There is no shortage of ideas about how to make our educational system better. Almost anyone you talk to and even people who you don’t ask have an opinion. Take the one proffered by a restaurant owner who told me that elementary school teachers do not need a college education … or to even graduate from high school. They just had to finish the grade that they would teach. This gentleman was dead serious. All I could do was wonder what happened to him when he was in school.
There are more thoughtful ideas, many of which have merit, but will languish because of the two cardinal institutional commandments: 1. We’ve never done it that way before and its corollary, and 2. We’ve always done it this way.
One hot button issue that arises is that of tenure. There is no shortage of people who question why teachers are guaranteed a job for life after a few years of work. I am here to vote for a continuation of tenure, but perhaps a system that is a bit different from the one that is in place now.
In order to make teacher tenure more professional, I would offer that the education of teachers more closely mirror the methods used to educate physicians. Practice teaching is not sufficient to prepare educators for the rigors of the classroom. A longer term association between a new teacher and experienced colleagues in a mentor relationship with consistent and rigorous evaluations along the way could be the path to tenure and a cadre of teachers who are truly professional.
I can use my own experience as an example. I was an accomplished undergraduate seeking to become a teacher through a one-year master’s program. I took the required tests, matriculated and began my journey. It was painful and awful. Not once in two semesters did one of the professors mention how one goes about writing a lesson plan, how one manages a classroom or how to deal with the many interpersonal issues that arise between teachers and students, teachers and parents and teachers and the administration.
I spent that year listening to war stories about life in Iowa from one professor and how American GIs in Korea didn’t know American History.
My practice teaching was at North High School in Syracuse. I never worked harder in my life during that semester, trying to figure out how to teach a class of 35 10th graders, half of whom did not speak English. I was literally on my own since my master teacher introduced me to the class and disappeared. Did I mention that the police appeared in my classroom one day to arrest one of my students for armed robbery?
When I was hired a first year teacher, I was given five separate preparations, two of which were for what were classified as General Education students. There was no curriculum, no texts for these students. My department chair told me to get old texts from elementary school and to “punt.” I was assigned to something called on paper, team-teaching. In reality the teacher with whom I was to team simply dumped his class of 22 into my class of 27 and we met in the cafeteria. Like my master teacher, he disappeared.
It was a difficult year and I wouldn’t have given you two cents for my performance, though, by God, I worked hard at it. I did have help and the two teachers who came to my rescue, Howard Carey and Cindy Crosby, saved me that year, and helped me gather experience and strength to continue.
One thing is certain – we have to be clear about what we expect of the schools. Should all of the students who enter a school system be slotted for college? I don’t think so. College is an appropriate goal for some, but not all. And this has nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with fulfilling the needs of the individual student as well as the larger society. In our classless society we have conjured a phantom caste system denoted by the color of one’s collar.
Schools should teach what? Communication skills that include the ability to read and to produce clear, grammatically correct written work, development of presentation abilities and the accommodation of current media? Social studies to include analytical skills to be used in evaluating written and electronic media, solid knowledge of the history of our nation and its relationship to other people, cultural and social geography of the world’s peoples, as well as plain old ability to find a place on a map? Science to include the understanding of biological, chemical and physical world, the knowledge about how to evaluate discoveries in all scientific areas? Math to include basic calculations, the types of thinking and problem solving that underlie algebra, geometry, etc.?
High on my list of must-haves is learning another language. This should start in kindergarten when minds are malleable to other ways of looking at the world. Along with what we call academic subjects should be the options to pursue careers in occupations that don’t require a college education, e.g. carpentry, plumbing, welding, cosmetology, medical assisting, landscaping, … with opportunities for internships and apprenticeships as part of the high school programs.
The challenge is how to sort the options so that students can be guided along what may well determine their life’s path.
For those exiting secondary education, i.e. seniors, there should be a mini course in life skills that includes how to find affordable, adequate shelter, how to navigate health care and money management, a gigantic subject that includes banking, investing, purchasing, etc.
And since we are now asking schools to provide what the larger society is not providing, adequate funding to hire and support professionals in mental health.
The role of free public education changes with the needs of the society in which it exists.
The flexibility and resources to respond to changing needs, both locally and nationally, are probably the best identifiers of what a school or what our educational system should have to prepare our children for the future.