Model, Mirror, Mentor

A student contacted me this morning who I hadn’t heard from in for over a decade. What was he like in middle school, he wanted to know. I told him, in slightly edited detail, about the dung beetle diorama he made, the poster excoriating the school that he held up one day in the hallway while going from class to class.
A friend of mine calls conversations like this the “mirror role” of being a teacher, telling students how they seem to the world, in slightly edited detail. There are other roles, the mentor role,  which is what people seem to think test scores can measure, and the model role, where students use you to figure out who they want to be or not to be, now or in the future.

I should say that the existence of any of these roles, or the psychological importance that a kid places on one adult or another in his life is in no way in contradiction to the proposition that the net impact of any given teacher or adult is approximately zero. If this kid hadn’t found you to mentor him or to reflect back what he is or could be, to show one possibility of what he could become, he would have found someone nearly as good or better, at least in our mostly wealthy, mostly forgiving society.

Does that mean that all teachers are equally good? Of course not, and it especially does not mean that all teachers are equally good for every kid. That we could have found, in one model or mirror or mentor’s absence, another to serve the same role does not mean that the role itself made no difference, or could not have been played poorly or well.

To measure anything is in some way to corrupt or distort that thing, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of social behavior as of electron orbitals and shells.  That doesn’t mean that even flawed measurements are entirely content-free. When the New York Times in 2010 irresponsibly released the VAM (value-added model) scores of every third through eighth grade math and reading teacher in the city, was I shocked by any of my former colleagues’ or friends’ scores? No, of course not. Is VAM mere chicanery, no more scientific than 16th century alchemy? Probably, though those alchemists had some insights into practical chemistry that came in handy later on.

If we find that on average, controlling for genetic confounds, a parent makes no difference, is it necessarily true that teachers make none too? Perhaps, perhaps not. My own sense is that you can teach your own offspring a single thing, that they not you are the main determinant of, and for the rest you’re just making memories together, filling the time from breath to breath.

When I was ten or eleven I found two mirrors in the back of a closet and arranged them looking at each other, hoping to glimpse infinity. But, as in social science, in the center of the concentric reflections of mirrors I saw only enveloping darkness, along with my own irritating and intruding eye.



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