The dynamic of teaching is an ongoing interplay among and between their students, making the ever-changing human and environmental variables a formidable challenge. Sensitivities within the entire school community are forever in motion and shifting - the only constant is change. It is the human condition.
Gareth Morgan in his book "Images of Organization" writes, "The famous image is of the 'butterfly effect,' whereby a small change as insignificant as a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking can influence weather patterns in the Gulf of Mexico. Or, as science writer Kevin Kelly has put it, in complex nonlinear systems, "2 + 2 = apples.' " In other words, not everything, including the best of "best practices," will or can be a formula for successful replication. Teaching is not an assembly-line process rooted in the Scientific Management Theory of a bygone era.
One of my past Penn professors and principals, James H. Lytle, likened teaching to a baseball pitcher working the batter or an improvisational jazz musician playing off bandmates. The application and melding of both science and the art of teaching are crucial for a successful teacher. The pragmatic teacher, for instance, has long known and utilized individualized learning, or "tailoring," before it became the current "differentiated learning."
Imagine the infinite variables of the limitless interactions when it comes to five classes (and advisory) of 150-plus adolescent high-school kids in a very diverse environment on a regular school day. Watching a good class is truly delightful; it's the perfect game.
That being said, at any given moment, the pitcher will throw a slider wide and in the dirt, and sometimes it's a costly wild pitch, or just too close to center and it's tagged. You wish you could have that one back. The teacher is out there pitching every day, some innings are better than others, but there is no relief.
Like the "fog of war," teachers, too, have their own fog and mist in the midst of this whirlwind, multitasking and making scores of decisions. It is difficult, if not impossible, to read and analyze every interaction and situation and to measure every word and action.
During the course of developing respectful, caring and trustful relationships between teachers and students there is an openness and vulnerability on both sides when good intentions and innocuous banter can be misinterpreted. Even well-intended constructive criticism by a teacher can be perceived by a sensitive teen and parent as a personal attack or being picked on. Red ink has often been discouraged because it is associated with negative self-esteem. Even the inadvertent mispronunciation of a name can be misconstrued.
Most challenging, perhaps more in need of a magician than an artist, is balancing classroom expectations and rules with individual accommodations.
It's important for each school to have a strong social infrastructure with a supportive school community of "go-to" staff for their students, such as counselors, nurses, teachers, administrators, and social workers.
In the T-shirt flap, no one can negate or even assuage the student's feelings of her own personal experience. The organic process of the butterfly wings flapping has reverberated beyond the school community, taking on a somewhat frenetic life of its own. Sadly, some will muddle the initial spontaneous interaction by exploiting it for their own self-serving agendas. Hopefully, it will be resolved with the calm and reason it warrants, avoiding some of those wild pitches.
Jeff Rosenberg has been a Philadelphia public school teacher for more than 35 years. He lives in Wyncote.