Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who will be our future teachers?

There has been (quite rightfully) a lot of discussion about how the new Reach for the Top competition has placed too much emphasis on test scores and thus limits a student's creative potential, not to mention undermines possibility of success in vocational fields. Many of the critiques have come from teachers themselves (in fact, all of the articles I have linked to are from educators). But one question that remains (at least, in what I have come across) unasked is, what does this mean for the teaching profession? And I'm not talking about those who are currently teaching (they have made their position perfectly clear). More specifically, who are going to the teachers of the future?

As a college English instructor "specializing" in Freshman/Intro gen. ed. courses, I have taught students from all majors, including education. And, unfortunately, education students have tended to be the weakest. They were always very conscientious, very nice, came to my office hours, and seemed to try hard. They usually did very well on tests. But when it came to essays...Perhaps they stood out in my mind because it scared me so much that these were the people who were going to be (possibly) educating my children.

It's a question we've all asked, who becomes a teacher, and why? We have all heard the cynical/derogatory theories (couldn't cut it anywhere else, wanted a job for life, no ambition, etc). But upon reflection, I've come up with a theory that those who tend towards education are those who did well in school and for the most part, enjoyed it. Those who did well on tests. Those who were able to sit still and listen. And this might represent the largest obstacle to true school reform: many teachers chose teaching in order to recreate the system that was successful for them.

Because, let's face it, if traditional schooling doesn't reward creative and innovative students, it certainly doesn't reward overly creative and innovative teachers either. How do you "get ahead"? Get a higher degree. Taught by professors who are rewarded (granted tenure) for not being particularly innovative, either (publish articles, present papers at conferences).

This observation struck me as I sat at a conference, listening to a professor read a paper while I prepared to do the same, except I glanced at my twitter feed to read about web 2.0 teaching tools. The person presenting was talking about a long-lost memoir dealing with the Haitian rebellion; he has one of two copies of the original French text. I saw parallels between the text and a book I am currently reading. He was very proprietary about the manuscript. Why? This was his golden ticket. He could find a way to put it online in order for scholars to access an important historical and literary text. But, because of the requirements of tenure and promotion, he is saving it for an academic press. And I don't blame him.

This is how higher ed (for the most part) rewards professors: be innovative (long-lost text!) in your research but completely archaic (academic press, scholarly article, conference presentation) in terms of delivery methods. Rewards professors in any discipline, including education. So, we have professors (locked in their own system) teaching teachers, locked in another. But this is how we have decided to reward teachers. Not for improving or innovating, but by getting a masters.

As many articles have pointed out, smart students don't actually like school all that much because they're bored. I was really good at school, but I didn't particularly like it. I could sit still well enough, but I never really paid too much attention in class. I suspect many of my teachers hated me because I so clearly did little to no work, didn't take notes, etc, and yet still did very well. But I loved university. The freedom. The challenge. The professors. My classmates. So, I stayed with what I loved. The university.

And while the university has not proven to fulfill its promise, I can't imagine going back to a) do another degree in education and b) teach in high school. After spending all this time trying to undo the "teaching for the test" learning that students have been fed throughout high school, how could I willingly go forward to teach just that?

Do I want to work in an area where teachers are unable to do the obvious? Do I want to go into a profession where leaders and innovators have to basically opt out of the system and start charter or private schools? Where if I have a poor coworker, it is practically impossible to do anything about it (yeah, I know, the university is no better)? Where I am scapegoated by politicians?

The LAUSD recently opened up bidding for new schools to anyone who was interested. The result? Groups of teachers put together bids that beat out more established charter schools. As put by A.J. Duffy, it represents "put up or shut up" time for the teachers: "it gives us what we've been asking for: control over the schools, along with other stakeholders. Let us create the curriculum; let us create the professional development and decide how to use the money. We get blamed for everything, but we've never been in control."

I am a good teacher - I have the student and peer evaluations to back me up. But none of that matters. I know I am supposed to be a teacher. But how much am I willing to give up in order to be a teacher? How much is anyone willing to give up?

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