As I come to the end of my twenty-first year of teaching in a public high school I wanted to look back over my career and share some observations with the brave souls who are graduating from college and entering the teaching profession. You have chosen a career that is controversial, stressful, frustrating, and often, indescribably rewarding. But, no matter how many former, or current, students tell you how much they appreciate you or how much you inspired them, you still must make it through all of those more frequent, less than uplifting days between affirmations. I frequently wondered whether I should add my voice to the torrent of information flooding new teachers when there are so many factions pushing their personal, philosophical, and political agendas to reshape education. It often seems that groups fighting for dominance in education policy making are too divisive to reach a meaningful consensus; but then I remember that what teachers do in the classroom is too important to surrender to ennui.
Immediately prior to teaching in public high school I was an industrial trainer for a state agency charged with training adults for specific jobs. Most of these adult students were eager to learn, paid attention, maintained good attendance, and took class work and class rules seriously. These students took their classes seriously because their livelihood directly depended on it. This experience formed what would become the foundation of my expectations for public school students. After several years of working with adult learners an opportunity to teach in the public school system presented itself. I accepted the job and transitioned from the business based world to the other-worldly reality of public education. I was very naïve thinking that teaching an elective high school class would be similar to training adults who wanted to learn to earn. I quickly realized I thoroughly did not understand current high school culture or rationale guiding education policy. Realizing I needed more training, I earned a Master of Science in Education degree after several years in the classroom. Thus began my journey as a classroom teacher. Now I’d like to share some lessons I learned along the way.
My first lesson was that there is a vast array of teaching philosophies and annually changing guidelines for teachers to follow. I blindly entered the teaching profession believing that all teachers taught the same material (pre-common core) and shared the same goal. The reality was that curriculum is diverse and although educators shared a goal of producing an educated graduate, the pathway to achieve that goal was very circuitous. As a new teacher you will likely be recruited by a teacher or administrator to embrace his or her personal teaching philosophy; I urge you to stay true to the teaching style, discipline philosophy, and curriculum you find effective, and choose your allies carefully. Teachers, like physicians, should be guided by the principle, “First, do no harm”.
One disconcerting lesson learned early in my career concerned administrative tenure. I found that often an ineffective, tenured, administrator is simply shuffled off to another location rather than released. This happens to teachers as well and neither instance bodes well for the student as this action simply moves the problem from one location to a different location. Principal and teacher reassignment is in stark contrast to superintendents who are simply bought out of their lucrative contract and released. At the highest level of administration, the district superintendent, my school district has had thirty-five superintendents since its incorporation in 1869. During my twenty-one years in the district, it has had thirteen superintendents serving an average of one point six years in the position before having their contract bought out or otherwise leaving the position. I believe this speaks to the lack of classroom and teaching experience among school board members who select the superintendent as well as the volatile nature of politics in education. During my twenty-one years as an educator I served five different principals on my campus, each with a different leadership style and opinion of teachers. I learned a lot over the last twenty-one years but I am not sure I ever really came to understand the educational system’s tendency to seemingly undermine teachers and prolong questionable administration.
To become a teacher you must be motivated and, however cliché, a special kind of person. Because you have chosen to return to the classroom setting you must have enjoyed school, but what you might not be aware of is that many of your students are influenced by their parents’ attitudes formed during their school experience. Lingering negative associations and unpleasant memories from our student’s parents’ experience in the classroom both subtly and overtly influence their child’s attitude toward school. If a parent hated school, there is a high probability that attitude will transfer to their son or daughter. Unfortunately, this means your uphill battle to win students’ hearts and minds started before the student walked in the classroom door. Unless the community helps negate this pervasive attitude about school, the student will likely do poorly in class. And it is not only parents, but also the media, that influence attitudes about school, pause and think of all of the popular songs written about school; how many are positive? The keystone to education reform lies not with teachers and policy makers but with the public’s value of and attitude toward education. It is that simple.
You will encounter parents who simply do not care enough to be involved in the education of their child but outfit their child with the latest electronics and fashion. Societal emphasis on style over substance and peer perception over classroom production is a fundamental problem you will encounter. Teachers cannot change this mindset alone; the community must unite to initiate a change in the student from “look at me” to “look what I have accomplished”. The key to true education reform is not centered in school policy but in society itself.
Also, lurking in the background, behind closed administrative doors far from the classrooms, is the presence of lawyers impacting public school policy. The money spent on lawsuits takes supplies out of the classroom whether the lawsuit is in the name of a noble cause or not. And everyone has his or her opinion of what makes a cause noble, myself included. Cottage industry, cash cow, or noble cause, the impact lawyers have on public education will remain a monetary drain and debatable topic for years to come. Sadly it seems the attitude toward these education based lawsuits is simply “business as usual”.
In my former career as an industry trainer I focused on traits and skills employers wanted in a good employee. Most employers want competent employees that will make customers happy and reflect well on their business. Customers want a competent cashier, a knowledgeable customer service representative, a skilled technician, and a professional business interaction. If an employer has an employee that is not working up to expectations, the employer can try to improve the employee’s performance through additional training or the employer can end that employee’s employment. In high school teachers can’t let the student go, you must keep that student in class and do the very best you can to integrate that student into the class no matter how consistently disruptive that student is to the learning environment. High school should be the transition between school and post school life, but I have seen teachers and administrators who feel such empathy for students they call high school students ‘baby’ and treat them as such, which in many cases exacerbates arrested development. It is our duty, as teachers, to prepare the student for a life after school, not simply get them to graduation day to boost self-esteem or graduation rates. Remember you are educating the generation that will keep our nation growing.
I often ask myself just what did policy makers think the latch key kids and the unwanted children would turn into? Many latch key kids have become parents with children who are in our schools and teachers are faced with students who believe they are adults demanding the privileges of adulthood but also regularly demanding the get out of trouble free card due to their age or situation. The students want it both ways and far too many administrators are willing to let students have it both ways. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a public school teacher is that all of the talk about discipline and consequences is just that, talk. Maintaining enrollment numbers, maintaining the appearance of a well-run school, and sustaining the tax base are so important that administrators and politicians dare not alienate parents or students by taking a strong stand for unpleasant positive change. The daily skirmishes between disruptive students and teachers are largely ignored until an administrator takes the no tolerance policy to a laughable extreme making it harder for teachers to earn community respect and support. The students must hear from a united community and faculty that they need to be responsible for their actions as both citizens and students.
I have seen many fads come and go during my time in the classroom but one recent trend is the saddest, in my opinion. For the last several years now, video recorded fights between students uploaded to YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites have become ubiquitous. The fights are recorded in school bathrooms, cafeterias, playgrounds, and neighborhoods. And let me be clear, these fights are not simple acts of bullying or hazing but come from some deeper angst that needs to be addressed in the community not the school system. Schools cannot stand alone against violence and bullying; the community must raise its collective voice against the violence.
One trend I find disturbing, and revealing, is lack of motivation in many teens as represented by three examples. First, far too many students can’t tell analog clock time. For several years my classrooms had those big, white faced, black numbered clocks with hands that traveled around the clock’s face. My students could not determine the time using those clocks. Today every device has a digital clock and the letters PM or AM to indicate the time. Although reading an analog clock face is an archaic skill I believe it is an indication of a larger underlying problem. A second example that is far more troubling, in my opinion, is the fact that many of my students must attempt the written test for their driver’s license multiple times before passing it. A driver’s license is something most high school students desire greatly, yet they do not prepare for the test. If this is how students approach getting something they desire, what hope do teachers have trying to teach loathed subject material? And lastly, I am constantly amazed at how students can memorize song lyrics and biographical material about their favorite famous person, but can’t seem to prepare for a simple ten word vocabulary test. The key to true education reform is not centered in schools but in reforming the way society values education.
I haven’t forgotten those of you who will be involved in athletics. A recent, local end-of-the-football year, article on the program decline in the five major high schools in my district brought home some good points as the author of the article cited that the combined end of the season record of the primary high schools has not been above .500 since 1999. The city’s five high schools’ football record since the year 2000 represents a .317 winning percentage. Reasons given for the decline included white flight, a decades long and expense desegregation lawsuit, an increase in charter and private school availability, and administrative instability. As a football fan I noticed the trend early on and, based on the athletes who came through my classes, I attributed the decline to the lack of motivation, lack of preparation, and entitlement mentality. An older gentleman, in a fatherly fashion, told me, “Son, if an athlete can’t read a textbook, he’ll never understand a playbook.” Football games were once a chance for the community and faculty to socialize and student athletes to show off their on-field skills, but now the stadium seats are mostly empty and heavily patrolled by the police and on-field performance is as lackluster as academic performance.
In conclusion, I offer the bold and only partially facetious modest proposal of putting all education funding monies and reform efforts solely into elementary education for the next ten years. Despite a long list of pedagogical techniques and initiatives (John Dewey, New Math, Outcome Based Education, No Child Left Behind, MAX Strategies, and Literacy Design Collaborative) the fact remains that American education needs an overhaul that must start at the elementary level. Acknowledging that the current system is flawed, I propose that we repurpose all monies for public school reform toward elementary education and social and personal responsibility training until a generation of students have progressed through reimagined elementary schools. A modest proposal, if you will, of resetting the current education system elementary student by elementary student. We must eliminate negative attitudes and disruptive behaviors during the earliest grade levels and instill a new way of seeing school in students.
We, as educators and administrators, must win the students’ hearts and minds when they walk in their first classroom. We must win their hearts and minds beginning with their first class, keep their hearts and minds won, and nurture personal-responsibility by providing rules and consequences for behavior that will be second nature by the time the students reach high school. We must demonstrate how basic mathematics and language skills are useful in all aspects of life, not simply required for school. Not every student an American school produces will be an inventor, technician, engineer, or journalist, but even those students not in Advanced Placement or Gifted and Talented programs can be productive workers, civic minded citizens, and good neighbors.
As I reflect on my twenty-one years in the classroom it often seemed that the difficulty of repairing public education is beyond our collective ability to overcome. I hope that the educational system is not beyond repair but it is up to you fresh graduates to make positive change happen. The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” is a great concept, but unfortunately, today, the village idiot has too loud a voice in the process. Let us listen to the whole village not just the loudest villagers. We must reinvent education from the elementary level up, rather than using the current piecemeal approach, to meet the challenges of meaningful reform. If educators are to be successful we must boldly act on the unpleasant realities that society turns away from. I take offense at administrators saying the students’ social use of cell phones in the classroom, vulgarity, profanity, and misogyny is ‘part of student culture’. This unacceptable behavior might be prevalent teenage culture in private homes but that behavior should never be tolerated in the classroom. It was when administration’s laissez-faire attitude triumphed over common sense I knew it was time to begin thinking about retiring and passing my digital smart board clicker on to a younger teacher.
If educators win the young students’ hearts and minds, and keep them won, eventually we will have schools that operate far more successfully than they do today. Of course, we cannot turn our back on the students already in the system, nor should we keep doing what we have been doing all these years because all we are getting are variations on a failing theme. The key to effective education reform is winning the young learner’s heart and mind early and keeping that heart and mind won and engaged. Remember despite all the groups championing their policies as the panacea, not all of the problems undermining education are directly related to pedagogics or teachers, societal issues play an immense role in the success or failure of the both the individual student and the entire education system.
Despite the cynicism I have regarding our current education system, I believe American education is salvageable. I truly believe the only way to salvage our education system is to win the young students’ hearts and minds and keep them won and engaged throughout all of their school years. Incoming teachers, the current system is flawed but you have the fresh outlook, ability, and opportunity to enact positive changes. I know you can do it because you persevered through the existing education system, you earned a college degree, and now you are returning to the classroom with goals, energy, knowledge, and passion.
Use whatever method you must to sustain your enthusiasm during those less than up-lifting days. My father introduced me to many songs of inspiration and there is one particular song I’d like to share a few lyrics from with you to help guide you through those less than uplifting days.
The song is “The Impossible Dream” with lyrics by Joe Darion and the verse I’d like to share is:
This is my quest, to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
To fight for the right, without question or pause,
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause,
And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm, when I’m laid to my rest,
And the world will be better for this.
Lastly, keep current with new education oriented technology, listen to the veteran teachers you respect, remember every student has a backstory, real or fictional, that drives them, and trust your common sense to overcome the obstacles you will encounter. Good luck and may you often see gratitude and appreciation in the eyes of your students; and may our world be better because of your impact in the classroom.