Thursday, July 24, 2008

School in society, pt. I:

What teachers aren't

I suspect that this is going to be a leit motif of this blog; I spend a lot of time thinking about this subject. I took a class on Schools in Society in my education class, and occasionally revisit the materials of that class and use it to reanalyze my teaching philosophy. But that class was before NCLB, and though the perspective on schools has changed, the research has advanced, and the field is more important than ever, the argument about the roles of schools in society seems to have stayed in almost exactly the same place.

My thoughts today are on precisely what a teacher's job is. My personal definition of a teacher has changed somewhat from someone who speaks Spanish at students in a way they can understand, to a figure much more involved in a student's interaction with the world. School is the first big bureaucracy that a student has to navigate through, and as she approaches graduation, she has to deal with more and more of it. I still take a dim view of anything that emphasizes the structure of school over the content of classes, but since the structure of school is important, I've come to recognize that I have to be good at it, and I have to be good at making by students be good at it.

With the rapidly evolving ideas about what my job is and what my job should be, I've uncovered a lot of things a teacher is not. It takes approximately 15 minutes into the first class in an Education Professional Development curriculum for most teacher learners to discover that being a teacher is not (supposed to be) knowing everything and dispensing this knowledge, a quarter-cup at a time, into the empty but eager vessels that are the brains of students. (The other metaphor used is "writing on a blank chalkboard." I've read research that calls it the Atlas complex, because the teacher carries the world on his back the way Atlas carries the sky. It bears remembering what happened to Atlas: when the weight of the sky nearly broke him, Athene used Medusa's head to turn him to stone.) The "dispenser of knowledge" model of teaching has been refuted over and over again, but you still see it in societal expectations of teachers. (I'll update with sources if I can find them online.)

But what really has been sticking in my craw is a list apocryphally attributed to Bill Gates, but in fact by libertarian Charles Sykes. The rule on this list that I constantly get stuck on is this:

Rule 4. If you think your teacher is tough, wait 'til you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure, so he tends to be a bit edgier. When you screw up, he's not going to ask you how you feel about it.
It's not the implication that tenure makes teachers lose interest in the quality of their work that sets me on edge. It isn't the suggestion that teachers behave like sitcom parodies of psychologists in the face of student difficulty. These may be true to varying degrees; all I can say is that I haven't seen it, and I'm not familiar with the research that says that these behaviors are problems. (Although my experience in education is limited, it seems to be greater than Sykes's, but I'll concede the research point to him for the time being.)

No, what really irks me about this particular rule is the blatant expectation that teachers be students' "bosses," and that a teacher's primary duty to her students is to prepare them for the brutal, impersonal, emotionally neutral world of flipping burgers (a position Sykes refers to in one of his other rules as "opportunity"). Obviously, one of the tasks of a teacher is to prepare a student for life in the workplace. I'm not sure that the way to do this, though, is by modeling the behavior of a boss to someone who isn't being compensated for their work. This seems like thinking out of the Industrial Age--when public schools were expected to produce people who could do the same thing over and over for 60 hours a week, and things like management and decision-making were taught (if at all) in private education institutions.

We rightly expect more from our public schools, because fewer people have labor-intensive jobs that require no decision making. So in order to prepare students for the workplace, a teacher has to do much more than impress proper servility for authority. Information gathering and analysis, teamwork, self-reflection--in short, if a student receives a perfect education (yes, I know), and learns the lessons, he should be prepared to be his own boss, work independently, and lead others, as well as follow instructions.

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