(and all who are interested in education)
Today’s post is a response I wrote to an editorial in the Nashville newspaper published Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014. Sometimes I can’t resist jumping into the conversation regarding our failing schools.
In this past Sunday’s editorial page (of The Tennessean), Frank Daniels III provided helpful insight regarding the dilemma of “fixing” our schools. While I don’t agree with each of his premises, I wholeheartedly agree with this subtitle: “Simple solutions are quite complicated.” Creating a great school system cannot be done with an isolated solution. (To see his complete piece, click here).
Quoting a description of teaching math from Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green, Daniels’ provided a window into the complex task of teaching one lesson. But I am reminded of some critical understandings that are missing from this conversation. A book published (not in the last ten years) but in 1998 by Parker Palmer provides the missing pieces.
“We have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be anchored by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, or revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.” (3) The Courage to Teach”
Sadly, our culture has become even more toxic to the profession of teaching since 1998. I retired from teaching almost four years ago for a long list of reasons, but a significant reason related to the state of my heart. After many years of supervising student teachers and practicum students in my classroom I found it impossible to recommend teaching to young people. I found myself losing heart for a profession that I loved.
Palmer’s assertion that good teaching cannot be reduced to technique but comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher would surely be scoffed at by many of today’s appointed and elected headline-grabbing politicians. Our culture has turned every question or problem in education into an objective problem that can be tested, evaluated, and then solved with a technical fix.
But I must also address Daniels’ last question in his article: “We have many examples of what works (in education), but when it comes to broader implementation, we fail. Why?”
Just as the classroom teacher’s job is as complex and taxing as an NFL quarterback’s job (Daniels’ comparison), so is the climate and working of an entire school. Charter schools that have raised scores of even the poorest students grab headlines and are held up as shining stars. The facts that never surface in these discussions is a basic one of research – are we comparing apples to oranges?
To truly replicate these outcomes requires comparing schools of the same size (big impossibility in Metro schools), the same type of leadership, the same type of discipline plan, the same resources, the same amount of interested parents, etc. Students are not like soldiers, lined up to follow commands, respond to challenge and inspiration assuming they come to school with same amount of sleep, nutrition, supportive family, etc. They are living beings who change from moment to moment.
Teachers, students, administration, support staff — we all come to school each day with a different set of circumstances and different expectations. The paradox of learning and teaching is this: one period of the teaching day may end with satisfaction and understanding from both teacher and students while the very next period ends in a complete disaster. In the same way a new school that prepares a faculty with plenty of time and training to bond and develop its vision in the first year may lose all of that understanding and unity the next year when enrollment doubles or changes in demographics. I’ve been there and seen it happen.
The solution? You won’t find it in headlines or sound bites. You won’t find it solved by test data alone. It’s complex and dynamic, and bashing teachers or demanding students to be constantly tested hinders rather than solves the problem.
I am thankful for teachers who persevere despite the ever-increasing demands placed on their time. I pray their courage will continue to be strong.
For a related post for teachers, see “A Prayer for Teachers, 2014“