Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Epistles of an Educator

Excerpts from two letters of one teacher writing to another. Something tells me that my sob story was pretty typical.

"...the summer has finally come to a close. I've had the pleasure of seeing what teachers do before the school year starts (as that lovable urban district decided to wait minutes before the year to hire me). Like a rock on the beach eroding from wave after wave of salty water pounding it, I sustain these blows of boredom from meeting after meeting. First, it was teaching higher thinking skills from a lady who barely had the capacity to utilize those skills herself. Then, it was AP training for a week from a new age troll-like woman who gave us her lesson plan leftovers from her 20 years of teaching and a whole bunch of treacly anecdotes with her exceptional kiddos. Finally, this week had a whole barrage of orientations and meetings explaining everything except the very basic. I know how to look up a student's 4th grade TAKS score, but I'm unsure about how to make copies. I'm well versed on the plethora of levels from Bloom's magic hat of "higher thinking," but I'm unclear about the school schedule and my class rosters. How much time could be saved by doing away with meetings altogether and letting us just talk with one another. These instructors get upset about us talking while they click away at their pointless (pun intended) power point presentations, but we're just trying to get the information we need to literally do our jobs before the kids come....

"I got to get a glance at some of my students' scores. They blew me away. All A's and Bs. I think they were even better than the advanced kids at our old school. I thought to myself, "So this is where the normal kids go." Of course, I'm probably overstating things, but I'm going to try and have fun, making these little ones work themselves into a delirium of words and ideas. Apparently, we're even encouraged to be strict with the kids. Can you believe it?! Principals want to extract undesirable elements from the start. The school has developed a reputation of being strict, so the kids coming in watch themselves and keep their stupid phones at home and their rear ends covered. I'm really curious to see all this for myself. Right now, it's all hearsay. Just let me at them. I'll keep my enthusiasm tempered however. I resolved to be much more organized and systematic about everything this year, and more vigilant than ever about lackluster performance. Excessive optimism tends to impede this..."

"As last week ticked away at these insipid meetings, I felt that weight of upcoming obligations growing heavier and heavier. I don't know if these people that coordinate these meetings understand that teachers, especially ones doing a new subject need extra time to prepare something. I have to create new assignments. I have to read over stories to give my students. I have to have all this typed and copied before the kids come. And I do this all over again for my English 2 class. This takes time! I needed that whole week to get a good solid start. They gave a few hours Friday afternoon. That was it! And then factor in the needless delay to have them copied by some goon at their copy center that oversees and protects the vestal virgin copiers from us teachers, and I'm about to have a heart attack the first morning of school because I'm cutting it so damn close for a mere one day of classwork. I had to plead with the woman there to copy mine ahead of the others with pitiful humility. Just one instance among many where the uneducated drone gets the best of us teachers.

Of course, while worrying about my worksheets and syllabi and dreading the next day when this circus would start up once more, I get this list of complex procedures with attendance. I did the best I could counting those who were there and marking those who were absent. Apparently, this wasn't enough. I needed to have this turned in before noon and accompany the sheets with more forms stating the kids' ID numbers and other information that I thought was registered with our computers. With more than a little abruptness and resentment, the woman there chewed me out for neglecting to read my directions carefully and turning my papers in an hour later than I should have. And again, the uneducated drone got the best of this teacher.

I had to spend a whole hour after school clearing my desk and putting everything in right order. All the garbage teachers dump on me that they think I can use, all the papers about upcoming school events, all the papers about beginning of school procedures, papers about technology and textbook guidelines, and finally, all the kids' work that I planned to grade but finally decided to put in a folder for ungraded "sample work." After that, I checked my e-mails packed with attachments that I "needed" to read. Soon the sun was going down, my feet were killing me, and I needed a break. I didn't take one all day. I had my pathetic little lunch of a smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cookie while toiling away on the computer. It was a pitiful scene to behold.

Don't even get me started on lesson plans. They've adopted that devious format that requires me to copy and paste from one screen to the other and discuss at length every assignment of every day and how well it engages my students. I pleaded ignorance over the program (along with some other teachers) and hopefully bought a little time and lenience. Though I now need to attend another meeting this Thursday.

I'm ashamed to say that I feel overwhelmed, and it's not even the kids. They actually seem like a pretty wholesome bunch. They tried at the work, laughed at my jokes, and refrained from sleeping through my stretched out presentation of the syllabus (a lack of time and resources forced me into eating up time this way). It's just these things that are supposed to "help" us teachers that bind our limbs and brains.

I should be good for tomorrow, and I'll try to catch up and finish up the week's assignments somehow. Pray for me in that regard..."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Theraphist and The Technician

In the education world, many buzzwords and phrases come up to signify efforts to improve classroom education. These words will season every lengthy educational psychology study or new proposal for failing school districts to help focus teachers on helping their students on their way up the winding road of knowledge and achievement. Even those without a teaching certificate might be able to recognize these words that often fill the empty insights of newspaper and magazine articles concerning education. Here are a few: academic rigor, learning through effort, higher level thinking, engaging students, cooperative learning, connecting with technology, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, the one word people don't use is discipline, not even for behavior (this would expect too much for some students). Discipline entails three qualities: self-control, a respect for rules and guidelines, and a training in either moral or academic development, often both. Instead of the empty phrases previously listed, all padded with endless packets that contain absolutely nothing, many schools and districts could save a forest of trees by outlining their strategies to improve education with this simple but powerful idea which founded the idea of formal education to being with.

The consequences of doing otherwise leads to a pedagogical ambiguity that jeopardizes core curriculum. Many teachers end up having disturbingly different ideas of what they teach, especially English. Commanding language through reading and writing, the most vital discipline in a student's education, has formally ceased to exist for most students. English has now become the fun class that many of the students aptly identify as the art of excreting bull excrement. This phenomenon has arisen from a large amount of English teachers shamelessly deciding to teach whatever they feel like, usually opting for something easy and fun while leaving a precious few English teachers to bear the cross of teaching the arduous discipline of language mastery. The former shall be known as the therapists, and the latter shall be known the technicians.

Currently, the therapists predominate in schools. As their title suggests, they have made their classroom a platform for individual expression, preaching tolerance, raising self-esteem, and discussing life lessons. They pat themselves on the back for teaching their kids how to "think" and "make the right choices" when in fact they do neither. They promote immaturity by empathizing with it. They ease their students into a lifelong illiteracy and mental laziness by treating the activity of reading as an innate ability rather than a series of complex mental skills. Most of them will feel completely comfortable reading to the kids like a mother to her little toddlers. They jettison formal rules of composition and essay writing and instead teach the kids to make personal diaries and various pieces of doggerel in its place. Without question, the grammar books will be shelved far away in a dark closet before seeing any use, thus condemning the students to single clauses and a whole world of vocabulary they will never know how to use. In a bitter display of irony, these therapists have created the very problems in students they sought to extinguish. The students cannot express themselves since they lack basic linguistic skills. Their understanding of tolerance evaporates as they lose the capacity to reason and distinguish particular sides of an argument outside their own. They lose self-esteem when their abundant intellectual inadequacies inevitably show themselves. In the end, they do not learn any true life lessons since they have been coddled and passed on into a world with quixotic notions of their worth. Only after a few years out of school (if not earlier), they will feel reality's crippling blow leave them crumpled in mediocrity.

Fortunately, before a few of those students graduate, they might encounter a real English teacher known as the technician. Students often hate the technician because this teacher will force them to work and use their brains. Little do they know that these teachers work even harder than they do. They will grade and correct every pitiful paper they write. They will take the time to teach the abstract and complex world of grammar and ram the stolid boundaries of the students' prepubescent sentence structures. They will create and teach the complex blueprints involved in building an argument and adorning it with polished language.They will burn off the abundant flab slowing a student's brain with unceasing dissections, deep readings, and critiques on difficult but doable texts. Students under the technician will finally learn the meaning of the word discipline: self control, correct training, and an obedience to essential academic and moral rules. They will be armed to pass any examination or complex task or concept forever afterwards. Sadly, they will often resent this devoted teacher that endowed them with these life long skills and remember fondly the teacher that gave them parties and field trips.

Too many people have entered the teaching profession hoping to affect young people's hearts instead of their minds. They come inspired with their favorite poetry (sometimes their own), implausible movies showing teachers exhorting their unnaturally compliant students to "seize the day," or naive notions of simply motivating kids out of their kids out of apathy with hard-hitting discussions and therapy sessions. If they don't quit within their first few years, these teachers will take their place below a smiling indifferent principal in pushing the illiterate young American on his way. They will loudly cry foul at standardized tests until the standards sink low enough to accommodate their lackadaisical teaching methods.

Teachers need to concern themselves with the process rather than the result. It's arduous, slow, intimidating in its complexity, but unavoidably necessary. The proper word for this learning process that has gradually faded away from modern education is discipline. Until educators stop needlessly inventing those empty different definitions and buzzwords, that desirable result of discipline will be gone as soon as the bell for class rings.

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