Last updateFri, 10 Jun 2016 6am

American School's David McGrath reflects on the vocation of teaching

More than two decades ago, soon after he decided that teaching was to be his vocation, American School General Director David McGrath sent off applications to 63 schools in Central and South America.

His desire to learn Spanish and immerse himself in another culture took him to a school in Pachuca, Hidalgo, where he taught math for two years, before landing in Guadalajara with his then Mexican girlfriend (now his wife).  Previously the American School’s high school principal, he took over his present post four years ago. McGrath holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Boston College and two Master of Arts degrees in International Education and Educational Leadership from Framingham State University. His enthusiasm for education, and the school where he has spent the past 19 years, comes through notably in his thoughtful observations reproduced here. 


I think you have to be equally in love with the process of learning as you are with being around kids. There’s a saying, that children don’t care what you know, but they know that you care. The profession of teaching can be looked at equally through a humanistic lens and a scientific lens because there is a lot of research around work in the classroom.  One of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with said the reason why he does something different every year is that he’s constantly learning what works and what doesn’t.  Professional teaching has to be looked at as if it is just a big experiment and a laboratory of learning.  If something doesn’t work, we have to be willing to say it doesn’t work, so let’s try something different.  


We are teaching children how to be critical thinkers, and sometimes to achieve that goal teachers do need to, particularly in upper grades, share their own personal thoughts and beliefs.  However, often sharing opinions has little to do with teaching critical thinking.  For example, there’s one teacher who prides herself on not letting her students in as to where her political leanings lie until the end of the school year. Her students might frequently be asking her what she thinks, but she will reply, ‘Give me an argument and I’ll show you how to make the counter argument.’ I think we’re very good at being neutral in our teaching of critical thinking. If all we are doing is trying to indoctrinate children into one way of seeing the world, then that’s the opposite of critical thinking. Having said that, in some circumstances, in particular this election cycle, it’s hard to skirt the obvious, and I think we admit to a general uneasiness in the way some of the candidates are portraying Mexican immigrants, Mexico in general, or the xenophobia that seems to be rearing its ugly head. I think our teachers do it from the standpoint of ‘let’s explore the other side of the story first.’ If somebody makes a claim that seems preposterous, let’s delve deeply into it to see that it really is preposterous through data rather than through emotion.


In Mexico there’s a great respect for family and teachers, and the wisdom elders bring to a conversation. A story that new teachers invariably share, year after year, is how they are shocked that students will thank them at end of the day for their lessons.  I think that speaks to the culture here in Mexico.  The ease with which our students interact with their elders is quite impressive and really lends itself to the type of education where we’re not the sages on the stages imparting knowledge downward, but are participating in an exploration.


In my opinion we’ve done a good job of de-emphasizing that the reason you should work hard is because you need to be the best.  For example, in our assessment philosophy – how we grade students –  we don’t say that only five percent of students in a classroom can get an A-plus, and 10 percent can get an A or A-minus. We don’t stratify in any way. If every child in that class meets the standard to deserve an A, then everybody will get one. If nobody does, then no one will. Ultimately, what the universities and industries are asking us to do with our children is to prepare them to be collaborative people, to be able to work on a team. We take that to heart and have to acknowledge the fact that competition can have a negative effective on teamwork. If someone is always aiming to be number one, it’s going to lead to chaos.  


Perhaps we should talk about the sense of accomplishment which sometimes reflects itself in terms of happiness, or just fulfillment. The reason we don’t entirely encapsulate the word happy is because sometimes this work is hard, frustrating, grooming and rigorous. I think our two valedictorians this year might say that not every step along the way was happy, but in the end they have reached a lot of fulfillment that is to be applauded. Of course, when you are in psychological situation of joy, happiness, interest or elation, learning is going to be much more likely than one involving a Pavlovian methodology of tricking people into doing different things. 

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