I started my career as a teacher in the early ‘60s. For most of you who are too young to remember, let me tell you what it was like. First, I had a very hard time finding a job. I was 22 years old, married, and armed with a Master’s degree in high school biology, chemistry and physics instruction. I had no experience, except for student teaching; yet, I had to be paid a higher starting salary because I had an advanced degree with no guarantee that I'd be any good. And I was married, which implied that I would get pregnant and create problems for a school to replace me. I was routinely asked at interviews what my intentions were for starting a family (now against the law). I was ultimately hired by an unmarried, careerist, public school, female principal to teach 7th and 8th grade science. She put her arm around me and said, “I think you have great potential as a teacher. Whatever time you give us, I’m grateful for.” I gave them 2 ½ years and was forced to quit in my sixth month of pregnancy because I “showed.”
Make no mistake. I LOVED teaching. The department chair handed me a textbook to teach from. I took one look at it, and decided I couldn’t inflict such dry, pedantic stuff on my students. I also noticed that my classroom door was closed and no one was watching me. So I went to the library and found exciting books on the same subjects I was required to teach. I used them to create my own materials. Perhaps I was an outlier. I had no idea with my colleagues were doing in their classrooms. One day, when Mr. Dinsmore, the militant, scowling, assistant principal unexpectedly dropped in to observe me, my students and I were in the middle of deriving the equation for the Doppler Effect (in 8th grade!). (The Doppler effect is the change in the pitch of a sound from a moving source--you've heard it from ambulance sirens and locomotive whistles as they approach and pass you.) They knew I was being evaluated and rose to the occasion. Every hand went up. Every kid was in lock step with me. They broke into applause when he left after an abbreviated time! That spring, my students took the assessment tests (after about three days of test prep); they did just fine.
Today’s public school teachers are not trusted with the kind of autonomy I had. They are burdened with paperwork and have all kinds of rubrics to worry about both for themselves and for their students. A friend of mine, who is a professor in a CUNY school of education, tells me that teachers in public schools advise her students NOT to become teachers.
Education has made some progress since I left the profession. We now have a lot more resources and knowledge for teaching children with special needs. Technology and the availability of information are having an impact. When we look at Finland, which is successfully creating a knowledge-based economy, the teaching profession is the profession of choice for bright people. Each school faculty operates as a team to do whatever it takes to get students to learn. If you are not aware of how this works read this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. Finnish schools trust their teachers and give them the support they need to do their job. Contrast this with the current exodus of American teachers from the profession and the damage that has been done to public schools by the high stakes placed on the standardized test.
A few years ago, at an education conference, I interviewed Finnish Professor Jorma Routti, one of the founders of Finnish venture capital and one of Europe’s leading technology experts. “Education cannot be rushed,” says Professor Routti. “There are no short cuts, no magic bullets. It’s a law of nature. It takes nine months to make a baby and 30 years to make an engineer.”
How do we educate the powers-that-be to see the light? Testing will die a slow death. Problem is that there is too much money in it. Please comment.