29 September, 2005

While I'm griping about my fellow citizens...

This blog is supposed to be the anti-gripe, but the last couple of weeks of work have affected the blog in not such a good way. I will mention a couple of good things first, both taken from recent newspaper clippings that I posted on my office door. Then I will gripe some more about my fellow citizens, in particular the attitude of our future teachers.

About two months ago, David Brooks wrote an interesting article for the NY Times (a copy of it is here) that summarized some good news (for a change). Domestic violence is down since 1993; violent crime is down (new article yesterday shows it's unchanged over the past year); drunken driving fatalities are down; consumption of hard liquor is down; teenage pregnancy is down; teenage births are down; teenage sex is down (or at least delayed a while); teenage suicide is down; elementary test scores are up; etc., etc.

Now, using statistics on such a large scale leaves me suspicious; it reminds me not a little of a pagan priest reading the augurs in a chicken's intestines. Yet the last few days have seen some news that all those stories coming out of the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center about gangs, rapes, murder, and even cannibalism (yes, someone claimed it!) were, for the most part, little more than that: stories created by hysterical people (who had good reason to be hysterical), relayed uncritically by an eager news media that feeds on negative news (especially when the international media has to report on America), and swallowed credulously by a domestic and foreign audience that is all-too-eager to believe the worst about anything.

As I joked to my wife, it is quite possible that all this backpedaling on the part of the coroner is due to typical Louisiana corruption. But that sort of cynicism should end with jokes; something tells me that I should be grateful for the fact that Mayor Nagin's prediction of 10,000 dead citizens was just another in a long list of needless exaggerations.

Having said all this, of course, it's not hard to find reason for despair. Yesterday I was giving a mathematics review to some aspiring teachers, and I asked them why something worked the way it did. (I forget what exactly it was.)

No one knew. No big deal; I can sympathize. I forget things sometimes, too. But they weren't interested in knowing, either; they didn't even want to contemplate it... even though every one of them would probably have to teach it someday.

So I asked them, What will you do one day when a student asks why it works?

Most of them shrugged. That was appalling enough, but one of them laughed and said, I'll tell them to shut up.

Eh, what?

Ladies and gentlemen, these are our aspiring educators: having no interest in knowing why mathematics works the way it does, they become sullen or angry and tell you to shut up if you ask why.

I've been told by a number of my former students that this attitude is not uncommon among grade-school teachers, and even among secondary mathematics.

So, there's reason to be grateful about the present, and reason to worry about the future.


Steven said...

Dear Jack,

One of the things that it might be helpful to know to sort of focus this kind of comment. In most states, perhaps not in yours, but in most, Teachers are bound by a set of standards written by a standards committee that rarely (if ever) so much as consults a teacher, much less sets foot into a classroom to see a student. These same teachers are responsible for the tremendous burden of teaching reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies to students whose parents are, at best, uninvolved and at worst actively hostile. This isn't all parents, but a great many. They are in classrooms where three to four of the students will be "mainstreamed" students with severe learning or emotional/mental difficulties or disabilities. In some states they are in classrooms where English is just barely a plurality among the tongues spoken.

Add to these idiotic standardized tests that are written and "validated" by professionals in this field that are supposed to assess these state standards. On top of that you have the AYP requirements of the NCLB (Nickleby or No Child Left Behind Act) which is a prime example of legislative stupidity and cupidity disguised as public concern. These teachers are told by their supervisors that their children must pass the standardized tests and frankly there will be nothing else involved in their ultimate review. For most of the year they teach precisely what is on the standards and hand out tests that mimic the standardized tests the child will receive. Many of the children are terrorized and terrified by this test to the point where they probably don't have the capacity to ask the question you are suggesting here.

In other words, these teachers have been through the mill.

That said, you're only dealing probably with up and coming education students and everything I said before is moot. However, if it is a mixed bag--if you do have real classroom teachers, just be aware of everything they go through. It's everything you go through along with a hoard of screaming, antagonistic parents and children. It's guns in the classroom, and things you probably can't even imagine.

I work in the education industry, and I have thought for a very long time along these lines. I have observed innumerable classrooms, and for the most part have only the most profound respect for a person who can willingly, and pleasantly get up every morning and go to work to face the things I have seen.

Sorry, I guess I'm a little off the point. But sometimes these types of classes do have returning educators who are getting continuing education credits. What you were probably dealing with was a 19=20 year old smart alec who already has all of the answers. But if not, please consider some of the insider information I've written here. People tend to think that teaching is some sort of cakewalk profession (being a university educator you know better. While I'm on the subject, I will never forget the year I was teaching freshman historical geology and one of the girls in the front of the room piped up after my introduction and said, "Does my sorority have any of your tests on file?" My answer was, "Beleive it or not, I do not have extensive access to sororities or their files, so I couldn't really say.")



jack perry said...

However, if it is a mixed bag--if you do have real classroom teachers, just be aware of everything they go through.

These are up-and-coming teachers. They have to get a passing score on the Praxis exam before the college will admit them to its education program.

I am indeed aware of what they will have to go through. I was a high school teacher once, which means that I took the Praxis, passed it, met all the requirements for certification, and taught for two years as a licensed teacher in a rural high school.

When I met these students, the first thing I did was to congratulate and thank them for choosing teaching as a career. I pointed out that the State of North Carolina had to hire 11,000 teachers from out of state, and that the survival rate of a new teachers within the first five years is something like 50%. That is, 50% of school teachers choose to do something else within the first five years. Because of this, they had my respect.

You're absolutely right about all the pressures that schoolteachers are under, such as parents [who] are, at best, uninvolved and at worst actively hostile.

But, as you wrote, what was the case is that I was dealing with ... a 19=20 year old smart alec who already has all of the answers.

Has all the answers, yes, and none of the understanding. Been there myself :-)