I am sitting in our apartment in Mississippi, a woman of leisure for the past 20 months having retired from a 30+ year career of teaching public school. Outside the rain pours and threatens (or at least the meteorologists threaten) to freeze into ice, especially on bridges, and the temperatures are as cold as Spokane and colder than Seattle, my other two touch points.
Next week a new book group that I belong to will be discussing “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scoff Fitzgerald as part of the series of short stories from the Great Books Foundation. In my reverie of reading and reflecting upon this story I am struck by the amount of time I am giving to this task, the depths to which I go to analyze a turn of phrase, an imagery, make mental comparisons with a book I just finished for another book club by Ernest Hemmingway, The Moveable Feast. I am luxuriating in the opportunity to summon an idea and have the time to explore its validity.
What a difference from my days of teaching. With 5 classes a day of an average 30 students per class I was supposed to present captivating lessons; inspire them with great ideas; meet their needs as individual learners (gifted, autistic, ESL, bored, at-risk); correct their papers making comments beyond Good job or I see your writing is improving, but more specific like This particular insight needs supporting evidence to hold up the rest of the paper or Your thesis is not based on evidence anywhere in the document; attend staff meetings; respond to parents’ phone calls or e-mails; fill out forms for psychologists, doctors, and others; attend discipline or instructional meetings requested by parents and scheduled for the 15 or 20 minutes before the school day began to help parents work with their children or even know their children. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.
I loved teaching and I usually was able to keep up with the frenetic pace, but as I take such a long amount of time to really think about this story for my book group I can’t help but wonder that many disservices are being done by this approach.
Nearly two years away from the profession is not long enough for me to forget that educating the youthful human beast means keeping up with an energy level and a quixotic nature that anticipates their needs and peculiar behaviors. At the junior high and high school ages (which is what I taught) everyone is exploring their world, testing boundaries, and fired up with energy—intellectual, sexual, emotional—that will begin to fall away with the years. When the world was less complicated and students woke at 4 or 5 in the morning to do their chores, followed by breakfast and a 2-mile walk to school, by the time they arrived they’d used up some energy. They hadn’t spent 45 minutes listening to hard-driving music, eating a breakfast of sugary cereal or not eating a breakfast at all, but maybe drinking a JOLT because they stayed up too late and could barely keep their eyes open, and finally getting a ride to school by bus, parent or friend. Once at school the buzz, the hum, the energy surges until the first bell rings and all 800 students move toward their first period classes bringing the electricity with them. Thirty vibrating beings sit in a desk while the teacher attempts to tune their frequency to a particular station. Some of them pick up the signal; some of them are full of static; some of them have low batteries and aren’t receiving anything.
The question is: How could this picture be different? Perhaps changing the ratio of students to teacher might make a difference. Maybe students’ energy levels would become more focused with a day that began with a two-mile run, or a 40-minute meditation session. The idea of eating a breakfast is good, but most school cafeterias provide the sugary, fatty foods that students want, not foods that build focus like hard-boiled eggs or flavored tofu wedges. Maybe giving teachers fewer classes than 5 a day would allow for the creation of a more thoughtful lesson, or the time to correct papers carefully and meet with individual students, to name a few plusses.
Educational commentary these days wants to blame. Blame does no good. Blame is demoralizing and few people are willing to become teachers if all they have to look forward to is blame. (The occasional intrepid soul who sees teaching as a calling will overlook this and those people should be nurtured and loved for the gift to education they are.)
Every teacher I ever knew wanted to do a good job. They like kids, like school, like the subject(s) they teach; they want to be liked and respected and known as inspirational or motivational. Teachers are good people. Students are good people. The system, created in an era of rural and factory life is, perhaps, based on philosophies and beliefs now muted or even irrelevant in some cases. It might need to be changed.
While I go back to my short story, why don’t you think of some positive ways to make education more fitting for the times? Then act on your ideas, because action gets things done.