Cocktails and education

Education has been my whole life.  My mother was a college professor, my stepfather was a college professor.  My step-mother was a junior high school teacher and later a school principal.  My uncle, in whose household I actually spent most of my childhood after my parents were divorced, was a teacher in a prestigious prep school.  I started life believing that learning and teaching were the most important things in life.  (It began to dawn on me as I approached adolescence that sex might be more important, but that is another post.)

In my uncle’s house cocktail hour, when education was the main topic of conversation, began early.  At about 4:30 or 5 his sister, our maiden aunt, would announce: “It’s elbow bending time.”   The huge old house was filled with the furniture and decorations that my uncle’s grandparents had collected in their travels.  There had been money; there still was money, though it always seemed to be inaccessible.  My uncle had lost his in the great depression and lived mostly on the benevolence of his parents.  Teaching at the prestigious prep school didn’t pay much.

He mixed the cocktails in the butler’s pantry, whose walls were lined with cabinets containing many sets of fine china from Bavaria and England.  The liquor was kept in the old wooden ice-box.  They drank martinis or old-fashions or Manhattans, or sometimes gin and tonic.  All the rooms in the house had fire places, but generally cocktails were had around the living room fire.  Usually friends, other teachers from the school, would drop in, to talk about education and how to make it better.   At about 7:30 Mary Stanton, the cook, would declare dinner ready and they would move on to the dining room.

From the time I can remember I listened to these discussions and arguments about methods, curriculum, the nature of learning.  At first I couldn’t understand, the talk amazed me and I believed I’d never be able to talk that way myself, but as I grew older I sometimes joined the discourse.

After a few years the routine, but not the topic, changed.  Mary Stanton retired, (cooks were harder to come by, and there was, instead, a succession of people to look after my cousins, 4 girls, the oldest 8 years younger than me).  My aunt cooked, helped by my grandmother when she was there.  My aunt and grandmother were both foodies, and good cooks.  Dinner was at a European hour — around 9 o’clock.  Cocktail hour lasted longer and moved to the ball-room sized kitchen for the last couple of hours.   Still, they discussed education.

In school I had 2 teachers who really educated me. They both taught English.  Mrs. Little taught me in 6th grade.  She explained grammar and I loved it.  It was from her that I began to grasp the structure of language.  The second was my high school (a girl’s prep school) English teacher, Miss Sweeney.  I have written about her before.  From her I learned about the art of language and literature.  There were other teachers who were interesting; Miss Hawk who taught American history, Miss Grassi who taught Latin.

What made these women good teachers.?  I don’t think it was a method or a technique.  I think it was who they were.  They were, above all, smart.  They were kind, and all were at times funny.  Mrs. Little was gentle and patient.  Miss Sweeney was brilliant, shy, witty and inspiring.  Miss Hawk was formidable, tough and scary.  Miss Grassi was young, cute, methodical and had dozens of different pairs of shoes, all very stylish.  They were hard working women who cared about their student’s success.

How could I end up as anything but a teacher?  I taught junior college, college, university (biology was my subject) and then, after I changed careers and went to art school, I taught adult education art classes.  And I taught biology as an adjunct in the same art school where I was a student.

I saw my 5 children through pre-school, elementary, secondary, college and graduate education.  And now I am watching my 12 grandchildren become educated adults.

So I have done a lot of thinking about education, and about the troubles with education in America.

When I was a graduate student working on my Ph. D. I taught biology courses for non majors, because this was the job of graduate teaching assistants.  I was assigned a lot of courses because, before going back for my doctorate, I had been teaching at the college level with a master’s degree.  One course I was regularly assigned to teach was “Sex, Reproduction and Population.”  The powers that be said they gave me that one because they wanted someone with experience to teach it.  Since I was at the time pregnant (very — it was touch and go whether I would get my final grades in before going into labor) “experience” could be variously interpreted.

In teaching these courses I had students (mostly satisfying a science requirement) from all divisions.  The courses were pretty easy, and it was impossible not to notice the many education majors, especially elementary education majors.  The majority of them were not good students, and they consistently scored the lowest grades.  Students in general tend to grumble if given exams in which they are required to write an essay answer.  They prefer multiple choice or, better yet, true-false (50-50 chance of getting it right even if you know nothing at all).  My education majors were outraged by essay exams.  They had trouble with grammar, spelling, punctuation and in general had difficulty writing a sentence.  They said, “This is a biology class, not an English class.”  My response was that it is reasonable to expect people in college to be able to write a sentence, and an essay question is the best way to find out what people really know.  Of course, essay exams are a lot more trouble to grade than any other kind.

I was troubled by the quality of these students, who would be teaching children in the future.  Why were they not better prepared and more able?

In part this was because the education division was known to be less rigorous than, say, engineering or even liberal arts.  I had myself taken a few education classes with the thought of getting a teaching certificate, and I found them not at all demanding and short on content.  Today this may be changing.  A friend has been preparing for a teaching certificate to teach high school here in Washington, and she seems to be always making up elaborate lesson plans.

Teaching is a low paid profession.  Almost any line of work you can think of pays more.  Law, medicine, business, engineering, plumbing, nursing, carpentry, policing, truck driving, you name it, they all make more money.  Teaching used to have job security, but these days there are a lot of teachers being laid off, and there is much talk about making it easier to fire poor teachers.

Teaching and intellectual pursuits in general are looked down on in this country.  People with knowledge are called egg heads and are said to live in ivory towers.  Since I was a kid I have heard: “those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.”

Who is going to pursue a profession that is poorly paid, given no respect, and has little job security?  Even young people who love the idea of teaching will surely think twice before selecting such a thankless life.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “evaluating” teachers based on the test scores of their pupils.  These tests, of course, would be standardized tests on a standardized curriculum. And that’s another problem with education.   What is to be taught is more and more decided by legislatures or governments (just look at what‘s happening in Texas), and teachers have almost no discretion to choose materials or to innovate.  Kids end up all learning the same stuff, chosen by politicians, with political and religious slants. The days of quirky original teachers are over.  My wonderful teachers would not have made it in this uniformly standardized world.

Teachers unions do not help.  They defend and perpetuate the mediocrity of the profession.  They protect the jobs of teachers by insisting on the certification based entirely on a number of education courses with questionable content and usefulness.

I know there are some fine teachers out there.  But I think more and more of them are deciding it’s not worth the grief.  Or they are opting for teaching in private schools.

Now, in old age, education is still part of my life.  I have finished teaching, but I am still learning, just for the pleasure of it.  Jerry and I open our bottle of wine every evening before supper and we often discuss the troubles with education in America.  Sometimes we haggle over details, but we agree on most things.

Here’s my plan; what I would do if I were the education tsarina:

After passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting politicians from messing with what is taught in schools I would:

First, double teachers’ pay.  It still wouldn’t be great, but that would be a start.  That would attract more smart, talented people to the profession

Second, eliminate half the administrators.  That would save quite a bit of money.

Third, let schools develop their own curricula and chose their own texts and materials.  One general standardized test before and after high school would be enough to make sure kids were literate and could do arithmetic.  That would create diversity in programs and a population of graduates with a variety of perspectives on the world.  New ideas might emerge as these young people mix and interact.

Fourth, let parents send their kids to any school they could get them to.  That would encourage schools to compete and develop innovative, interesting programs.

Fifth, drastically pare down education course requirements in teacher certification.  Certainly for high school teaching not many of those courses are needed.  Possibly a course in adolescent psychology.  For the lower grades it would seem important to understand child psychology and learning mechanisms, and to be able to recognize learning problems.

Finally, I would eliminate football.  It used to be something fun to do after school.  Now, in many places it’s all that matters.  It isn’t educational and eliminating it would be another big money saver.

But I’m not education tsarina (sigh) so none of these things will happen.

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21 Responses to Cocktails and education

  1. Hattie says:

    Teaching as science and art. I love this. Like you, I remember the teachers who stood out as individuals. You provide a very rich picture of your background in education.
    As to solutions: In the 50’s many mediocre people were attracted to education. Ed courses were notorious for their lack of substance. Conformity was the watchword. Teachers from that era saw themselves as fostering community norms, above all. Clearly, there was an American way of life. There was little immigration, and the great conflict of the time was black vs. white. Whites wanted to distance and suppress Blacks as Blacks struggled upward. This cultural attitude was expressed by exclusion and a notion of respectability that suffocated the young. Education was all about deveopment and reaching maturity, which meant living like everyone else and not rocking the boat.

    We all know about the 60’s, when youth rebelled!

    Now all that is in the past; we’re in the midst of a huge shift in our educational system due to the necessity of assimilating new groups, and it’s hard to know at this point how things will end up.

    Fascinating topic, isn’t it. Lots more to say.

  2. Deborah says:

    Hello there!
    I was intrigued by the comment you left on my blog (and thank you very much for that – I have finally responded to it over there) and wanted to take a look to see what you were all about. Such a lovely, easy-on-the-eye blog this is, first of all! No clutter, clean graphics and colours…I like it a lot.

    I have read your education piece with great interest, and agree with you on almost all points, with the exception of letting schools set their own curricula, which I’m not against, but simply unsure of. Given your experience as both a teacher and seasoned student, you would have a much more knowledgeable view of how this could work, and I bow to your experience. I simply had a little knee-jerk response to the idea that schools might go willy-nilly with all kinds of things that might not be either useful or mind-broadening. This makes me sound a bit conservative, which I am absolutely not. Just not explaining myself well today.

    I will be back here!

  3. Jan says:

    In my first (and brief) teaching job I had three three!! supervisors. Not even bus boys have three supervisors. That might be an indication that the system was top heavy with administration.

  4. Jan says:

    Education should be privatized – what good does it do to have public education when the education that is provided is so substandard that our ability to compete in a world marketplace is being increasingly compromised?

    I wish you were the education tsarina.

  5. Hattie says:

    I am completely against “privatizing” education. And any statement that public education is substandard begs the question, “Which public education?” And is education solely about the market? In the 50’s education was about conformity and now it’s about making money? That’s not much of an advance in thinking.

  6. Tabor says:

    I have been in the public education system several times. It is filled with many administrators who don’t really care and many older teachers who are only working towards retirement. The 30% that are true educators are not given the support that they need. We dump new teachers into this mess and then wonder why we have fewer and fewer career teachers. Parents want the best, but because of their deep love of their children they may not see clearly the problems and emotion does cloud their impressions. I also have deep prejudice about class size although many ‘experts ‘ say that class size does not compromise the educational experience. Warehousing our students in these enormous schools is another prejudice I have.

  7. Rain says:

    My major was elementary education and it was during the years where they had this theory that everything can be taught as a whole. You don’t have math or english but it all works together in teaching about something else. It didn’t actually work so well for that generation of kids from what I recall. Now I am more of a believer in teaching the basics and being sure they get them because there are so few hours in a teaching day. It was the way education was when i was going through school and it seemed to work pretty well. The other way can be good with an excellent teacher but it takes a lot to make it work.

    My big complaint is the testing mania that Bush pushed through to make money for testing companies but that has taken a lot of the time from learning how to learn versus learning how to take tests. The teachers I talk to don’t like it but they are stuck with it for now. What leaving no child behind should have meant is teaching them things like reading and how to do mathematics, basic science and not how to pass a multiple choice test.

    Computers in a lot of ways have helped but also hurt as it is so easy to find things there and you don’t exercise the part of your brain you used to have to work to write say a thesis.

  8. Tessa says:

    The education system here in Ontario is different from the American model in many ways. For example, teachers are quite well paid (some would say too well paid for what they do!) and, except when there’s a Tory government in power, they are quite respected. The Tories love to kick the teachers’ unions around (not that they don’t richly deserve it!) and there are constant teacher strikes during their mercifully infrequent tenures.

    However, there are also some similarities with the US system, especially when it comes to political interference with curricula. There is also a ridiculous and highly unfair system whereby Public and Separate (i.e., Catholic) education is free, but adherents to every other religious system have to pay to educate their kids in their particular religion. Personally, were I Tsarina, I’d get rid of the Separate system and make them all go to Public School.

    Having been brought up in the Irish system, which was dominated by religious orders in my time, I’m not used to politicians messing about with education. For all their faults (and they were legion!) at least the nuns didn’t change curricula willy-nilly, in pursuit of whatever was in pedagogical fashion every year. In Britain, by contrast, they’ve veered wildly from Grammar Schools to Comprehensive to Secondary Mod, depending on whether Labour or the Tories were in power, and I do believe British kids are probably even more badly educated than American kids (although Duchess might disagree with me.)

  9. dale says:

    I’m reasonably close to you, I think. Shell out the money to hire really fine teachers, and then get the hell out of their way and let them teach.

    I too was struck, in the short time I taught college, by how dull the education majors were, as a rule.

    Though the very cleverest student I had at Yale was hell-bent on being a high school teacher. Amazing. I hope he found somewhere where they let him do his stuff.

  10. wisewebwoman says:

    Thoughtful and well-written piece, 20CW. I’m of the Tessa brand above, educated in Ireland (and extremely well in that era) and exposed to both my daughters’ education and now my granddaughter’s.
    Neither are as well-rounded as I was given. The focus becoming narrower and narrower as each generation gets educated, whereas I feel the broader needs to be nurtured.
    However, and it is a big one, my granddaughter who is nearly 16, is involved in a lot of school projects that require a ‘team’ and multiple inputs and I believe that is a good thing.
    However, that said, I have tremendous difficulty with calculus now being an option and not a given as its absence has enormous repercussions in critical thinking down the road.

  11. Tsarina! So much juice here that one can only begin to reply. For a start, your list is a good one. I would include a non-graded physical education requirement for every child at every grade level through high school.

    And can we agree to address only PUBLIC education, please. This is what made America the very special, democratic country it once was famous for. Yes, it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition.

    Will return for more of our mutual education. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  12. Kay Dennison says:

    Part of the problem is how they have ‘dumbed down’ education. Another part is lack of discipline and that starts at home. No one ever learned anything with their mouth open which is why I wouldn’t teach.

  13. pauline says:

    I’m circling a petition to make you Education Tsarina! My daughter is getting her PhD in Higher Education and I have heard her speak passionately to all the points you listed. As a teacher myself I know how far from “educational” the current public school system is.

  14. Hattie says:

    I tell you, nothing could be dumber than the kind of elementary and secondary education people like me got in California in the 50’s! I spent most of my seventh grade class time teaching my fellow students to read. In high school, trig was the highest math class. My husband did not take calculus until college, even though he went to school in an affluent suburb.
    I was on double session through much of my high school years, too, due to the influx of people from all over the country into the state. No one felt that education could be serious until you got to college. The system was already overwhelmed, way back then.
    Now what upward mobile consumers want is elite educations for their kids at government expense. And lots of unemployed and underemployed people with no educational credentials would love to teach in charter schools. I could say a lot about that, because I know a few people who are really interested in living high class lives and following their dreams on your dime and mine.

  15. My mom was a teacher. Education was of utmost importance when I was growing up. I am glad my kids are a little older, because public education has become horrible – at least here in California. (My youngest has 3 more years of high school, my other two are both in college.) As for football? At our high school it is entirely funded by the parents and it is VERY expensive. The school doesn’t contribute a dime. I was thrilled when my son told me he has decided to quit football and only play baseball for the remainder of high school. (We have to pay for that too. It is also expensive but LESS than football!)

  16. Friko says:

    A powerful essay, written in clear, concise and correct English!
    I should know, I’m a foreigner, with a different first language.

    Your family background is my fantasy family, the family I think i should have been born into and in which I would have been able to make a worthy contribution.

    I can’t comment on the situation in American schools but, as far as I know, the same patterns are valid here too. English language is of little importance and it breaks my heart.

  17. mythster says:

    My daughter just completed studies for an MBA in Educational Management from UW @ Wisconsin. Now she’s trying to find a job but it isn’t easy. She’s got teaching experience and work with an NGO in after-school tutoring but nothing yet. Seems paradoxical in a country where there is supposedly such a “major focus on education”.

  18. beth says:

    My best teachers all had one thing in common: they were absolutely passionate about their subject, and willing to give their best effort to imparting that passion to us. Thanks for this personal take on education. I wish you could be tsarina; eliminating half the administrators would be an excellent step! Going to put a link to your post right now on my own recent one about “a classical education.”

  19. Mage B says:

    I agree….but, Oh, I with my learning disabilities would bring problems to any teacher’s ratings. And too, I so love that story about your uncle and aunts home. Ideas, things and stuff, brilliance coupled with inaccessible money. I grew up like that too.

  20. What an intriguing post, Anne. I love hearing about your childhood, the cocktail hours, the dinners, the discussions. Little wonder you turned out to be the fascinating, intellectually curious person you are.

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