13 November 2011

Is the era of great teaching over?

editor's note: the author graduated from high school in 1998 and from college in 2002. Use that to provide some reference points about what he's talking about here.

I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was 10 or 11 years old. I loved making fun of people (some things never change, I suppose). This got me in some trouble as I remember. Let's keep in mind that I was in the 6th grade, so "trouble" meant I probably had to miss a recess. However, my teachers, Mr. Lantz and Mr. Lindgren made fun of us with impunity. I drew the logical conclusion that I would become a teacher so that I could make fun of people. This isn't a heart-warming story of changing lives, I admit, but it is the truth.

I entered Purdue University in the fall of 1998, with a major of Social Studies Education. By June of 2002, college was over, and the fine people at the Indiana Department of Education had issued me a teaching license. In August, I began teaching at River Forest High School, in Gary Indiana. I've been teaching ever since.

You may wonder why I've provided you with this little biological snippet. I mean, you normally come here for rants and observations, and now I spend a rare post talking about me and my life in teaching. First an obituary, and now this? What has happened to the Beloved BlazeBlog? Well, besides anger and teaching, I like to think that the BlazeBlog's other consistent theme is long-winded off-topic introductions; this is just one of those. Even while I was in high school I was watching what my teachers were doing, and college was a more formal extension of that. Clearly I'm still doing it (only because of loyal readers like you!). Those years of observation have led me to this conclusion: I think that I've been teaching in the greatest era for teachers ever. 

Think about it. We have studies that help us to find the best practices. We have time to collaborate. We have the Internet. 

I don't know how teachers before all of these changes managed to teach anything at all. I suppose that they taught more generally, and probably focused more on teaching themes, and the classics (which are things we've largely abandoned). But that's a post for another day. For today, I want to talk about all of the advantages that teachers today have. The biggest of those advantages is what you're using right now: the Internet.

The Internet changed education as we know it. It became a real tool for educators, as nearly as I can tell, in the late 1990s. Certainly by the time I graduated from high school in 1998 the Internet was being used as a powerful research tool by good teachers to let students explore subjects which they might not have otherwise delved into. I know that my teachers gave us access and projects which forced us to utilize the growing amount of information at our fingertips. In most cases it went well. For my unfortunate senior economics teacher, it also led to a semester of suffering for him. I don't need to tell you the whole story, but it involves a website for the Longshoreman's Union and our misguided belief that longshoremen must surely talk like pirates. 

By the time I was being trained as a professional, web sites were springing up to share lessons, to collaborate, to figure out what worked best. Since this was before No Child Left Behind really started to enforce a culture of testing, the web (as hip kids called it then) allowed teachers to really find things that were creative and use them. I know that in my first several years, my classes were consistently using the Internet to research projects, to present their findings and conclusions, and to compete against kids from around the nation in a stock market simulation. It was a powerful tool.

But now, thanks to a culture of testing and accountability, I find that many teachers are doing less and less of that. You see, when you allow students to discover the facts for themselves, it takes a lot longer. Unfortunately, due to the volume of information which must be covered in most classes, the feeling is that you must drive-drive-drive. I know that I feel that way. I find myself doing less projects and less discovery learning because it simply feels like (though they learn things in a way that means they will actually remember) it takes too long to cover that material. 

So, many of my peers (and now that I teach in many rooms, I see more teachers than I ever have before) do things like reading and outlining chapter sections in class, and pure lectures. I'm guilty too. It is simply the easy way out. 

So, is the era of good teaching over? Has accountability and the tests that go with it killed the best teaching techniques in favor of the old method of drill-and-kill, lectures and outlining?

I don't think so. I think that it's harder than it was a decade ago (of course, I'm older, and everything becomes more difficult as you age, as far as I can tell), but that teachers can still inspire students, and allow them to direct their own learning. I think that we just need to trust students. We need to understand that they will, in most cases, do what we ask of them, and learn. But for those of us that have been around for a while, it means that we need to develop lessons and projects with more specific goals and objectives so that students can focus on what the state will assess them on. It's less freedom than before, but more freedom than being chained to a textbook that was published in 2001 (I'm using one of those right now).

Perhaps I remember only the good, of my education and of my work. I hope that is true. I believe that good teachers can make a difference, even in a world of high stakes, and that we can still be good teachers. I just worry that the sheer numbers of those willing to settle for second best will begin to overwhelm us. Solidarity!

1 comment:

  1. Math books full of examples?? Obvioulsy you are NOT familiar with the CPM series we use... so guess what? I DON'T use it!!!!