Monday, August 10, 2015

If We're Serious About Improving Education

Recent research simply confirms what most people know: talented teachers help their students tremendously. They also help realize democratic society's highest potential by educating students to ask how to live and what to live for, not just how to make a living. In the words of educational analyst and former teacher Pasi Sahlberg, they make and protect the place where children are encouraged "to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity." In this capacity, teachers are models of a commitment to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. ~from the report, A  Life of Consequence, a Profession of Status: Enhancing Respect, Recognition, and Retention of Talented Teachers

I've done some college level education coursework, but most of my "training" as a teacher came via what I consider to be my period of cooperative preschool apprenticeship combined with my experiences coaching both youth and adult baseball.

I'd previously thought off and on in about teaching, but it was more in the vein of a process of elimination as I approached the end of my high school career and was looking forward at what was next for me. I saw some appeal in the profession, but since nothing was really exciting to me at the time, I chose to major in journalism because the degree pretty much let you pursue your intellectual interests for two years as a "pre-journalism" student before having to commit. That's why I found myself sitting in courses like "The Byzantine Empire," "Mann, Kafka, and Hess In Translation," and "The Sociology of Leisure," classes that were emphatically not vocational; that opened for me new ways of thinking, new paradigms for how to see myself in the world, and lead me to pursue interests about which I'd previously had absolutely no inkling. I was not at all excited about the prospects of a job, but rather by the idea of spending my life just learning about interesting things, hanging out with smart people, and holing up in libraries like a kind of academic monk.

Seriously, had that been a realistic option I'd probably still be there today, the opportunity cost of course being the life I have today. So, you know, no regrets, but that's what was going on with me, really, even as I cobbled together a career that included being a junior business executive, a PR flack, a baseball coach, and a freelance writer, before landing in the apprenticeship that taught me where I belonged.

I intend to teach at Woodland Park until they wheel me out on a gurney, and even so I hope that by then someone has invented a Teacher Tom robot that I can operate in the classroom from my hospice bed. You see, this is where I get to spend my life learning about interesting things and hanging out with smart people, without all that monkish austerity. 

I understand that this is not the path most of my fellow teachers have taken. Most of them were far more decisive and idealistic than I. A study conducted for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which works to recruit and prepare teachers found:

Many new teachers in the United States are committed to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. These are precisely the kind of people who can help young people learn, not just how to make a living, but how to live and what to live for.

That's certainly the kind of teacher I strive to be, as well as the kind of teacher I wish for my own child and the children of Woodland Park as they move out into the academic world beyond our walls. And, indeed, the teachers I know fit this description. Sadly, as the report points out:

(T)he system almost forces these new teachers toward other occupations.

Even while we as a society look at teaching as "a profession whose influence on individual lives is more significant than that of nearly any other occupation, whose role in society is universally acknowledged to be among the most critical to the future, and whose practitioners are often described as "heroic," "beloved," and "admired," we "cannot recruit and retain the best people because (the profession) is seen by many as a dead end, neither financially remunerative, nor socially and creatively fulfilling."

The perceived low status of teaching is . . . a serious obstacle to keeping teachers in classrooms. So, of course, are compensation issues and questions of how teachers' effectiveness is evaluated, the subject of frequent and corrosive headlines that often reduce teaching to test scores . . . many new teachers reported a phase where they felt disillusioned, defeated, and a deep sense of having failed. Teachers who have been academic high-achievers often cannot deal with this sense of failure; they have been hard-working, motivated, and successful in virtually everything they have done. They blame themselves for not better overcoming the shortcomings of the system and soon begin to believe they they are not good teachers.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that a third to one-half of all teachers, despite entering the profession with the most noble of intentions, wind up leaving the profession within the first five years. In any other profession, especially one considered as vital as teaching, this would be considered a national emergency, yet it appears to me that many of those who hold the purse strings and are in positions of the most power over our educational system, view this not as a problem, but as a feature of the system.

It started with the Bush administration's primary education initiative No Child Left Behind and has continued with the Obama administration's identical twin Race To The Top, programs heavily supported by corporate lobbyists. As Lois Weiner, professor of eduction at New Jersey City University puts it:

(These initiatives are) part of this global project to deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation . . . the thinking is that the biggest expenditure in education is teacher salaries. And they want to cut costs . . . that means they have to lower teacher costs. And in order to do that, they have to deprofessionalize teaching. They have to make it a revolving door, in which we're not going to pay teachers very much. They're not going to stay very long. We're going to credential them really fast . . . We're going burn them up. They're going to leave in three, four, five years. And that's the model they want. So who is the biggest impediment to that occurring? Teachers' unions. And that is what explains this massive propaganda effort to say that teacher's unions are an impediment to reform. And in fact, they are an impediment to the deprofessionalization of teaching . . . It's a disaster for public education.

This, in fact, is the whole idea that underpins such corporatist initiatives like Teach for America, a program that recruits young college graduates, and in exchange for a mere two-year commitment, with the promise that it will be a stepping-stone to a more lucrative career in some other profession, gives them five weeks of summer training, then for rock-bottom prices, sends them into schools with just enough knowledge to coach kids up to do well on standardized test. 

It's a model that treats teaching, this profession that most consider vital to both our democracy and economy, as a kind low level turn-key operation, something like a stint in the Peace Corp with burger-flipper pay and no room for advancement. In fact, these Teach for America grads aren't even encouraged to consider teaching as a longterm profession -- it's about putting in the time, then moving on to greener pastures, like a kind of educational mercenary.

Or worse is this advent of scripted lessons, where teachers aren't even trusted to to use their own words and to squelch their personalities in the name of standardization. Most heinous is the nausea inducing program known as "No Nonsense Nurturing" in which teachers are trained to minimize emotions and to expect 100 percent compliance from students, all while mouthing a script designed to "human proof" the educational experience. The scripting is so extreme that teachers are "trained" by wearing a earpiece through which they are coached word-by-word, moment-by-momet on exactly what to say and when to say it. That's just plain demoralizing cruelty being inflicted upon both teachers and children.

That's certainly not the kind of teacher I strive to be, nor the kind of teacher I wish for my child or the children who pass through Woodland Park.

And that's not the only way corporate education reformers are attempting to dismantle the teaching profession. Union busting (both overt and through the advocacy of low paying non-union charters) is another of their attack fronts, as is the bizarre idea to pit teachers against one another for promotions and raises by using their student's standardized test results as a kind of scoreboard that determines who gets to keep their jobs and who gets fired. Quality teaching has always been about collaboration, sharing ideas, and supporting one another. It's about an ongoing quest, over years and even decades, to improve and perfect our skills. I would not be here today without those three years of apprenticeships in cooperative preschool classrooms. And let me tell you, I'm a much better teacher today than I was a decade ago.

There are many good young teachers, don't get me wrong, but as in any profession, what we learn in school is only a starting point. It's experience that makes for great teachers, those who not only teach the children, but also mentor and support their less experienced colleagues so they don't burn out and leave after only a few years. I would assert that the greatest challenge facing American education is this high teacher turnover.

Teachers are the single most important part of our educational system. The answer can't be to further devalue what we do. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation report's authors recommend going in the opposite direction, calling for a teacher education model that institutionalizes mentoring and apprenticeship, that emphasizes creating a culture of achievement and support (as opposed to competition) within schools, and that heightens the status (and thus the appeal) of the teaching profession by creating opportunities for growth and distinction. I urge you to read the report for yourself.

I got lucky, I think, to land in a place where I, whether by accident or design, received, and continue to receive, the kind of support, training and education I needed to continue to grow and achieve as a teacher, where I feel respected and challenged every day. It's why I've not burned out despite being exhausted at the end of each day. I'm proud that today several of the parents who have come through our school are now working as teachers themselves. I think that means they've felt supported and encouraged as well. We're all in this together. If we are serious about improving education, this is what what we need to do.

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