Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How to Make a Teacher

Two weeks ago, the current issue of the Economist arrived at our house one afternoon and when my husband saw it, his immediate comment was, "Ah, the article that will irritate my wife in a thousand different ways!"  I chuckled and wondered what the Economist magazine would have to say about the state of teaching in America and the world today.

So, later in the evening I sat down to read the article.  I knew a couple of things it would probably say because of the title--1)  The issues with education are because we have bad teachers and 2) we need good teachers.  That was actually exactly what the article said.  There was a second article that expounded the idea more in-depth that good teachers are made/taught, not innately formed natural teachers.

The premise of the second article is one I partly agree with, but as with most things the picture is a lot more complicated than it seems and it can't be simplified as much as people would like.  Politicians want to blame teachers--the system.  We live in a world where people don't want to take responsibility for their own actions.  Who is willing to blame parents for why kids struggle in school?
No one.

There is a faulty assumption underlying all of this.  That assumption is that if I can just reason and show someone else why my vision is better than theirs (better economically, emotionally, or socially) then they will agree with me.  I used to believe this.  Teachers are indoctrinated with this idea that in education programs across the country.  I was.  I believed it whole heartedly.

Until this year.

I thought that if a middle school kid understood that I wanted the best for them, if I was engaging as a teacher, if I didn't embarrass them in class, if I explained to them and showed them that writing was the crux of all communication from this point forward in their scholastic careers, then they--would believe me.  And they would do their work.  They would value what I was trying to give them--how I was trying to help them.

But, I learned something that my best friend, who is in her 60s, told me years ago.  Home trumps daycare.  The discipline and rules at home trump what a daycare worker tries to teach the children in her daycare--even if she has them for a greater percentage of their waking hours than the parents do.  And the same is true of school.  Home trumps school.

There are exceptions of course, but those are just that--the exceptions.  Two of my favorite movie scenes are from "He's just not that into you."  At one point, a bartender tells the girl that every girl wants to believe that they are the exception--not the rule.  At the very end of the movie (spoiler alert!), she reminds him of this, to which he responds that she is his exception.  Ah, the exception.

We want to believe that the exception can become the rule.

The article addressing how teachers should really be taught said several things that caught my attention.  One was that parents were never talked about.  And the schools they sited--well those schools talked about in the article are charter schools.  A significant, very significant factor that is unmentioned.  Why is it significant?

Children go to charter schools because their parents care about their education.  Therefore, the kids care more.  They see a value in it.  The parents care.

Why don't I teach in public schools anymore?  The honest answer is that I, like a large number of teachers burned out before the three year mark.  Three years!  I didn't make it.  I substitute taught, I taught K-5 computers at a school for a year, taught middle school for a full year, and then taught one more semester at a horrible middle school.

It was a combination of the administration, parents, and kids that made me want out--out as fast as I could get out.  I'll never forget having a parent berate me for 45 minutes in front of a assistant principal and the assistant principal telling me afterwards that "sometimes you just need to let parents get it off their chests".  I still remember calling to speak to a parent about her manipulative teenage daughter and the daughter lying to me that her mom wasn't home while I heard the parents in the background.

Yes, middle schoolers can be manipulative.

My first middle school was tough, but I had the administration's backing and support.  We had a teacher on staff to help the teachers with materials and to improve their teaching.  We had counselors on staff that had been teachers and parents so they understood both sides and could help parents and teachers understand and listen to each other when conflict arose between students and teachers.  (At the other school, the counselors had never been teachers which made a huge difference.)

But, I digress.  I met an art teacher at the pool yesterday.  My question for her was whether she had a curriculum dictated to her as other teachers now have where I live.  She explained that that was why she wanted to teach art.  She works with a set of objectives and concepts she must cover, but she gets to be a teacher--design her lessons, teach to her students where they're at.  She gets to be a teacher.  She recognized that content teachers don't get to do that anymore with the introduction of common core (but honestly it was already happening in the county I live in).

The biggest problem I have with the Economist's article is that it doesn't realize that in most schools' teachers don't get to teach.  There's a variety of reasons--it isn't as cut and dried as the two page article would have you believe.  For many, it is because the curriculum is being dictated to them.  High school teachers in my county lost a whole month (plus another week or two in some cases) of instruction because of testing.  When I was a teacher, I spent 25-50% of my time on classroom management.  My kids didn't care about being there and they didn't want to work.  Why?  That's the real issue.  This was the case across the board at my first school.  Education policy is written by politicians without taking into account that kids aren't robots and won't just do "what you tell them to do".  When it comes to kids, plugging in "x plus y" won't automatically get you "z" every time.

I learned a lot in my teaching program.  I earned my degree fifteen years ago and yet I can say that it was challenging and difficult.  The Economist was still operating under the assumption that my dad had when I was a kid--that teachers only teach because they can't do anything else.  That's not true.  It is really tough to be a good teacher.  I wish the people who had written those articles had done some hands-on research and had substitute taught at non-charter public schools for a week in lower socioeconomic schools.  I think it would have given the writers a much more accurate view of the state of teaching...

Here are two articles about the importance about parents and education :)
References: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3020099/

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