It has been clear to me since even before I first walked into a classroom to teach in 1966 that how a society thought about and supported the education of its people was determinative of its form and future. There are two great uber-institutions for that education: schools and media. Both are imperfect.
Behind both are the forces of cultural habit, institutional form, collective interest and self interest, all marinated in a mix of power relations and ideologies that the Human Genome Project software couldn’t figure out. But that is what there is. Different ones of us grab some little ‘flying by’ piece of the problem and hold on for dear life.
It is not clear to me which is ultimately more important in the long run: the plans and practices of the economic and political elites, the real power brokers who say ‘do it’ and, not matter what it is, it gets done; or the collective moods and movements of the Great Many, that which is swayed by argument and event, propaganda from the elite and ‘imperfect education’ from the trenches.
But if I (and others) accept that the elite power brokers control it all, then I (we) will give up and never know. If I (and others) continue to believe that changing the mood and minds of the masses can influence the elites in useful ways, then making the effort might at least answer the question. History seems remarkably unclear on the subject; however, it occurs to me that, since it is the elites that, if not write at least, edit history, ambiguity on the subject might speak well for mass influences.
So, while the malevolent elite and their sinister plans for us slaves and cannon fodder may be the salient reality of our time, I am going to assume that collectively some real changes can be made by keeping on keeping on and that individual lives will, without question, be positively impacted, not the least of which, my own.
The little piece that I am holding on to is the notion that the most important force in the education of children is the quality of the teacher as both learned person and human being. I was once ‘escorted’ out of a district elementary school curriculum planning session for, politely I assure you, making a similar suggestion; the ‘masses’ were not ready for the idea that there might be teachers who fell short of those criteria.
With these various caveats in mind, I intend to fix education.
A student from Atlanta was asked what would fix education from her point of view. She answered, “Good teachers.” It is really just that simple… and that difficult.
What makes for a winning team (any sport)? Great players. What lets great players show their stuff? Great coaching and management. What brings all of these together to the highest level of performance? Great facilities and an energized and appreciative audience. Every bit of the program development and jargon based “fixes” that have come to characterize education are attempts to get around having weak players, poor coaching and management, inadequate facilities and general social disinterest.
If you can think of a way to have a winning team without quality players, quality management, quality facilities and enthusiasm, then you go girl; your future is made. Every now and again a great player, coach or enthusiastic audience will drive a team for a time, but overall it takes the whole package.
In my experience teachers in general just make it to adequate. That, of course, means that there are too many who are inadequate, but simply getting rid of them will only replace them from the same pile and also get rid of good, even great, teachers who are a pain in the ass for management. The ‘just adequate’ average for teachers also drives off the inspired who eventually seek more enlivening and honest climes. Something more systemic is needed.
The majority of teachers could be much better. But, Professional Development and other jargon fixes usually end up being just another conference to go to, another week spent experiencing things that are not supported by facilities, materials, available time/scheduling or school culture back in the classroom.
On site administration is generally inadequate, often lacking in the people skills of coaching and often lacking an understanding of good teaching – and this is important—even if they were good teachers. In the current climate, changing administrators as a fix is buying a pig in a poke picked from the same pile of pig filled pokes. The largest high school near me has had 7 principals in the last 14 years.
Parents and the community are also generally inadequate, yet that is different matter. They are easily blamed, but they don’t have their hands on the reins. And more to the point their hearts are in the right place; they disparately want the best for their kids, they want safe invigorating communities and they want customers and employees who can do their respective jobs. Their inadequacy comes primarily from having given up on schools that don’t seem to know how to do what they say they are doing and can be unsafe places for children.
So there it is, the playing field; the goal of our little game: good teachers in the classroom.
Just as there are qualities that make for a great baseball player there are qualities that make for a great teacher. How it is that the baseball scouts and managers of the world could sit down together and without too much trouble come up with a list and that the principals and superintendents of the world would, after a while, leave blood on the floor given the same task for teachers is telling. It could well be that the wrong people are selecting teachers for the schools.
Students can tell what a great teacher is, and so can every administrator who takes off the administrative dunce cap and remembers being a student. It is the reason that they are there, a great teacher. The ‘good teacher’ (or great one if you prefer that image) in the mind’s eye of that Atlanta student would like and respect her, not in some hyped way, but really. The teacher would not be this student’s friend; even though she might think of the teacher as a friend, she would know the difference.
The teacher would know things, would believe that those things were important for the student to know and would care enough to meet the student at her present level of comprehension of the material to give her that knowledge and understanding. The teacher would never put her down and would always be the adult in the relationship. The teacher could be trusted. The teacher would not be crazy, or if crazy, then in a good way. Students often think their best teachers crazy because they don’t act like the majority of the teachers in their experience. Students often think of a teacher who listens to them with attention, remembers what they say and ties that knowledge of them to the lessons as “crazy.”
Students want their teachers to be special, they want their teachers to teach them how to live their lives. Teachers can become among the most important adults in the lives of children, not just in grade school, but all the way to and through college.
Now, stop a moment and reflect on your own education. How many teachers did you have like this? What might have happened if your algebra (science, Latin, American history, etc.) teacher had been this teacher? What might have happened if most of your teachers had been like this and if this had been the climate and culture of your school, if the teachers expected a great deal of each other, liked and respected each other, and expected a great deal of the students and were willing to work to get it? That would be a winning team.
I suspect that that was not your experience and it has not been my experience as student or teacher. So, can it be done? Can we deliver an education that is really good enough for the beauty and potential of our human young, an education that enchants and enlivens them and not one that chains and condemns them to a limited and an unreflective life?
Tune in again and I will try some more to figure this out.