Making the Best of a Broken System

In my last post I defended the new Arizona law decreasing requirements for teacher certification. My point was basically: subject experts who are capable of teaching should be invited into our classrooms, not forced to take ineffectual teacher training courses.

Not to say that teaching is easy, just that it isn’t brain surgery. You can afford to struggle and learn from experience; you will eventually improve and become effective in the classroom. No one will die in the process. Kids might learn more from witnessing your determination than they would from a perfectly executed geography lesson.

Teaching will test your wits and drain your soul. The classroom atmosphere is supercharged with bundles of emotion. Because kids are powerless, the classroom often becomes a power struggle. What kind of teacher will you be? Because most kids wouldn’t voluntarily be doing what you are telling them to do, coercion is required. Will you be an authoritarian or a genteel motivator? Almost every minute of the day, a teacher makes a decision that impacts the psychic dynamic of the group. How to answer an off-topic question. Whether to let someone go to the bathroom during a lesson.

I’ve started to read Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who ends up teaching at a New York vocational school for 30 years. (Also the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis.) He perfectly captures the classroom dynamic in his narratives. And he started teaching in 1958! Shows you how sturdy the education system has been.

He’re a riff about the role of the teacher:

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Show me a certification program that prepares you for that, and I’ll sign up.

Another anecdote perfectly captures the problem with “teacher education.” On his first day in the classroom, Mr. McCourt encounters this scene:

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fight, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy’s front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York University and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it’s years before they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

The full story is hilarious. After an internal monologue about what to do about this sandwich on the floor, McCourt ends up picking up the sandwich himself and eating it in front of the class. His students were impressed, but he winds up talking to the principal after school.

The principal doesn’t know the whole story, assumes McCourt decided to eat his own lunch in the morning instead of teaching class.

McCourt smiles and nods in his conversation with the principal, but he really wants to explain why he did it, and that… “there was nothing in the courses at college on sandwiches, the throwing and retrieving of.”

Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.

I think the same would be said by teachers getting started in today’s classrooms.

If I were elected King of the Education World, I would blow up the whole system and start from scratch. In that vein, any chipping away of this dinosaur system, like relaxing teacher certification laws, is most welcome.

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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