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.