Planting Seeds

I had a piece published in the NY Times yesterday about teacher evaluation and the experience of being rated “unsatisfactory.” It was exciting to get a piece in the Times, but it was especially exciting that I got to work an ecological metaphor, about teachers “planting seeds,” into the article. Even more exciting was that I got to mention one of my favorite teachers, Ms. Leonard, in the article.

I took Ms. Leonard’s Creative Writing class twice, and then did an independent study with her my senior year of high school. In the article, I describe the impact Ms. Leonard had on me as both a person and a writer:

“I’m thinking about Ms. Leonard, the English teacher who repeatedly instructed me to ‘write what you know,’ a lesson I’ve only recently begun to understand. She wasn’t just teaching me about writing, by the way, but about being attentive to the details of my daily existence. It wasn’t Ms. Leonard’s fault that 15-year-old me couldn’t process this lesson completely. She was planting seeds that wouldn’t bear fruit in the short term.”

This idea of teachers planting seeds is a powerful one to me. First of all, it reflects the fact that learning is a mysterious process. A new idea or concept can lie dormant for a very long time, creating the appearance of barren intellectual ground. Then, suddenly, a green shoot emerges and the student has learned something. It took me years to understand Ms. Leonard’s lessons, but that’s how learning works.

So, think back on the different teachers you had. Did any of them plant seeds that took a long time to blossom? What did they teach you?

9 thoughts on “Planting Seeds

  1. Anonymous

    mr Johnson
    I've never taught, don't live in NYC, and don't (yet, and hopefully never) have any kids that need your services. But I have to say your NYT piece was extremely well written and it makes it very obvious how messed up this evaluation system is.

    My heart went out to you. I appreciate your courage as well.

    As to your question: I had a fifth grade math teacher (Ms Mubeen in Nawabshah in Pakistan) who taught me that expectations you have of others can have a huge impact on their behavior. I only realize this now, as my kids come approach middle school.

    It seems very basic and I kinda “know” that literally. But I realize now how much of an influence that had on me.

    Muhammad Ahmed


  2. Thanks, Muhammad, I appreciate the feedback. I'm not sure if the lesson Ms. Mubeen taught you was basic, but it seems extremely important. As a teacher, I struggle daily with managing and communicating expectations. Whatever she did, it seems like it worked since you still remember it today.


  3. Will, thank you for the great article in the Times. It was forwarded to me by a non-teaching friend and I have since distributed it to many D75 colleagues who have all given it the thumbs up. It is very easy to feel embattled in this field, particularly when admin's answer to every ill is to impose what really amounts to additional paperwork. We are undergoing a “Talent Management (teacher evaluation) Pilot” in our school and it looks like a stripped down version of NYSAA – we all know how valuable that is. Kudos for speaking out so realistically.


  4. Hey Tony, thanks for the response. You're right– it's easy to feel embattled, and connecting with each other helps counter that feeling. Stay strong out there in D75– I hope the “talent management” isn't the nightmare it sounds like.


  5. Anonymous

    Hello Will,

    I feel like we are peas in a pod.

    I am a special education Geometry teacher in Boston Public Schools (Go Pats!). Have been for the last 14 years. I love and prefer working with this population as I read you do as well.

    In recent years I have become convinced that it is a unique disposition that we are in: Being Teachers, Being male teachers, Being male special needs teachers.

    I really like the way you use your writing to work through and make sense of all of it -You are a great writer.

    My contention is that there is a real opportunity here to do something really great with regard to our experiences as male special needs teachers. There is a real comedy/tragedy/irony story that is so ridiculous that it must be told. And told not just in the way you are doing it but on a much bigger stage. The story just needs to be constructed carefully and over time.

    I'm sure you are very busy as am I. But if you are interested shoot me an email –



  6. Hey Matt,

    Thanks so much for writing. This blog is run by my colleague and friend Mark and I, so we've got three male special needs teachers here in the conversation. I'm curious– what do you think makes our perspective unique? How could we use this opportunity to help ourselves and our students?

    Thanks again,


  7. Anonymous

    (Entry 1)


    A lot of people would have been scared off with the way I opened my last entry.

    Cheers to you -for hanging in there.

    What makes our perspective unique?

    Our experiences.

    The act of teaching is not an inherently feminine/masculine act. It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female. In and of itself the act of teaching (I mean the real instruction) is exciting and invigorating (when you have the students attention and you believe that real learning is occurring.) So why then have I sat in meetings (of 20-25 teachers) over the past few years in which there was a male-female ratio of 1 to 4 or 1 to 5. Never the opposite and hardly ever close to even. And this is high school. I’m pretty sure it is more exaggerated in the elementary schools.

    I am convinced that there are not more males in teaching (not necessarily because of the money, but) because teaching is not really respected as a profession for men. It is for women but not for men. Of course being paid more would help to improve what people thought of teaching but I’m not even sure if that’s the issue.

    When I was starting out as a teacher I had a few interactions with people that really come to mind here

    -After completing my Masters (in education) and working for a few years as a teacher my parents suggested on a few occasions that I might like to move on to get a doctorate.

    -A few years later I had another relative say something like “I know you are just teaching until you decide what you really want to do.”

    -Around the same time I was out at a bar with my Real Estate Salesman friend and a friend of his (I think he was a lawyer). When his friend asked me what I did for work he turned his head and stopped talking to me. Not sure but he may have laughed.

    Why would anyone want to have to fight through this?

    I did but I gotta tell you it took me some years before I could tell people I was a teacher and not “I am teaching right now.” And I liked teaching from the start.

    One might say that these attitudes are isolated examples but I really don’t think so.


  8. Anonymous

    (Entry 2)

    I talked to a teacher friend who said he was in an interview and he was answering questions to the two women he was being interviewed by in his own words and felt they were a little uneasy with how he was answering. Then he gave answers to questions that he felt were a little more “feminine” and he said that they were a lot more at ease with those answers.

    I had a similar experience in an interview when the woman interviewing me said something like “you know we’re not interested in hiring teachers that just want to be coaches” as if teaching is a side job and not my career.

    In an interview years before this an administrator alluded to an incident with a male teacher that got in trouble for something inappropriate and asked me directly if he had anything to worry about me with regards to this kind of thing.

    And into the job itself these generalizations and stereotypes about teaching and about men in teaching continue. . .

    These generalizations and stereotypes have seeped into the fabric of education and left an indelible stain. It impacts our instruction, our interaction with students, parents, colleagues, how we are assessed.

    It’s a Womans profession.

    And no one really wants to here a Man complain. Much less a white man. So its not really worth speaking to anyone explicitly about this.

    But I really think its worth it to get the message out.

    If it were to become a profession that was more equal I think everyone would benefit. I think students would benefit from having stronger male perspectives in schools I think women teachers would benefit from hearing the different perspectives and of course it would allow male teachers, first to want to become male teachers and then be the kind of teacher that they would be proud to be without concern that someone was going to evaluate you unfavorably for doing something that was not traditional even if it was effective.

    Its my belief that the only way this perspective can get out and be taken seriously is if its presented in a musical or play or movie of some kind. Because again, if the message is issued directly it falls on deaf ears.


  9. John Carle

    Make that four male special needs teachers. I teach elementary (currently fifth grade, used to teach middle school) in the suburbs north of Atlanta. I see some of those same stereotypes, but I think it's an opportunity to create strengths that benefit our kids. Sort of like the WWII unit we're finishing up now – I'm originally from Oklahoma, and my co-teacher and I had them write a “blog post” from the point of view of a young sailor on the USS Oklahoma on 12/8/41. They already know more about the state itself because I talk about it – I'm the only person they've ever met from there – and they now know more about the ship than they do the USS Arizona.

    Same deal w/ being a male teacher (never mind special ed). Most of them have never had a man in class, and given that most of my caseload is boys, the opportunities to make connections with them on that level are almost endless. It's all opportunity.


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