This post is occasioned by two events: I have been asked to teach a high school level American History course to some middle and high school age kids, and to help lead a series of classes for the parents of kids receiving first Communion at our parish. Teaching is on my mind.
Before attempting to answer this question, let’s talk about what teachers do.
Almost all teachers and even some students are convinced that what teachers do within the standard classroom model is directed toward the student efficiently and effectively learning what the teacher is teaching. To put this another way, from the perspective of the student: I should expect that by taking, say, a government or an algebra class, I will efficiently and effectively learn government and algebra.
So after 150 years of this, after hundreds of millions of Americans have spent billions of hours in classroom instruction, there are hardly any adult Americans who don’t know how government works and who can’t do algebra. Right?
I’ve often dreamed of asking a crowd of American adults for a show of hands of those who took algebra in high school. It’s going to be well over 90%, darn near 100%. Then, throw up a simple factoring problem, and ask for a show of hands for anyone who feels confident they could solve it. Well? If the teachers in the classroom model are doing what they think they’re doing – teaching algebra – then the show of hands should be just about the same for both.
So, it’s clear that, whatever teachers think they’re doing, effectively and efficiently teaching their subject isn’t it. Blame it on parents, TV, video games, Facebook or whatever you want, but students, with few exceptions, are not learning what the teachers are supposedly teaching. It’s demonstrated daily that we Americans know next to nothing about anything we supposedly learned in school, apart from the few of us who entered fields where specific knowledge of subjects like math or biology are part of jobs. So, what, exactly, are teachers doing, since they so manifestly fail at what they are presumed to be doing?
The triumph and the horror here is that almost nobody can imagine any other way of educating children, which is how we’ve achieved a state of permanent school reform. I’ve had people tell me that we have to keep trying, as if more effort to empty the sea with a sieve will finally get the job done. Teachers rarely buck against the basic model – they, too, are wedded to the idea that, whatever the solution is, it includes as an essential component as many or more hours in the classroom as we do now. No one asks if the sea needs to be emptied, and, if so, if the sieve is the right tool.
So, let’s look at teachers. (Disclosure: I have 4 siblings who are teachers; my mother in law, father in law and 2 sisters in law; are teachers; several of my friends from college are teachers. And I love these people. I don’t hate teachers in general any more than I hate, say, socialists in general.) What are they like?
Only a certain kind of person can make it through the gauntlet to teacherhood. Let’s look at the filters:
– First off, teachers are college graduates, meaning they have a demonstrated capacity for enduring bureaucracy.
– Second, they took a bunch of education classes and studied for certification exams. Now, I haven’t ever taken an education class, but their reputation is that they consist of much disjointed busywork and jargon heavy theory with little if any practical application. (I’ve heard many times a teacher say that nothing they studied in school prepared them for the reality of the classroom.) If anyone knows better, please correct me.
– Third, teacher attrition rates are high. Almost half of new teachers quit within their first 5 years on the job. A primary reason is that they hate their bosses, who are described as “arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful”. So, we can tentatively assume that teachers who stay 1) lucked into a great boss; or 2) are the kind of people who tolerate “arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful” behavior well.
So, now you look at a school full of teachers. I’m painting a picture that conforms to all the above seen through my gimlet eye:
I assume that they all started out as idealistic young people who wanted to do good – certainly, the ones I know personally did. They sign up for education classes in college. Some, due to sheer determination, limited experience, lack of native talent or an unusually well-developed need to please others, find the classes tolerable. Others, for a number of reasons, rebel sooner or later, and do something else. So, the process begins to filter out those who don’t like mindless conformity and busywork.
Next, we have a certification process that adds another layer of bureaucracy and busywork. I assume more drop out at this point.
Finally, newly-minted teachers arrive at schools where, evidently, the fall into the clutches of those arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful principals. Over half don’t last 7 years.
So, what you get, at the end of the process, are teachers who share, in some mix, the following characteristics:
– extraordinary dedication;
– extraordinarily thick skins;
– the ability to endure arbitrary behavior, and being abused and ignored.
These would be the people who see that things are screwed up, but persevere anyway for the cause. These are what we imagine most teachers to be like, and what most teachers imagine themselves to be like.
Bit there’s another way that is not mutually exclusive with the first: Through Stockholm Syndrome, neurosis bordering on sociopathy, or some combination of the two, they adapt and conform. Those arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful administrators have to come from somewhere, after all.
And who of us gets through school without the occasional evil teacher, where arbitrary, abusive, and neglectful aren’t the half of it?
So, while I, like everyone else, held teachers in high esteem – and, I still do, in several cases – I’ve also come to recognize other aspects of the profession. In my experience as both a student and a parent, even nice teachers tend strongly toward less than admirable traits. These traits are learned from or are selected for by the classroom model:
– Arbitrariness: The most arbitrary thing of all is control, so the greatest crime with the swiftest punishment comes to those who simply defy The Rules because they are arbitrary. We all know, or are, that kid.
– Pettiness: Expressed in a thousand ways. How important, really, are all the little things they want you to do? Yet many will not brook any opposition.
– Casual cruelty: Is it really important that everyone learns the same skills at the same time? Yet how much shame is heaped on those who don’t ‘perform to grade level’?
If any teachers, by any chance, read this, tell me: even if this does not describe you, does it not describe some of your coworkers and, especially, your bosses?
I’ll end with a paen to a great teacher I had. Sr. Boniface, a German Dominican, taught 7th and 8th grade math at St Mary’s of the Assumption parish school. She seemed ancient, spoke with a German accent, and had a large presence, so she was a bit frightening to all us kids. (A few years after I graduated, saw her and was stunned at how small she was – she just seemed huge to us. ) She ran a tight ship, demanded attention, and didn’t take any nonsense. But it quickly became obvious that she loved us kids with her whole heart, and thought the world of us, so much so that she deemed it impossible that even the slowest of us couldn’t learn a little math – and she was going to see to it that we did.
Several of my older siblings had horrendous school experiences – the kind that lead to expulsions, drop outs, transfers, that sort of thing. Yet the one besides me who had Sr. Boniface LOVED her, maybe the one teacher she loved. Why? Because of Sr.’s awesome math chops? No – because she found one teacher that really cared about her, the trouble-making 8th grader.
I don’t remember a lot of 8th grade math, but I sure remember Sr. Boniface. May she rest in peace. Unless, of course, she’s still teaching at 130 years old – which I wouldn’t put past her.