09 August, 2009

On teaching

Sara Fine has an interesting article in today's Washington Post about why she is leaving the teaching profession after 4 years. Since I survived only 2 years at a rural high school, I have to say that I admire her. I'd like to comment on a few points.

  1. She writes,
    I describe what it was like to teach students such as Shawna, a 10th-grader who could barely read and had resolved that the best way to deal with me was to curse me out under her breath.
    I sympathize completely, although I was cursed aloud and in the open, and at newmajority.com you can read the occasional writings of a teacher who gets more than just curses. What really bothers me is that after how many years of mandatory, high-stakes testing, a student can arrive in the 10th grade "barely" able to read. Then again, it also bothers me that students can arrive in college barely able to use a calculator.

    The former Mississippi Superintendent of Higher Education, who is now my boss I think (he's on the Institutes for Higher Learning & may even be the head honcho) recently wrote an op-ed for a Mississippi newspaper talking about all the programs he started when he was the superintendent. The point of these programs was to improve various aspects of education.

    This, I think, shows a huge flaw in our approach to education reform, if not to reform in general (see: Health Care Reform): programs, programs, programs! I say this because what was missing from the discussion was one word: results. Did any of these programs succeed in alleviating the problems they claim to address?
  2. The usual generational preening really bugs me, too:
    My generation does seem to care a lot about Important Stuff. We put our lives on hold to canvass for the causes we believe in. We volunteer like our hair is on fire. When it comes to teaching, however, this fire only burns for so long. We millennials are jostling each other for a place at the whiteboard, but few of us stay long enough to see our students make it through.
    You know, my generation cares about Important Stuff, too. Or we cared once, anyway. One of the people who attended college with me was later deeply involved in Special Olympics. I did a bit of volunteering in my time, and I know a lot of other people did a lot more than I did. We did it in spite of the fact that we didn't receive much encouragement or attention from the media—nothing like the attention given today, at any rate.

    I myself became a high school teacher largely because I believed that teaching students mathematics could help them succeed in the world. I "put my life on hold", so to speak, and completely discouraged myself within two years. And I wasn't alone; although I was never a part of it, Teach for America started in 1990. It isn't only a "millennial" thing, although (again) I don't recall most of us preening back then.
  3. High turnover is nothing new:
    Statistics suggest that many of these recruits have already moved on. Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded "no excuses" charter schools, turnover is often much higher.
    When I began teaching, they handed us a lot of literature. I actually read it, and one of the booklets was written by a much-lauded teacher who described all the reasons to look forward to a career in teaching:
    • highly-educated colleagues (many with advanced degrees);
    • a bunch of other stuff I can't remember; and, yes, even
    • high turnover, which meant opportunity!
    So this really isn't anything new—which doesn't mean it isn't worth discussing. But it returns us to this question of programs, programs, programs! Are there any programs to increase teacher retention? If not, what has the education establishment been doing for so long? If so, why are these programs failing so badly as to have made no different since I became a teacher?

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