thing. Smell, tinkering, more smell, more tinkering, big flood, big smell. Ugh! He gets up on a ladder, tinkers a bit. He drains some water, puts everything back, and says we’re all good to go.
3 hours later. Drip drip drip. 3 hours and 10 minutes later. Gush gush gush. We call him back. He comes back, tinkers, drains, and confidently walks away.
This goes on for about one week. New people, same smells and same drips. Same confident assurance that all is okay (at least until they got called back), or the same unawareness masked by a pretend ignorance that there is any problem at all.
The story ends on a positive (though slightly disgusting) note. Our regular guy arrives back in Cairo, comes over, tinkers a bit, and then pulls out of the pipes a dead rat that got stuck and forced water build-up. The rat was the smell, and the water was washing over it as it dripped all over the house).
Before I get to the point of this story, I’d like to tell you my second story.
This one took place just a couple weeks ago.
I had only been in Bahrain for three months at this point. I had yet to learn about hospitals, dentists, doctors, and other medical facilities or professionals. I kept telling myself that once things settled down, I would finally get to work on mapping out the health care terrain in Bahrain, just in case an emergency occurred.
Well that emergency came a few weeks ago. I was mindlessly pulling dishes out of my dishwasher, not thinking too much about what I was doing. It’s a daily task, and after a while, the only way to make it go by quickly is to be thinking of other things. And so I was, reaching in for one cup at a time, but really listening to a radio program on the stereo.
Then suddenly I felt a tingling sensation on my thumb. No pain, just tingle and a bit of numbness. I look down and saw blood all over the place. I had not seen that one cup was broken, and I apparently clinched it tightly just as I had all the other cups. The glass was thin, and so it cut very neatly into my thumb without me noticing too much.
Now not only had I not scoped out healthcare in Bahrain, I had not even yet had a chance to meet my neighbors. My family was out of the country for spring break that week--happily unaware of my troubles as they were at that point probably eating dinner under the desert sky in Oman, completely disconnected from wifi and phone signals. With blood squirting out all over the place, I figured that was an appropriate time to introduce myself to my neighbors. I ran to the next door and explained that I was a neighbor and that my family was out of town and that I had just sustained a fairly bad injury and would be so grateful for a ride to the hospital.
Very kindly, my neighbor put his shoes on, grabbed his car keys, and without saying much else, ushered me to his car. We drove to a local clinic. After two nurses and two doctors examined my thumb, they all concluded: hhhmmmm…..  I think you need to go to the emergency room.
So, while I wish they could have done something, I am sort of glad that they admitted they did not know how to address my wound. It probably would have been a lot worse had they pretended. A half hour later, I am in the emergency room. It’s late on a Tuesday night--probably around 11pm at this point. Wife and kids still have no idea.
Oh and around this point, I finally asked my neighbor his name. Nick. His profession? Construction firm. His home? UK. How long he’d been in Bahrain? 9 years. I’m sure you can guess by now that I was nervous. The clinic couldn’t do anything for me. Maybe they are going to have to amputate in the emergency room. Maybe I have developed a horrible incurable infection.
My thoughts were stopped short by the doctor who just came in. He said “hi” but not much else. He picked up my hand, looked, looked at the x-ray that had just been taken. Looked again at my hand, poked it a bit, asked me a few questions, asked me a few more, asked me a few more, and more and more and more. Poked. Asked. Poked. Looked. Asked. Looked Asked. Poked.
Then suddenly, it all ended. He grabbed his clipboard, scribbled some notes, and muttered a few things to the nurse, then walked away.
Before I had time to worry, he came back in and informed me in a very plain way, as if he was repeating my menu order at a restaurant: 30% cut of extensor indices tendon, partial damage to radial nerve, swelling around radial collateral ligament. Tendon must be sewn, six stitches for exterior wound, check in five hours to see if blue and if so come back in; nerve will heal on its own in one to two months. Anti-swelling medicine is needed, as is a sling to keep blood from accumulating. Stitches out in 10 days, only come back if swelling is not noticeably less within two weeks.
Then just like that, he walks away. Nothing else from him. The room was silent.
Oddly, I am comforted by what just happened, but I am also confused. What happens next? And what does it really mean if my thumb turns blue?
In walks another doctor and a nurse. They are here to do the surgery and stitching. I’ll spare you the details and speed up to the next day when I did see my thumb turn blue. I went back in, the original doctor comes in, picks up my hand, looks, pokes, asks, pokes, looks, asks, looks, asks, pokes.
And then he says: You’re fine. Go home. Come back in 9 days for the stitches.
And yes, he was right. Everything had gone as he said it would. So like the air conditioner story, this one ended well.
Before getting to the point of these stories, I’d like to talk a bit about teaching. As teachers, we often are led to believe that our skill is primarily a function of what we do. We write lesson plans. We develop lectures, create activities, design assessments. We grade papers, explain to students why they didn’t earn As. In many cases, we re-explain, over and over, why they didn’t earn As.
In sum, as teachers, we do things.
Well I am here to tell you that I don’t think what you do matters as much as what you hear or see or feel or experience. That’s right. What you do as teachers, I believe, is ultimately the easy part. Not easy as in, wow it’s so simple anyone could do it. But pretty close.
We’ve all, I am sure, experienced the social sentiment that anyone who knows the subject can teach it. Right? You’ve all experienced this before, correct? Occasionally it makes us feel bad about our chosen profession. We assuredly like to tell people that it’s more complicated than it seems.
I have spent my scholarly career studying the professions of education--school teaching, academia, higher education, vocational education, training, and so forth. This sentiment has a long history, and it seems to still pervade cultural understandings of teaching. The idea, of course, is that teaching is merely the passing on of knowledge or skill from someone who knows to someone who does not know. Simple.
Perhaps with a few workshops, maybe a couple courses, we can improve our practices. But ultimately, why is expertise in teaching really needed to teach?
My 11 year old daughter wanted to go to a first aid class last weekend. It was advertised as an introductory course for kids her age. I am not exactly sure why she wanted to go; perhaps it was a feeling of personal guilt over having been lavishing in the desert of Oman while I was panicking in the emergency room in Manama. Nonetheless, she had been interested in it for a while, and so she signed up and asked me to drive her there.
When she returned, I asked her some of the things she learned. She told me that she learned how to stop emergency bleeding with a butterfly strip. She told me how to use a tourniquet. She explained…..   WAIT….. A TOURNEQUET?????  How did we go from butterfly strip to tourniquet?
She had no idea. And as I dug a bit deeper, it turned out that there were many oddities like this from the course.
So yes, we all know and can all agree that there are some people who do explain better than others. This teacher simply did not do a good job of explaining in a way that would make sense to someone who needed to possibly practice first aid in the future.
But again, as a scholar of education professions, I have found that this is a completely insufficient way to describe our work as expert educators. What we do is not just explain, lecture, instigate, assess…. In other words, there is more to teaching than “doing”
New story. Same daughter. We argue nearly every day about her mathematics homework. She just will not show her work. She claims: “Why do I need to show my work when I can do it in my head??” My response: Well, you keep getting the answers wrong. If you showed your work, we could figure out where in the calculations you are making an error. Perhaps there is something that you are doing incorrectly.
And each time we have this discussion, we ultimately find that, yes, somewhere in the process, she had misunderstood the concepts or procedures. In a few cases, she had completely different understandings of some basic mathematic principles. All it took was a bit of looking.
Or asking and poking.
The truly excellent teachers among us are the ones who ask, poke, and look. We have seen it all before, and we know how it’s going to turn out. We can nearly predict the lack of understanding on an issue. We know why some of our students are not understanding a particular topic. We know why they didn’t get their coveted As.
Most of the time, we just have to do a bit of asking, poking, and looking. And then we know what’s going on.
What bothered me most about the A/C technicians who filled in for the guy I normally called? They didn’t have the same level of training or experience that our regular guy had. Within seconds, he discovered and fixed the problem. The doctor I saw, within seconds, discovered and fixed that problem.
The teachers who just “do” -- even if they get their ideas from a conference, a workshop, a training, a magazine, a book, or a colleague--no matter how trendy, how fun, how engaging to students--will never be excellent teachers.
The excellent ones accumulate their knowledge from experience, assimilate it to their trainings, and reflect on it repeatedly. They are the ones who can spot the student who says her problem is with the concept being taught when in actuality it is a misunderstanding about a cognate concept. They are the ones who know the tricks to help an introverted student succeed at his first oral presentation. They are the ones who know when an answer is wrong because of language proficiency not because of failure to read the chapter in the textbook last night. They are the ones who have seen students feel defeated before and know how to lift their spirits. They are the ones who know that a first generation college student may need to be approached differently from one whose parents are highly educated. They are the ones who know why the student in the back of the class has his sweatshirt hood over his head all the time and says nothing in class. They are the ones who know that with a bit of asking, poking, and looking, whole new worlds of information about our students can be revealed to us, allowing us to personalize our approach so that all our students can be successful.
As educators at the Bahrain Teachers College, we know we were given a huge responsibility to transform education in Bahrain. We are professionals who apply the expertise of our educational knowledge to the problems we have been asked to solve--namely the preparation of teachers for the Kingdom of Bahrain. Thus, we must be reminded that much more than “doing” is expected of us. We must be fully professional, able to listen and interpret so that we can do better.
An average AC technician can certainly do a few things and fix an air conditioner, but an excellent one asks, pokes, and looks--and then interprets based on his or her theoretical and practical understandings of the problem--before doing.
An average physician can stitch up a wound and write a prescription, but an excellent one asks, pokes, and looks--and then interprets based on his or her theoretical and practical understandings of the problem--before doing.
An average educator can design and deliver a lesson plan, but an excellent one asks, pokes, and looks--and then interprets based on his or her theoretical and practical understandings of the problem--before doing.
As I conclude, I would like to briefly mention that I am so incredibly grateful for Mr. Mahmood, the A/C technician who was the quintessential expert in his domain. I am also so grateful for Dr. Sayeed, the physician in the emergency room on the night of April 3rd who was the quintessential expert in his domain. I am also so grateful to my wonderful colleagues at the Bahrain Teachers College, for we are all are the quintessential experts of our domain.
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