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Can We Look Back to Go Forward?

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Message Philip Greene

I can see how it happens, really.

So many educators I know got into the field because they had this idealistic – and perhaps naïve – belief that they could make a difference.  They felt that they could open the eyes of young people, expand their horizons, give them the tools they need to make it in the societies of today and tomorrow. I think, maybe due to generational myopia, that my generations, from the 60s, felt this idealism more strongly than some other generations.  We had been the “true believers,” the zealots, the revolutionaries.  We had our shot at changing the world, and we saw that we could do it; not nearly as completely as we had wanted, or as we thought we were going to do, but at least to some extent.  As we grew older and saw our time on the world stage pass to one of a supporting role, we saw a chance to be the coaches and mentors to a new generation of changers.

Education, we thought, was the path that would lead to change, and, thus, to a better world.  Education, whether in liberal politics or conservative, is the key to any future.  Marx and Hitler, to use the most modern juxtaposed examples, both saw education as a necessity if their revolutions were to thrive and become, as they saw it, the way of the world.

And so it is.  Which is why so many totalitarian regimes limit education to only a select few.  Knowledge is, indeed, power and, though we may not wish to admit it, a weapon.  In resistance movements everywhere, knowledge is the most effective weapon more highly destructive of the hated establishment than a ton of high explosive or a hundred assault rifles.  It is exactly why a certain element in this country would like to see education put out of reach of any but those of privilege.  If everyone is equally educated, who will have the low-wage jobs at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s?

But it is also a fact that no one can educate those who do not wish to be educated.  It’s the same as putting an addict into rehab when the addict has no interest in kicking the habit; it just is not going to work.

On just about any day, I enter into a classroom and confront – and yes, unfortunately, that is the correct word – a certain number of young people have no interest in what I have to offer.  They see no value in the history of their people, or the proper way to structure a sentence, or the reason behind why we, as a species, are getting taller while we are getting weaker.  These things, to them, are useless.   And so it was with my generation, and, I suspect, the generation before.  There have always been those of us who just didn’t get the picture at the time.  Some of us went on to get it in focus, true, but many did not, and those are the ones whose eyes are most important to open. But we try.  We walk into the classroom every day thinking “today might be different.  Today, I might find just the right combination of words, or the exact stimulate to spark their curiosity.”

Once in a while we do, and we rejoice – we hold on to that moment – and those precious few students who have that light flicker on in their eyes – and call that triumph. Still, there are far more times which encroach upon our consciousness when the students are sleeping, both intellectually and physically, or when they simply turn us off, or when they, in their own acts of rebellion, resist us by mocking and disrespect. If you take grapes from a bowl one-by-one and eat them, and if one grape out of four is sweet and firm and succulent, then, after a while, you are going to put that bowl aside and say to yourself that you will no longer eat grapes because the one sweet one is not worth the three sour ones.

When I entered education, in an inner city, special education facility for emotionally disabled students, I was warned by my colleagues that the average tenure of a teacher in this field was four years.  Averages I have read for education over all are between five and six years before leaving the profession for another.

Most of the time, low pay is cited, but I am not convinced.  The average salary nationwide, for teachers is about $47,000 per year, which, while certainly not a lot of money these days, puts teaching in the middle of the middle class.  Add in the benefits that most teachers get and it is certainly not a low-wage job, even if, when contribution to society is considered, it is far from what would be fair. I am more tempted to see two other things as the prevalent cause of teacher defection.

One is that, while many think teachers have it easy because they have summers “off,” this is far from the truth. First of all, I know of no teacher who, during the school year, does not put in 70-80 hours per week, half of it “off clock,” grading papers, developing lesson plans, completing mandated paperwork, conferencing with parents, other teachers, and administrators, and some other things I have overlooked.  Teaching is far, far from an 8-3 job.  Then, as with most states now, the summers are used for the required “continuing education” teachers must complete to maintain their certification – this required by the No Child Left Behind strictures, although it varies from state-to-state.   This is not a bad thing – I believe that teachers need to keep current with new findings in their field and with new ways of presenting it, new technologies.  But it is no different than, for instance, a manager of a department having to spend three months every year taking courses in management or some other related area
to maintain his or her job, and doing it, usually, at his or her own expense.  That person may not be in the office, but they are, nonetheless, working.

The other reason, I think, responsible for the exodus from education, and the one I feel is the most powerful, is disillusionment.  I think I have never met a teacher who does not, to one extent or another, battle this problem on a daily basis.  After a while, it is sure to wear down even the strongest person.

When one is, as I said above, confronted with apathy, resistance, disrespect and disinterest, it is a natural response to, at some point, say simply, “I’ve had enough,” and go looking for a lower stress, lower maintenance way of paying the bills.  When one considers the decline in a sense of commitment that appears to have overtaken our culture, it isn’t difficult to understand the increasing numbers of educators who leave their “chosen field” earlier than they had intended.  When, day after day, you find yourself having to spend half, or more, of the classroom period simply trying to get students to pay attention or stay awake, not to mention some districts where such expectations may lead to physical confrontation and assault, then changing the world seems not so important as changing your livelihood. I have long felt that there is a need to completely change the way we see and practice education in this country.  And I think that we are long past due in admitting it.

I find it significant that, when this country last was considered the educational leader of the world, elementary education concentrated on elementary subject – reading, writing, math, physical education and social skills and did so in a very basic and progressive way.  College preparation was something that was two stages away, in high school; right now, let’s make sure you can do the fundamental processes of forming a sentence with correctly spelled words, reading an entire book without help and knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

In the middle years, these skills were further developed and expanded, but still, we taught the basics, adding to them general health, and some “appreciation classes” such as band, chorus and, of course, sports.

It was, as I said before, high school that we began thinking of college and of how to prepare for a good one, and the courses, and teaching styles, reflected this.

But now, we begin preparing students for college at ages three and four!  We have high school students pushed beyond their horizons far too quickly and, if we cannot get them into “the better” colleges by age 18, then we consider ourselves – and by extension, them – as failures.

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For 12 years, as a professional journalist, I covered education, environmental legislation, criminal courts, and politics. Throughout my career, I described myself as from the "Dragnet School of journalism -- Just the facts, ma'am, just the (more...)
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