Tuesday, August 11, 2015
In the summer of 1966 I benefited from a teacher shortage. A fresh graduate from Hiram College (English major), I applied for two jobs. Got two interviews. Two offers. Took the first one that came in--Aurora Middle School in Aurora, Ohio. Seventh graders.
As I wrote in my memoir about my early teaching years, Schoolboy (available on Kindle Direct), no one had much trouble getting a public school teaching job in those days. Salaries were abysmal (my first year: $5100); benefits were scanty; classes large (in my five classes that first year I had a total of 200 students); public respect was low. Other than that ... a great profession.
Actually, I loved my job, from Day One to Day Last (the spring of 2011)--except, of course, for the times I hated it, times that didn't ever really last very long. (And most of those times occurred later on, when the Test Storm arrived ...)
But every year back in the late 1960s there wandered into our building some new teachers who were barely qualified. The shortage was so severe that the State of Ohio was distributing large numbers of temporary credentials--almost as if they were dispensed from a passing airplane.
I write about this today because there was a Page One story yesterday (August 10) in the New York Times about a new national teacher shortage. I shared the item with my Facebook friends, and on the Times website today I see that it was Number One on the Times' list of most-emailed stories yesterday. (Link to the story.)
The Times writer mentions a number of factors: layoffs during the (earlier) down economy and young college graduates (in our improved economy) now seeking jobs that pay more.
Okay, makes sense.
But I think there's a more fundamental--and far more damning--reason: Public schools have become so enamored of standardized testing that teachers are fighting to become more than drill sergeants preparing their recruits for battles with the Enemy: the Test. (People have written sorrowfully about the disappearance of cursive writing; it's worse: Kids now prepare to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet.)
As recent years have gone by, tests have become more and more prevalent--and used for more and more things (evaluating not just kids but teachers and school buildings and districts and states). I think I've written here before that my grandson, who just completed fourth grade last spring, has already taken more standardized tests that I did, K-Ph.D.
It's the seduction of numbers, of course. You can add them, divide them, derive statistics with them. It all looks so ... real. But too few people are asking: Where do those numbers come from? What do they really mean? Not much, I would argue. Except, of course, they mean stressed teachers (and administrators) and bored and unhappy kids.
(I do support diagnostic tests, by the way--the sort that answer questions like What are this kid's strengths and weaknesses? What do we need to work on?)
I noticed a sad fact as I flowed through my career: The people who know the least have the most say. Let me repeat that: The people who know the least have the most say.
Politicians who wouldn't survive five minutes in a middle school classroom (the kids wouldn't need to go to lunch that day--they'd quickly eat such fools alive), media pundits who have never graded a paper or supervised a lunch room, wealthy entrepreneurs who think their success in the business world confers upon them an expertise and authority in all things--these are some of the reasons that teaching has become an ever more joyless profession. And public education has become akin to an assembly line.
It has not been ever thus. Through most of my career we had a lot of choice in the schools where I taught. Gifted administrators (and I had a couple of wonderful ones) hired bright and creative and hard-working people and helped those teachers make their classrooms what they ought to be--refuges as rich as rain forests that teem with life, with the unexpected, with the widest (and maybe even wildest) varieties of possibility. Places where kids learn who they are--what they want to be--what this world is like.
As a result, most of my colleagues wanted to be there, wanted to see smiles on the faces of their students as they came into the room, wanted those students to be reluctant to leave. And--as Shakespeare once said--they bent thoughts and wits to achieve what they wished.
Today--of course there are many wonderful teachers out there, fighting the Good Fight. Of course there are fine administrators struggling to make their schools a place where kids want to go.
But it seems our political leaders--from both parties--are trying their best to make schools a Dead Zone, a place where the few remaining bird songs are measured rather than sung.