Wagon Train of Teaching

6/16/98

 

Teaching is like leading a pack of wagon trains across the United States.

The analogy (and themes 1-4)

 

In Brief

Theme 1: Teaching is a journey.

Theme 2: Teaching takes 15 years.

Theme 3: The 15 year teaching journey is done in yearly segments, each teacher takes one year.

Theme 4: Each school district takes different paths and makes different priorities

Theme 5: Teaching one segment is similar to another, in that it is all teaching.

Theme 6: No matter what the rate of the learner(s), the teacher can meet the learner at the place he is at, and move him across the segment of the learning journey.

Theme 7: Unfortunately, some learners will get lost, not reaching the original end of the learning journey.

Theme 8: A good teacher knows well of the final destination, even though the group is far from it.



The analogy

Imagine that it takes 15 years to get across the country, from Massachusetts to Seattle, or from Virginia to Monterey.

This correlates with the 15 years that a person is in school. I get 15 from: 12 for the mandatory through high school, then 1-4 years for technician certifications (be it from ITT, or being a paralegal or nurses aid) up to college graduate.

Thus, the east coast is equivalent to the 1st grade, the prairie is equivalent to junior high, the Rocky Mountains are the challenges of high school, the Sierras and central valley is the adult certification, and the Pacific ocean (somewhere) is the individual student’s final career destination.


A wagon train is organized across the country in segments. Thus, a leader will take a group from one camp to another, over a period of a one years journey. Then the leader will travel back to the original place to get his next group.

This is analogous to the teacher taking on the same segment in the long journey, each year a different group, each year not knowing the final destiny of the group he left to the next teacher.


Further imagine that there are several companies outfitting these expeditions. Each company starts out at a different place, and ends up at a different place. Each company takes a different path. Each company has different rules, different schedules, etc.

This is analogous to the various school districts. Each district starts with different type kids, and has different final expectations of them.

Using this analogy, we have seen much already.

Theme 1: Teaching is a journey.

Theme 2: Teaching takes 15 years.

Theme 3: The 15 year teaching journey is done in yearly segments, each teacher takes one year.

Theme 4: Each school district takes different paths and makes different priorities

Yet, we can see many further insights.


Theme 5: Teaching one segment is similar to another, in that it is all teaching.

The job of one teacher is similar to that of another. People have tried to say that teaching at the college level is nothing like teaching high school students. Some have even said teaching traditional college students is nothing like teaching adult college students. We see this is nonsense. All teachers are part of the great scheme to get students from one end to another.

Look at our wagon train leaders. Most leaders could learn to handle a different segment. Although the terrain is different, it is still the job of leading people from one destination to another. In a similar way, a teacher can use his basic teaching methodologies and teaching skills, just adjusting the skills taught and the depth of content covered.

Of course if a teacher has learned a particular segment well, then he will be valuable there because he can teach more easily and face unexpected challenges more appropriately.



Theme 6: No matter what the rate of the learner(s), the teacher can meet the learner at the place he is at, and move him across the segment of the learning journey.


Imagine the wagon train leader. Once done, he heads back to the normal meeting spot of the next group. Suppose they are behind? The leader must travel even further east to meet them, and he must take them over. The previous leader must also go back to his next group, so he can not push them any more. Thus, the leader meets the group where they are at, and leads them on the path - he can’t jump ahead. He must also teach the group any skills that the previous leader couldn’t get to. Again, the leader can not skip too much or else it will just become more difficult every year as the path gets more tough. Finally, it is up to the leader to decide where to pick up the pace, and what skills to brush over rather than go into detail on.

This is the same for the teacher. If the previous teacher didn’t get the group as far as normally is done, then the teacher must humble himself and start where the previous teacher left off.

Continuing on the theme of pace of the group, what happens if the group is ahead?

In the case of our wagon train leader, he meets his group before he gets to his normal starting point. This is a pleasant surprise. Thus, he can proceed immediately. At the end, if he is still ahead of schedule, he can wait at the next camp, but go into further detail on skills and information about the land.

With the teacher, he can also take them ahead of schedule, teaching more complex information, and getting them to refine their skills even more.

Again, continuing on our theme of pace, suppose only a few are much faster than the rest?

In the wagon train, a fast learner can be taught more. The leader can talk to him more as they travel. Thus, as the majority of the group just follows along at an average rate, the fast learner can learn more and more about the land from his experienced guide.

A teacher can also do that. The teacher can give more information and talk more with the advanced student at those times when the teacher does not need to interact much with the majority of the class.


Theme 7: Unfortunately, some learners will get lost, not reaching the original end of the learning journey.

The Rocky Mountains are like the High School experience. In both, the challenges are great, individuals learn to push themselves to success or set a destructive life into motion.

The Rockies are giant mountains. Just walking the steepness would put many out of breath. Then there is the snow, in some places year round. The trees and the snow are easily to get lost in, loosing sight of the group or campsite. The animals, such as bears and mountain lions can tear you apart. Finally, if you don’t know where you are going (that is, the specific path which lets you through), you can easily get lost. People die all the time from not paying attention to their guide.

The high school experience is similar. A student is maturing and yet asking questions and experimenting. He thinks about who to listen to, what to try, what he likes, etc. Also, the technical skills become more difficult, and the spectre of jobs, college, and first lifestyle decisions are mind boggling.

The worst part about the high school student is this: many students will stop listening to adults - adults with experience and sound advice. Ignoring some crucial leadership advice (such as on sexual diseases, drugs, or the practical value of education) can lead the student into a path of self-destruction.

Think about what happens when a person stops listening to the guide. Our wagon train guide must decide how much time to go searching for a traveler who has wandered off. He can’t spend too much time, or the whole group who did follow directions will be trapped in the freezing snow. And even so, if the traveler is determined to stop listening to the guide, the guide will not be able to take him along with the group (except by force).

In spite of the guides advice, and in spite of the guide’s efforts after the fact, a traveler who wanders off may end up dead in those mountains.

Similarly, a teacher can’t always save everybody. It takes a lot of time to find a lost soul, and a lot more time trying to rescue him. The teacher must think about the majority of students (who are with it) and their needs. And, just as with the wagon train, if a student has decided not to listen to the teacher, then the teacher will not really be able to rescue the student. In spite of the teacher’s best efforts, a few students will spiral down to death through drug addiction, sexual disease, or side effects of poverty.


Theme 8: A good teacher knows the final destination, even though the group is far from it.

The wagon train guide needs to know about the Pacific Ocean. Not only that, but he needs to know the details about various sites. Thus, the travelers learn bit by bit what they can expect. They have time (and knowledge) to make decisions on their final lifestyle and final destination. They are more ready to follow the guide if he can describe in detail what lies beyond, and as the guides “predictions” come true.

The teacher must know not just his year segment, but about future careers, lifestyles, places to live, etc. The students need to know this so they can choose paths for themselves. They are also more ready to listen to a teacher who can explain specifically why they must learn a particular fact or skill.

That, my friends, concludes the analogy of the wagon train resembling the teaching journey.