For 32 years, I have been a part of the debate over improving education in America.
Although ways to better our educational system don’t require exceptional insight, implementing those needed changes will be a never-ending challenge. This column, then, will lay out those challenges, review current practices and philosophies, and make suggestions for improvements.
Briefly, my experience has been as a classroom teacher: eight years in an elementary school district teaching eighth-grade language arts and for the last 24 years as an English teacher at Hinsdale South High School in Darien.
Not only have I had more than 3,000 students in my classes over the years, but I’ve also had extensive experience as a teacher representative through my teachers’ association, serving in almost all capacities from president to grievance chair, and from newsletter editor to chief spokesperson representing District 86 teachers in contract negotiations. Thus, I’ve worked with dozens of administrators and many school board members over the decades. In short, I’ve been around the educational track a few times.
Teaching is an art, not a science, so all efforts to objectify this subjective process will fail.
What makes my class effective isn’t some technique or test to which I should teach; no, the most crucial element of any classroom is the teacher. What works for my classroom doesn’t necessarily transfer to anyone else’s because I can’t transfer to that classroom. (We’ll go over this in more detail in another article.) Teachers need to learn as much as they can about teaching and then adapt, revise, and discard to create an environment based on the unique characteristics of each teacher.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore standards. Actually, we should be discussing those things important for our students to learn more often than we do. The problem with educational reform movements is that they focus mostly on objective trivia measured by paper and pencil exams.
Standardized tests are not the best way to assess student progress when the goal of school systems—students capable of lucid, insightful thinking and expression who have the ability to find, to evaluate and to use information—can’t be tested well with objective tests.
The bulk of our non-teaching time should be spent discussing what it is we want our students to be able to do instead of some “expert” lecturing us on how we should teach despite that expert’s not having spent any time in our classrooms. Teachers need a larger voice in education initiatives.
The trend, however, is exactly the opposite.
From the flawed No Child Left Behind to the gimmicky “report cards” Illinois schools are given, people who know nothing about my classroom keep trying to tell me how I should teach.
Not only is it absurd to think that any one program can improve every school, it’s futile to try to force independent, experienced teachers to conform to a one-size-fits-all approach. Once the bell rings and it’s just me with 25 freshmen, I’m going to do what I think is best regardless of the latest trend.
Whatever ideas or techniques come our way, we are going to mold them to our own methods (if we use them at all), so including teachers as partners in the process is the ONLY way reform movements will have ANY positive impact.
Once we accept the two basic concepts that there’s no one way to teach and that teachers need to be included at the inception of any education initiatives, we then have to figure out a way to unleash the collective brilliance of those teachers.
I have dozens of ideas on how to make my school better: from grades to special education to selecting administrators to improving school boards to teacher training to…you get the idea (or if you keep reading this column in the weeks ahead, you will).
And I’m hardly unusual in this regard as there are thousands of teachers across the country who could impact every problem any school is experiencing.
The difficulty, then, is to find ways to get those ideas on the educational table so that we can check them out.
The hierarchal nature of most school systems, unfortunately, has evolved into a Kafkaesque nightmare where practical ideas never get serious consideration as politicians ponitificate, school boards posture and administrators scurry for cover (or vice versa), all at the expense of student education.
Teachers don’t care about “differentiated accountablity classifications” or “disaggregated data;” we just want to help our students learn. That we have to ask to be included in discussions on how to achieve this shows the lunacy that has taken over many schools.
The most fundamental educational reform we could institute would be to foster methods for teachers to be the driving force in all reform movements.
Until we do, we will continue to see program after program fail, but not before consuming enormous amounts of cash and time. Top-down mandates have little chance for success, but tapping the talent each school has on staff could improve every school in a year.
Instead of an adversarial atmosphere where teachers are seen simply as technicians who have to be told what to do, we need an inclusive approach that recognizes there will be no progress without teachers who believe in what they’re doing. Creativity, cooperation, and respect will then take root in the system, leading to better schools.
Contrast that with today’s accountability, standardization and animosity, which have only led to wasted opportunities. I plan to suggest some common sense approaches through this forum which could lead us in a better direction.
Because each student goes through the public schools just once, we lose forever roughly one-twelfth of our opportunities each year when seniors graduate.
And let’s not be overly pessimistic or melodramatic either: Most graduates benefit from their education and will do well as their lives progress, at least in part, because of public education as it now exists.
It’s just that we could do so much better—not with some new program, test or guru—but with a philosophical shift that would never “fix” public schools, instead creating an atmosphere of constructive energy, where all members of the system recognize their worth and feel respected by the process, where education matters more than test scores and where teachers assume their rightful places as key components in improving our world.
Not something we could measure with a multiple-choice exam or cost out, I realize—just much, much better for everyone.