Dear School Leaders and Policy Makers:
Our university used to boast of a 100% job placement rate for MA students with a freshly minted teaching credential. The Class of 2010 faced nearly 100% unemployment. A remarkable portion of each of my recent pre-service class sessions was dedicated to questions of employment and unemployment. That’s a shame since the only thing bigger than these wannabe teachers’ graduate school debt is their desire to improve the lives of children. Despite the wholesale debasing of teachers by the media, foundations and political leaders, I am inspired by anyone who still wants to teach and am honored to help them develop.
Apprenticeship is a powerful way to learn. That’s why future doctors and teachers intern before being credentialed. The theoretical principle at work is that you learn best through the careful emulation, collaboration and supervision of a master practitioner. I remain staggered by the remarkable impact of student teaching on candidates – for good and bad. It does not matter what my colleagues or I teach in the ivory tower of academia. Those techniques, learning theories, even deeply held values might be shelved within days of becoming a student teacher. This is commonplace when student teachers apprentice with the best educators. The results are more catastrophic when assigned to less competent, generous or inspirational teachers.
A few of my student teachers report being paired with teachers who are hostile, mean or sleepwalking. That’s unfortunate, but not half as tragic as the lessons newbies are learning from the “good” well-intentioned teachers and principals. What are young teachers expected to learn from what they observe in today’s public schools? Are good teachers being required to behave in miseducative ways based on directives from school administrators?
Here are just a few of the common scenarios being reported from the field.
- I asked several dozen California student teachers, “Tell me about science instruction in your school?” The nearly unanimous response was that elementary science education is a lot like Big Foot. Teachers have heard it exists, just never seen it for themselves. The Sasquatch Effect may also be applied to art, music, drama, social studies or any other meaningful pursuit not reduced to a standardized test. The innate curiosity of young children is being squelched while learning is supplanted by being taught or worse – prepped. An archaeologist would be required to find evidence of thematic units, classroom learning centers, experiments or authentic project-based learning.
- Principals evaluate teacher efficacy based on the volume of their students. Students are taught to be quiet, compliant and work in isolation. Elaborate time-consuming systems are enforced for eating lunch in silence, walking down the hall and playing only with children in your own class, if your school is liberal enough to still condone recess. There is zero tolerance for joy, conflict, exuberance or the expression of any other human emotion. We then have the audacity to pretend that one of the benefits of schooling is socialization. Right, anti-socialization.
- Math and language arts instruction has been reduced to teachers delivering a script and students chanting. Neither teacher nor student is privy to the secret logic of the seemingly infinite and random list of concepts and skills being “covered” in preparation for the test. Second graders are forced to solve worksheet problems concerning half-dollar coins even if you can’t remember the last time you saw one in circulation and the chincy manipulative kit does not include them. That’s OK, because tomorrow’s lesson will be on perimeter or from the new “algebra in-utero” curriculum. Nothing connects. There is no big picture. There’s just more instruction, more quizzes, more tests and less learning.
- Reading is reduced to mechanical acts or a prelude to comprehension tests. Classrooms are devoid of books, except for the basal that interrupts each boring paragraph with a quiz and compels every child to read the same thing at the same rate, regardless of their ability. Strong early readers endure years of needless phonics instruction just because while struggling readers are poked, prodded and drilled. Students receive “credit” for books they race through, but only if the school purchased the computerized quiz for that title. Reading for pleasure, information or any other intrinsic reason has gone the way of butter churning. It’s now an unpleasant unrewarding chore without the yummy creaminess. Yet, in the golden age of publishing and dynamism of the information age, we pretend to be mystified by illiteracy and low rates of independent reading.
- Not only has the standardization of curriculum begot test-prep and boredom, but “pacing” is its toxic spawn. Teachers are not only forced to pretend that every student is “keeping up” with whatever the pacing guide throws at them, but students are forbidden from “going ahead.” My student teachers report that teachers are punishing kids for going ahead of the sacred lesson. Some teachers make these students sit in isolation outside of the classroom if they have the audacity to express understanding of what they are being taught. Make no mistake, this obscene teaching practice is a form of child abuse and demonstrates that teachers, even the best intentioned ones suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. At best, this phenomenon demonstrates that a primary lesson of contemporary schooling is helplessness. If you act helpless, your teachers will teach that lesson to their students.
Where will one find creative teachers when agency is deprived and compliance celebrated? Every subject at every grade level could be taught in conjunction with a current event like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but by whom? When?
Five years from now, will any teachers know how to seize the teachable moment and build upon student interest or connect the curriculum to the world outside of the school?
I realize that politicians and the media are kicking your ass, but it is morally reprehensible for you to compel teachers to behave in ways that harm or inhibit the natural potential of children. Invoking the Nuremberg Defense is unacceptable. Who will stand up for the children? For your profession? For what is right?
Let’s imagine that non-traditional paths like Teach-for-America are effective and recruit the best and brightest university graduates as they promise. How many of these teacher candidates would be willing to suspend their own expression what they know about learning and allow academic content to be forced through the narrowness of the standardized curriculum?
What would you have me say to the young teacher who chokes up and testifies, “I don’t want to become like that?” (referring to the terrorized, risk-adverse, authoritarians she sees in schools as a result of the high-stakes accountability movement)
Why should a young teacher work for you? After you remove all joy, creativity, freedom and individuality from education, who will teach your child?
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.