Most of you are well aware that I have been dealing with somewhat of a professional crisis of faith recently. I have been teaching since 1995… and that is a long time. Especially because I never really thought about being a career teacher. But then, here I am.
People ask me (often) why I got into teaching. It was not totally random, but not unlike a lot of other teachers I know, in some ways I arrived here by a process of elimination. And I am not sure that is a good thing. No one chooses teaching to get rich (which is good since you won’t.) No one chooses teaching to get famous (some do, which is a little odd, and far more likely in Asia.) No ones chooses teaching (anymore) for respect, because although it consistently rates among the most highly respected professions in public polls, teachers are actually not well respected in our current societal structure. No one chooses teaching because it is easy (and those that do, the famous “June-July-August” folks, are probably as dumb as you might think, and not only because summer break is not inclusive of the summer.)
So why do people choose to teach? I chose it because I like school. I like learning. I like seeing how other people see the world and reinterpreting how I see the world. I chose teaching because, truthfully, I like teenagers. I find them funny (in a sometimes tragic way), I find them honest (in their confusion and search for an identity and purpose), I find them to be the new frontier – for better of for worse. I also looked at teaching as a viable career because when I began teaching, the modest salaries included benefits and a pension. Today the salaries remain modest, the pensions are an afterthought, and the benefits are a substantial portion of the still modest salary. I thought teaching would give me a wonderful vantage point into a changing world. And that it would allow me to develop the interests I carried with me from forever: Travel, photography, writing, reading. I also had some teachers who showed me first hand how with a little push someone could open my eyes and my mind beyond anything I might have imagined.
It sounded, at the very least, like it might be a workable fit for an appropriately angsty 20-something who had commitment issues and dreams far bigger than a cubicle could provide.
But nothing stays the same.
Now I find everyday a bigger challenge as teaching takes a back seat to protocol, numbers, meetings, and more meetings. And more meetings. And more.
In an effort to meet the increasingly (or at least increased awareness around) diverse learning needs of an increasingly intellectually diverse student population, the majority of teaching time is now dedicated to standardizing delivery methods and structures. And yes, it is as counterintuitive in practice as it is when you read it here. So, we constantly talk about how we can improve educational results without ever talking about what we are teaching or why – only how. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.
And in spite of all the talk, the results keep spiraling downward: test scores get worse, remediation in college increases at alarming rates, student interest diminishes, content covered evaporates.
Of course, blame is distributed with reckless abandon as well: it’s the kids! It’s the teachers! It’s the public school system! It’s the parents! It’s the lack of funds! It’s the lack of materials! It’s the lack of space! It’s the competition from overseas!
But, it is usually the teachers.
Universities blame the high school teachers (and in my experience often rightly because I can say categorically I have been pressured to pass students who have ZERO business getting a passing grade because there is a general sense that it will be more damaging for them to fail than to allow them to pass and move on. There is logic there that I simply cannot grok, but someone is buying it and selling it.) High school teachers blame the middle school teachers (again, I have to say that I have been very confused to meet high school sophomores who cannot read or complete basic math… do not even get me started about reading a map, or writing a complete sentence… so I can see why this blame shift occurs.) Middle school teachers blame the elementary teachers (how are kids matriculating from grade six without the ability to read or hold a writing utensil?) And then elementary teachers blame… well, I am not sure who they blame, they are an awfully nice bunch and sadly sit at the end of the teacher blame train. Is it the fault of the parents? Can you blame parents for not emphasizing education and supporting their kids’ educational progress when they are working three jobs and still cannot pay the rent? Or maybe might be deported at any moment? Or perhaps are taking care of a large extended family? Or are homeless? Or hungry? Or do not speak the common language? I am not sure, but that feels… wrong.
The other night my cousin innocently asked me if I would be interested in Educational Policy as a new career direction.
My drink came out of my nose.
Education needs more policies like I need an attitude adjustment. In other words, yeah, new policies might help, but not until the real issues around education (and my attitude) are addressed.
Trying to develop solutions to problems whose root causes you cannot identify is not only futile and a total waste of time, it is actually damaging. Not that I am a nihilist (I really am not) but this whole American education thing needs to be rethought.
We live in a society where intellectualism is not respected, but reviled (forget the reverence of days passed). We live in a society where intelligence breeds suspicion. We live in a society that no longer values traditional education. And while the first two conditions I mentioned make me sad, the third is where this whole conversation needs to start.
Americans see little value in traditional education. It is not getting them anything that they currently value (like high paying jobs and lots and lots of stuff.) If you have a conversation with high school students about college these days, they see little point in taking five years (because it is so hard to get the requisite courses) to incur crippling debt (that will go on and on and on) without any certainty of finding a job that can shoulder their financial burden, let alone that might be fulfilling in some other way.
And maybe traditional education is the problem. If we live in a society that thinks knowing Shakespeare is pointless, why in the hell are we still pretending it matters in school? If Americans think that knowing history is useless, then I ask you, how am I supposed to demonstrate that it matters to a generation of kids who are supported by society at large in the belief that I am wasting their time? Not that I agree with this, but I am old fashioned (if not just old). If the trend now is job training, and that is what people want, why on earth do we keep pretending that a traditional liberal arts education matters?
I do believe that knowing how to think, and reason, and having the mental endurance to solve problems and make new inquiries is important. And many people may say they agree with me in theory, but I am in the minority in reality I assure you. I regularly have students and parents (and even teachers) telling me that the kids should learn what they want to learn (I don’t even know what that means…) and school should basically be an apprenticeship program.
I get this. I do not agree, but I certainly understand. It is the age old classist dilemma that an education is a privilege of the rich – those who can afford to dilettante-ishly wile away the days contemplating philosophy and existential conundrums. And as such, it offers little to the general improvement and mobility of society. Again, I disagree, but I understand the position.
I remember in the 90s (and this is still a very real issue today) there being a ton of discussion about recruiting teachers of color and improving retention in secondary education. Someone asked me why I thought we were having so much trouble acquiring and retaining teachers of color. I looked at them like they were stupid, because I really thought they were. Why? Because if I am a first generation college student facing a pretty serious loan burden, why on earth would I ever go into education when I could go into computer science or business and actually contribute to my family’s and my own well-being? In fact, were I a parent in this situation I would never encourage my child to go into education. This is why professional educators are by and large so homogeneous – we are a group of people who can actually (barely, frankly) afford to be teachers.
And so the problem perpetuates (leading to the bullshit sayings like ‘those who can’t do, teach’) persons of privilege who had a chance to delve into their education because they could afford it go into education and try to share the coolness of said experience, and the rift grows as the student population becomes more and more disenfranchised with ivory-tower teachers.
Of course, I am speaking from my own experience and I am not in the mood to back my empirical evidence up with data right now. Maybe another day. For now I will just say this: writing more policy to improve results in a system in which the clientele is completely disinterested in seems pretty much like a total waste of time.
So, do I want to go into ed. policy? Hell no. But I would sure like to understand the shifts that have occurred in our educational priorities… better yet, I would like the ed. policy makers to take a look at these, because then maybe they would start developing some policies that actually addressed the issues at hand.
If traditional education is out, and job training is in, then so be it. Let’s stop trying to force the old system into new standardized tests. As I said, I am not a nihilist, but I predict acknowledging this shift would bring about the same results. Let’s have a specialized, apprenticeship program for our national education policy and just let that play out. At least for a minute we would be being honest about what is going on in education in this country.