What teaching is really like

I have a guest editorial in today’s Arizona Daily Star that describes a little of what I’ve learned on my journey from journalist to almost certified teacher – interested readers can find it here.

If I had not been limited by word count I would have added that the only way schools will ever be able to fix what ails them is if policy makers are required to spend two full weeks each as a classroom aide in an elementary, middle school and high school classroom before they ever make a decision about curriculum, textbooks or funding. (The fact that the head of Arizona’s Department of Education is a lawyer-politician, not an educator, still rankles.)

This Bring Your Legislator or Policy Wonk to School experience would mirror a student teaching internship: The policy makers would work the hours of the teacher in whose classroom they help, meaning they’d probably have to live with said educator so they could help with the lesson planning in the evenings and weekends. They would have to stay after school for the discipline committee meetings, learn how to average grades for the grade book, write tests and offer tutoring sessions. They would need to skip lunch with the teacher so the extra grading could be complete and they’d finally understand why many teachers and administrators think No Child Left Behind has actually resulted in dumber – not smarter – students, and, get this, lots of intellect left behind.

If policy makers actually saw what happens in a classroom – and not just through an occasional visit to a school play – they would be exposed to the classroom management problems teachers deal with daily, the ridiculous workload and get up close and personal with the problems so many students bring to school with them each day. (Example, true story: Kindergarten teacher asks the children in circle time to introduce themselves and tell about their parents. Things move smoothly until one little girl explains that her dad is in jail and she only sees him on the weekends. Other 5-year-olds have questions: What is jail? Why can’t you stay with him there? What did he do to get taken to jail?)

Thus enlightened, they’d think twice before consider cutting any educational funds, and they’d think three times before ever considering letting a politician decide what is best for Arizona’s classrooms.

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4 thoughts on “What teaching is really like

  1. Amen to that.
    I also think that our legislators & other elected officials should have to take the same Arizona & US Constitution courses that all Arizona teachers are required to pass before being certified.
    I am awestruck by how many lawmakers seem to only know one or two amendments but go blindly plowing through (or past) the other parts of our constitution.

  2. About two weeks after I entered Airline High School as a freshman, my English teacher walked me down to the principal’s office. I don’t remember much of anything about the ensuing meeting between Mrs. Blackadar, Mr. Haynes and myself, but I do know the upshot was that I never took another high school English class.
    Instead I spent one class period every day in the library, conducting my own “independent study”—reading what I wanted to read and submitting essays. This was a program that was normally only offered to select seniors, and I don’t know how my teacher identified me as a good candidate for it. I was a quiet, normal kid who said “yes, ma’am” and tried to do exactly what adults told me to do. I don’t know what inspired her, I only know it worked. Removing me from regular high school English was the work of a gifted teacher who recognized in me a talent I was only beginning to discover for myself.
    If there was a downside to her decision, it is that to this day I have only an intuitive grasp of grammar—I am mostly correct but I can’t say why—and I have no idea how to diagram a sentence.
    But those hours of independent study were a joy for me; I read deeper and wrote more than I ever would have for class assignments; I took on authors above my grade level and discovered that, for me, writing was a way of thinking—of holding an idea steady in my head while I looked it over, kicking the tires and shimmying underneath to check the undercarriage. I learned to type for those classes (in my way, I still peck at the keys with a couple of fingers), on an old acoustic model that introduced me to the satisfying, smacking rhythms of creation.
    I was an above average student in what was probably the best public high school in a middling district in a poor state. Most of my teachers were average at best—a few were very good, a couple were inexcusably incompetent—but this one was special to me; she was insightful and caring and when she sent me to the library to work on my own she lit up a new part of my brain.
    That’s what the best teachers do, I think—they awaken their students to their own possibilities, they alert them to latent potentialities and suggest to them ways they might fit into the wider world. Teaching at its highest level is far more art than science, and the best teachers are much better at it than the vast majority of their honestly striving, caring peers. A great teacher is probably as rare as a great doctor, lawyer, basketball coach or newspaper columnist. We can’t expect greatness; all we can really ask is competence, diligence and honestly applied effort.
    But if there are few genuinely great teachers, there are probably a lot of good ones—and a lot more that are not so good. Though it’s impolite to say, most teachers are by definition mediocre—and some are simply incapable of doing what they were hired to do. Our society doesn’t value the profession; despite the lip service paid to it by politicians and people like me, teaching in public schools is not a lucrative or high status job. A lot of us, if we are honest, look down on teaching as something to fall back on, a safety net to catch those who can’t quite do.

    I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot lately; at the recent Little Rock Film Festival I saw a couple of documentariess about public education in this country that raised important questions about the equity and efficacy of what deserves to be described as our failing system.
    One of those movies, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s Speaking in Tongues, is an inspiring story about how four students in San Francisco public schools benefited from programs that immersed them completely in a foreign language from kindergarten on. (Not only do they benefit from becoming fluent in Chinese and Spanish, but they tend to do better on standardized tests than students in all-English programs. There’s evidence that suggests that learning a foreign language can actually help them with math and science and reading comprehension as well.)
    But if Speaking in Tongues gives us a glimpse at what public education could be, Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting For Superman paints a rueful portrait of a public system where most policy decisions are made to benefit the adults in charge of schools, rather than the children at their mercy. It presents us with data that suggests our educational system, once the world’s best, is now a baleful mess. The only thing American kids excel in any more is self-esteem; even as American math, science and reading scores dip below those of most other industrialized nations, our kids believe they are the best and the brightest.
    Even more sobering than our unearned cockiness, is the realization that we’ve done an especially poor job in providing opportunities for disadvantaged kids. Education used to be a way to break the cycle of poverty, but so many of our public schools are failing—have become what the documentary identifies as “drop-out factories”—that the only hope for some working-class families—who don’t have the option of sending their kids to expensive private schools—is to enter their children in lotteries for limited spots in more successful magnet or charter schools.
    As much as we might like to believe in the idea of America as a meritocracy, if our public schools are dysfunctional and fail to prepare kids for college and the world beyond, then those with means will leave the public system for private education. (Guggenheim notes, somewhat guilty, that he passes three public schools every morning as he drives his kids to their private school.)
    As difficult as the problem seems, maybe it is not quite hopeless. It’s still possible to get a good education in a lousy school—you just have to luck into a good teacher. Studies show that kids are far better off with a good teacher in a failing school than with a mediocre teacher in an above average school; the problem is these good teachers are relatively scarce.
    What we ought to do is transform teaching from a low-risk, low-reward profession to a highly remunerative job for which relatively few people can qualify. Teachers really ought to be paid, if not like the athletes we always say they’re more important than, at least like the professionals we need them to be. We ought to be able to identify and reward especially high performers, and wash out those who don’t cut it.
    I can’t tell you how to muster the political will to do this. And I’m not so naïve to think that things will change just because they must. After all, it’s easier to pretend that we’re still the best and the brightest, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is a bad citizen. We are all above-average, and good-looking besides.

    1. PHil! Thanks for posting this. I wanted to see both those movies – I’ve heard a ton about Waiting for Superman. And thank you, thank you, thank you for this thoughtful reply and for saying what I want to say, but with more passion and skill :-). Are you familiar with “TEach like a Champion”? It is Doug Lemov’s bible for those teachers you mention – the ones who are in poor schools but produce thinking students. I’m reading it in preparation for my student teaching in the fall. He found the outliers – teachers in high poverty schools who nonetheless brought students up to and past grade level (and passing the damn tests). There is so much that needs to be done, and while I don’t know exactly how to do it, as a journalist cum new teacher (and a parent who spent hours volunteering in classrooms), I do believe part of it is getting teachers to be really heard by policy makers. And by teachers, I do not mean unions necessarily – but that’s another post.

      1. Hey Renee:  Gee, now I don’t have to wait for the delivery of my Arkansas D-G to read PHil! Ain’t it a small world? <g>
        Yer pal in East Jesus, Arkansas  —  Ferrari Bubba

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